Duel (1971)

*. It’s hard to think of the 1970s as any kind of golden age of television. Most of the best-known shows from the period are of interest only to nostalgists today. And the movie-of-the-week format didn’t produce much that has lasted either. Duel is a real anomaly.
*. It was the ABC Movie of the Week in 1971, broadcast in a 74-minute version and then released theatrically in Europe the next year with another fifteen minutes added. What I find remarkable about this is that the added sequences (the phone call David makes to his wife, the scene with the school bus, and the business at the train crossing) don’t seem at all like padding. They actually make the movie better and I couldn’t imagine it without them.
*. To take the most obvious point, it’s the phone call to his wife that introduces the theme of David Mann (yes, that’s his name) having to prove his manhood in the upcoming duel. Dennis Weaver wouldn’t have struck me as the most obvious Caspar Milquetoast figure but apparently Spielberg had his role in Touch of Evil in mind, and so he plays the wimp who gets sand kicked in his face on the beach until he grows a pair and turns the table on his mega-phallic bully. I don’t want to make too much of this, but look at the shot of the tanker truck idling at the edge of the tunnel just before the driver comes to rescue the school bus. That’s a big load of manhood, and it’s about to put David’s ineffective attempt at a rescue to shame.
*. This crisis of masculinity may also be why Duel reminded so much of Straw Dogs (which came out the same year). The whole thing has the scent of Peckinpah about it, and apparently Dustin Hoffman had been considered for the role of David.
*. In hindsight, this was a project that couldn’t miss, uniting Steven Spielberg before he was anoninted wunderkind and Richard Matheson, who was Stephen King before Stephen King. If you wanted a classic popcorn film you were ordering from the right menu.
*. Technically, it’s very accomplished, and set a standard for road thrillers. The tricks Spielberg used to shoot the chase scenes (all on location) became widely adopted. The low camera, for example, to make it look like the vehicles are going faster, would be used a lot by George Miller. And ABC hadn’t even wanted Spielberg to shoot on location! The thought of doing this movie with all process shots is mind-boggling.

*. Pretty much all of Spielberg’s creative decisions paid off. He was a natural. He knew he had to shoot on location. He was right to reject the fiery finish ABC wanted, both because the slow death of the rig (complete with surreal dinosaur groans) plays a lot better and because it makes more sense. Let’s face it, there’s no way that rig was going to be pulling a full load while dueling it out on the highway.
*. Spielberg saw it as Hitchcock on wheels, and felt Hitch whispering over his shoulder while filming, telling him to drag out the suspense. I think he was referring mainly to the diner scene but it really works well at the end, where the climactic chase actually slows things down as David’s car dies and the rig labours climbing up the hill.
*. Another decision was not to show the driver. This pays off as well, as it turns the film into a kind of monster movie where technology is the enemy and being in our car turns out not to be so safe.
*. A later film like Joy Ride would also hide the driver, but Rusty Nail was still the villain, not his truck. It was a psycho-killer movie. That’s not what Duel is. Instead, it stands at the start of a series of killer-machine flicks, including Killdozer! (a 1974 ABC Movie of the Week), The Car (1977), and the Stephen King vehicles Christine (1983) and Maximum Overdrive (1986). And as a thriller it also had an even wider influence. The truck would become a shark in Jaws, and movies would never be the same.
*. I wouldn’t want to build Duel up too much, as it is pretty crude in places and gets a bit repetitive. But it is a highly successful entertainment, from a creative team who understood entertainment better than anyone. As I said, they really couldn’t go wrong. And they didn’t.

2 thoughts on “Duel (1971)

  1. Morgan

    I watched this film many times in syndication when growing up. I have an interest in TV movies of the 70’s (the wife of a friend of mine wrote them during that period). I recommend viewing Dan Curtis’s The Night Stalker (1972). It was the highest rated TV movie of it’s time, much to the embarrassment of ABC. The novella it was based on is pretty good as well.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I’ve had The Night Stalker on my shelves, waiting to get to it for a while, along with the Kolchak series. I heard it was the inspiration for The X-Files. Should get to it sometime!


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