People are right when they say that what you don’t understand is the scariest thing of all. Movie monsters have been a draw to the movies because of that. I was a chicken as a kid and really didn’t start watching horror movies until I was in my first year of college, so the extent of what I found scary weren’t slasher villains, but things that reacted on instinct. This meant that carnivore animals were strong candidates. Dinosaurs were defiantly on the top, as at the age when anything could be real, I was afraid that I’d wake up in the dark to a raptor from Jurassic Park ready to eat me.
From Jaws to Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds, Spielberg knew that most powerful monsters are the most animal-like. All of these share the idea that you can only do one thing; run. You might have a weapon to help, the only way to escape is to out smart years of instinct. So it’s interesting that for his very first movie, Spielberg chose not a creature, but a machine as the antagonist. Eighteen-wheel trucks are like monsters with their size and strength as one poor guy has to battle one the road in Duel.
David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver) is an ordinary salesman who is making a business trip through the California Dessert. His drive goes smooth until he finds himself behind an ugly tanker truck. It’s driving slow and releasing a ton of exhaust fumes. He manages to pass him, only for the truck to speed up and overtake David. David manages to getaway again and speed off, without the call of a horn from the unseen driver of the truck honking at him. When stops at a gas station to phone his wife, she hangs up on him, still angry about an arguments that had the night before.
When David encounters the truck again, it’s much more menacing. It does everything from nearly making him hit oncoming traffic to hitting his car or even making David speed up in an attempt to make him dive himself off the cliff. Having this truck trying to kill David is one thing, but the fact that there’s little he can do to call for help as he’s in the middle of nowhere is even more frightening. David, armed with only his little car, has to try and outsmart the mad-truck.
I’ll say right now that while Duel aired as a TV movie in America, it gained a theatrical release overseas. That should say how good this thriller really is. Duel has an overwhelming Hitchcock feel as the driver of the ugly truck is never seen once. You simply accept that the truck is the real villain. The California dessert may seem like a dreary location for a thriller, but the more I thought about it, the more that it felt a blank sheet of paper that implies that anything could happen. It also puts a lot more emphasis on the case between the truck and David.
Speaking of which, Dennis Weaver is perfect as our protagonist. He brings in a smugness that you wouldn’t expect from a hero; the kind of person that’s probably so good at their salesperson job that they feel too confident that anything bad could happen to them.
The movie itself feels like a chase, but a balanced one. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Road Warrior took a lot of inspiration from Duel, as the action scenes are exciting, but it still allows itself to rest and give our hero a break. Some of these breaks can become a little slow for some, but something like Duel would be too senseless if I didn’t stop every once in a while.
I’ll give this four trucks out of five. For ones first major movie, Duel happens to be an intense story that may make you think twice about yelling at another driver. He just might be willing to kill you.