TV Terror Guide: Duel (1971)
Air Date: Nov. 13, 1971 (ABC Movie of the Week)
Production Companies: Universal Television
Running Time: 90 min.
Available on: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment (DVD & Blu-ray)
Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzel
It had been a long time since I watched Duel (1971) and I forgot what an incredible movie it is, made for television or not. During this viewing, I paid more attention than I have in the past to how the direction, cinematography, and music contribute to the suspense. Make no mistake; every bit of it is brilliantly calculated by Steven Spielberg to maximize the effect.
I watched the 90-minute theatrical version of the film. You can easily find online which scenes were added to the original 75-minute televised version. However, the most notable thing about it is that there are no fade-to-blacks every 15 minutes where commercials would have been inserted. It must have been awful to interrupt the action.
The camera moves in as many interesting ways as the red Plymouth Valiant and the malevolent Peterbilt truck speeding along the desolate California highways. It travels alongside the truck, then speeds up to pivot to the front of it, as well as zooms in closer to David Mann’s (Dennis Weaver) face as he becomes more unhinged.
This is what everyone knows about Duel. For no apparent reason, other than the fact that Mann politely passes the truck, the truck driver pursues and terrorizes him, pushing him to mental and physical limits. The truck passes the Valiant, then slows down in front of it. It nudges it from behind. It changes lanes to prevent it from driving around it.
This is no ordinary truck, either. It’s the biggest, dirtiest, greasiest monster of a truck that you could imagine. When driving close behind, its headlights in the rearview mirror look like eyes. Its horn is a bellowing, reverberating, sound that shakes the body. The fact that someone is in control of it is almost irrelevant.
What everyone might not remember about Duel is that the entire second act takes place in the relatively calm and quiet interior of a roadside cafe. It’s a testament to Spielberg that these minutes are as tense and unbearable as the action on the highway. Is one of the men sitting at the bar the driver? Will Mann confront him?
An argument with his wife from a gas station phone booth implies that Mann is not man enough to confront a partygoer that was aggressive with her. Therefore, he has some personal issues to overcome in his battle with the truck driver. It’s one of the added scenes, though, so seems irrelevant to the original intent. Mann is any man, perhaps every man.
There’s nothing ambiguous about the ending of Duel. The bruised and bloodied arm of the truck driver doesn’t reach out of the wreckage for a jump scare (and potential sequel.) However, Mann sits and stares, throwing pebbles into the chasm. He may not be defeated, but he’s probably broken. It makes me wonder what I’d do in the same terrifying situation.