Four stars out of Four. A brilliant classic of suspense. Immortal film.
Here is a prime example of what is commonly referred to as “pure cinema”. 90 minutes of unadulterated storytelling, minimal dialogue and three main characters: a man, a truck and the desert highway.
For those who don’t know, the plot of Duel revolves around traveling businessman David Mann who leaves on a road trip to get to some important meeting with an associate/client. This isn’t spelled out and nor should it be. On the desert highways Mann takes in order to reach his destination he inadvertently angers the driver of an older gasoline truck. This driver then spends the remainder of the film tormenting Mann and attempting to kill him. That’s it. There’s nothing else to the story. Sounds too simple doesn’t it?
But it isn’t. Originating as a 74 minute movie of the week for ABC, Duel is one of the great suspense films simply because it is all suspense. There isn’t anything else contained and that is why you can return to this film over and over and over again and it never loses its initial impact.
Oh, and it was directed by a young television director named Steven Spielberg. Not only does this film remain a classic, but it is up with Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark as likely his best work. It is the film of a young director who was hungry for opportunity, hungry for a chance, hungry to simply do more. Every moment is conceived and crafted to maximize the audience’s involvement with the story and heighten the nail-biting tension.
The interesting bit is the reflective quality the film has when viewed amongst Spielberg’s other works. In my mind, Duel is the predecessor to the second half of Jaws with the pitting of ordinary man against some seemingly unstoppable monstrous beast. Spielberg even admits to reusing the dinosaur sound effect behind the shark’s demise in Jaws almost as a self referential bit of nostalgia.
Dennis Weaver was cast by Spielberg primarily due to his beyond manic performance as the odd motel clerk in Touch of Evil. (Truly reaching new heights of mania and panic in acting) Weaver perfectly conveys the shift from normal everyman to paranoid overstressed driver. His actions in the ending on the cliff are seemingly spontaneous and just tonally perfect.
Duel is also further proof that a great film need not have a giant budget, crew or schedule. Duel was shot in 12-13 days all in one location using the same stretches of road. There was one little red Plymouth, and one old truck. A few cameras and a light crew. Needless to say, being made for television on such a tight schedule for little to nothing allowed for some mistakes to creep into the production. But these become something other than mistakes; they become something almost like subtle winks at the audience once that audience is made aware of them.
The ending is perfect, with no real resolution as it should be. Duel remains one of the great suspense films, and a true classic that should be revisited often. One can always find new inspiration and creativity in it.
“Take a look at my snakes if you have time.”
NOTE: The original TV version ran for 74 minutes. Upon being met with great success, it was decided to release it theatrically in Europe. This necessitated some additional scenes to be shot in order to reach the minimum runtime of 90 minutes. Some of these scenes include: Phone conversation between Mann and wife, School bus sequence, Truck pushing car into train,
Also, the theatrical print was framed at 1.85:1. This revealed too much of the frame and showed all kinds of production crew and mistakes. All prints had to be reformatted to the original 1.33:1. The current DVD is the same as this 1.33:1 90min extended version.
Available editions: The DVD currently in release is quite good with nice detail and the original mono as an option. The Dolby and DTS 5.1 remixes are completely unnecessary and a waste of disc space. Also included are some good respective interviews with Spielberg and writer Richard Matheson.
I recently had the chance to see original 35mm prints of both Duel and The Sugarland Express. 1970’s film stock was not the greatest and as a result of this most if not all 70’s films have a certain degraded look to them. What astounded me on the Duel print was the degree of brightness and color depth. It almost looked like all of the VHS and DVD versions had been de-saturated and contrast boosted. The redness of the little Plymouth was a deep bright red with hints of orange instead of the dull slight red of the DVD. And the optical mono was strong enough to keep an entire modern audience on the edge of their seats. The film has not lost any bit of its power.