Duel (1971)

13 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You know that tense feeling you get when you’re driving on an interstate highway and a big truck (or any vehicle, for that matter) passes you, meaning the driver must be going about 85 or 90? How about when you pass someone, who in turn speeds up and passes you (and then does it again)? Of course, it mostly doesn’t mean anything (and if it does, it’s just a little joke for entertainment that isn’t pushed any further). But what happens when the situation pushes itself way over the edge—meaning, what if you were suddenly chased by an oncoming vehicle (say a semi-truck) that continued to follow you everywhere you go, and just wouldn’t stop?

“Duel” is practically the ultimate chase movie—one big highway pursuit; a cat-and-mouse game in which the driver of a giant oil tanker truck wants nothing more than to hunt down a traveling salesman (played by Dennis Weaver) in his red Plymouth, and kill him. The whole movie, written by Richard Matheson (based on his short story), plays that idea throughout the running time of nearly 90 minutes. It’s as simple as this—the man passes the truck on a two-lane highway in the California desert, only to have it roar past him and then slow down, as if toying with him. Only, it turns out that it’s more deadly than that, as the truck continues to block the man’s path every time he attempts to pass, and then when the trucker signals for him to pass, he nearly hits an oncoming vehicle. Things are more dangerous now, as when the man finally is able to pass the truck, only to nearly be run down at about 90mph.

The driver of this large, imposing truck is never seen or heard. The truck is like a gigantic force that has a mind of its own and just keeps coming. There is no motive, no backstory, nothing—it’s just a simple concept of a man in a nice car being hunted by a big, looming truck, not knowing why, how far the situation is going to go, or when/how this chase is going to end.

To have this fairly simple idea made into such an effective, entertaining road thriller such as this is a tribute to the filmmaking of director Steven Spielberg. “Duel” was the movie that made the name of Spielberg famous—he made his mark with this film, taking advantage of the thinness of the premise by building tension and excitement from simple situations and easy factors. Spielberg clearly loves films and filmmaking, and it’s visible that “Duel” is the work of a remarkably talented young director. The action is delivered in uniquely great detail, from the camera angles of the threatening truck, to the long shots of a desert canyon while the road rage is occurring, to the closeups of anxiety on actor Dennis Weaver’s face as he tries to outsmart his enemy. And there also little eerily effective touches added to the film, such as a railroad track that can be seen on the front bumper of the truck. What that represents, I’m not quite sure. But you can tell it represents something ominous.

This film originally aired on TV; it gained a theatrical release years later when Spielberg became better known for films such as “Jaws” and “E.T.” Either way, “Duel” is very exciting.

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