It's road rage taken one step farther when traveling salesman, David Mann (Dennis Weaver), passes the driver of a massive multi-wheeled truck on the road who then irrationally tailgates and attacks Mann for the rest of the day.
Universal Studios wanted to make the film a major motion picture with Gregory Peck, but once the star refused, Duel ultimately was released as a TV movie. It was then re-released in theaters in 1983 after another of Spielberg's movies became popular (guess which one).
So why is Duel, an Honorary Classic? Because it's one more example that you can tell a suspenseful story very well even without much dialogue and without a big budget or fancy camera work. With less than a fortnight to make the film, some sequences were shot in the same area. But who can tell in a dry, arid backdrop? One curve looks like another. "I had an artist paint an entire map [of the area] . . . . and I try to cross things off," says director Steven Spielberg. "I'd try to progress eight or ten inches on the map . . . until the entire map was shot."
Spielberg gives you the hives with basically a car chase, and closeups of the antagonist's hairy forearm (you never see his face) and Weaver's profusely sweating forehead. . . and it works!
It works as camp, mostly, because 89 minutes of constant "Oh! He's trying to kill me!" is unintentionally funny. The camp is ratcheted up when Spielberg has the tanker truck get ahead of Mann and block his way so that the two vehicles are facing each other in the California desert, heat waves apparent, a tumbleweed out of nowhere, and a twiddle of guitar as Mann stares down his faceless nemesis then floors the gas pedal in an attempt to get past the truck. It's every Western movie standoff you've ever seen, but with cars.
And yes, the man (Mann) versus Other, David versus Giant, themes are intentional.
There may be a remake in the offing. That should be interesting.
- See the preview here.
- TCM airs Duel (1971) on Saturday June 6, 2009 at 4:30 am (EST)