Duel is a really special movie. It was made for a tiny budget in an incredibly short period of time and directed by none other than, then unknown, Steven Spielberg. It’s also one of the only made for TV films to hold high acclaim. But what is it exactly that makes Duel so special? The concept? The filming and story telling? The acting? Its history? Short answer; all of the above.
What is Duel?
Duel is a 1971 ABC Made for Television movie, adapted from a short story written by Richard Matheson, best known for writing the novel I Am Legend, for Playboy Magazine. Matheson later stated that he was inspired to write the story after being tail gated by a trucker on his way home from a golfing match and decided that it might make a good horror tale.
When the story was published, Steven Spielberg was given a copy by his secretary who said that “duel” would be adapted by ABC for its movie of the week, and that he should apply. Spielberg was still a young director with only a few independent projects to his name, but he was given the job along with a $300,000 budget and 10 days to turn out a finished project. In the end, he was able to negotiate for 2 more days to finish filming bringing the total production time to a measly 12 days.
When Duel was released on television, it received almost universal praise and decent ratings for a TV movie at that time. Due to its success, ABC decided to adapt it to a feature length picture (the film was just under 72 minutes) and release it overseas theatrically, given Spielberg 3 days to film some additional sequences, (bringing total film time to 15 days) where it received numerous awards.
Duel is generally considered one of the greatest TV movies ever made, and the best TV movie made in the United States. It is also considered, by even Spielberg himself, to have spring boarded his career and opened the door for him to direct the blockbuster Jaws just 4 years later.
What is Duel About?
Duel has an incredibly simplistic story. The mane character, Dennis Mann played by Denis Weaver from Gun smoke, is a small time salesman driving to California to see a disgruntled client, who will be leaving for Hawaii the following day. During the long drive, he gets stuck behind a large Tanker Truck on a two lane highway and ends up cutting him off to keep from falling behind. However, the truck soon catches up with him and begins a deadly game of cat and mouse.
What Happens in Duel?
As you can see above, Duel’s main focus isn’t it’s story. Mann encounters the truck fairly early on and most of the movie from that point on is of the truck driver attempting to kill him on the road in various ways. There are a couple of sequences at a gas station or diner that break up this pace a bit, but even these sequences serve to heighten the tensions between the two drivers.
On the surface, this might make Duel seem to be overly simplistic or repetitive. However, that’s not the case. Spielberg has proven himself again and again to be adept at keeping his stories engaging (most of the time) and in no other film is that more evident than Duel. He understood that the main focus of the film shouldn’t be on action sequences or dialogue, but that the film was really more of a psychological thriller. As a whole, pacing feels very Hitchcock-ian with long sequences and never a moment to breath until the credits roll.
The most famous example of this is the incredible diner scene after about a third of the way through the film. Mann has just narrowly escaped from a high speed chase with the tanker but realizes that the driver is very likely in the diner with him. As a result of this, most of the, pretty long, scene is of him trying to decide what to do next. Any of the multiple truckers there could be his attempted killer, but if he tries to leave the truck will just follow him again and re-commence the chase. It’s a marvelous scene that really leans on Dennis Weaver’s acting (which is spot on), and really serves to show how isolated David Mann is in this situation.
Only adding to the tension, Matheson and Spielberg were both very specific that the audience should never see the truck driver (or, at least, know that they have seen him). This same technique would later be used in Jaws, which is no surprise given how effective it is here. The truck is the villain which makes it seem all the more unnerving and inhuman. There’s no reasoning with it or predicting what it is willing/capable of doing.
The film is also shot expertly. Spielberg had to fight to make sure all of Duel was filmed on location (instead of in a studio in front of a blue screen like the studio wanted) which ended up being well worth it. Long shots have real impact and Spielberg was very good about filming at distinct angles and getting incredible shots. It also makes the high speed chases feel all the more real and tense seeing two actual vehicles come into actual contact at high speed. It was difficult to do, but well worth the effort.
As stated before, Spielberg ended up having to shoot about 20 additional minutes of footage in order to release Duel overseas (international law required that a film be at least 90 minutes long to qualify for release overseas). When this happens with other films, these sequences often feel like padding and end up being the low point of the picture. In Duel, however, they are seamless. In fact, without a little research, I couldn’t even tell where the additions were made. Some of them were pretty minor (a couple more shots of the cars driving, an opening sequence of Mann’s car pulling out a garage) but some of them are a bit more substantial like Mann phoning his wife near the beginning of the film or a stalled school bus. The best, in my opinion, has Mann stopping for a passing train with the Tanker behind him, attempting to push him into it. All in all, theses films are shot well and placed at just the right moments in the film so as to heighten tension and not stall the picture’s progress.
How are the Special Effects in Duel?
There are no real effects to talk about in Duel. Both of the vehicles are real vehicles which make real contact and have real crashes. On that note, everything does look very realistic (because it is, for all intents and purposes, real).
What I will talk about, however, are the two vehicles themselves. Mann’s car is a small red Plymouth Valiant. It’s nondescript, but it does stand out in the mostly bland landscapes of Utah, California and Nevada. The antagonistic Tanker, on the other hand, looks fantastic. I assume it was a grimy car to begin with (it is from 1955) but Spielberg talks of adding extra grease and dirt and even fake dead bugs on the front vent. It looks grizzly and fills it’s role phenomenally well.
How is the Soundtrack in Duel?
Duel’s soundtrack is an interesting one. There isn’t really much music to mention except to heighten tension in some of the chase scenes. It isn’t very pleasant to listen to on its own, but it does compliment the footage on screen well and fulfill its intended purpose (not unlike a slightly toned down Jaws soundtrack).
Is Duel a Good Movie?
Absolutely! Duel is one of those very rare films that I can find little to criticize. The simple story and high tension throughout may turn off some people, but if you enjoy Hitchcock style films, Steven Spielberg’s earlier work or just a unique and well made movie, Duel really is a must see. If you can, be sure to see the BluRay which has fantastic visual and audio quality.