Why is Spielberg unanimously considered one of the best living directors? One of the reasons lies in his debut film, Duel, 1971. Despite its incredibly high quality, it was a TV movie, even though Spielberg added 15 minutes worth of shots to get to 90 minutes and make it a theatrical release after the good reception it got.
What is Duel about? The story comes from a novel by R. Matheson, the author of I am legend, and it’s as simple as it gets: David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is travelling for work with his economy car and encounters a hostile truck driver who initially scares him with some risky maneuvers, and then apparently tries to kill him by provoking an accident… how will it end? Since 47 years have passed since the release of the movie, it seems a bit pointless for me to worry about any spoiler, but as usual I’ll try to avoid them as much as possible.
Why is Duel a great movie? It is a great movie because with three simple things it manages to create and maintain a growing level of tension which still works 47 years after it was made. Which are those three things? A relatable protagonist, a road in the middle of nowhere, and an ugly dirty and evil truck. Spielberg uses the very few means at his disposal both in terms of budget and in terms of time (he shot the full movie in a couple of weeks) to their maximum, and even beyond that!
He makes us relate with Dennis Weaver’s character by showing him behind the wheel, with a short telephone conversation with his wife, with his gestures, and by making us hear his thoughts. The result is that we can easily relate with David Mann, with his work-related paranoids, with his fears stirred by the truck, with his desire for revenge on the truck and on life itself.
The second thing is the road in the middle of nowhere, an element that makes this a classical road movie with the trip at the center of the story. The choice of the color red for the protagonist’s car is not random, as it stands out against the grey road, the green and brown desert, and the blue sky. Spielberg uses the camera as a master to make us perceive the velocity and the movement which characterize most of the movie.
And finally the villain: the truck. Even though it’s a truck, it seems to have a face, with the headlights standing for two evil eyes. Then its color: brown, dirty, rusty, with black coming out of its exhaust pipe, and its animal-like roaring loud noise… every detail is perfect! Even the series of plates of (presumably) previous victims on the bumper is perfectly unsettling! And yes, the truck is the real villain, as we only see the boots and one hand of the driver, nothing more.
So, Spielberg made an amazing movie with three things. Then the critics saw basically everything in it: they interpreted it as a metaphor for the fight of humanity against progress, they saw class struggle in it, and even a quest for manhood! But maybe the young Spielberg was simply fascinated by the visual potential of Matheson’s story, rather than by the possible multiple interpretations of it. It’s very kinetic, it’s extremely tense, and the final is incredibly satisfying. The whole affair reminds me of Nolan, who made a masterpiece such as Memento (2000) with a few bucks at the beginning of his career, and the messy Inception (2010) with 200 millions of dollars… back to Spielberg, he spent 100 million dollars for the forgettable Minority Report in 2002!
To conclude, if you haven’t seen Duel, watch it, what are you waiting for? And if you already know it… I am sure that you can enjoy it once or twice more! Ciao!