The Cult Movie Club (with spoilers): Duel (1971/1981)

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Duel’ was one of the first movies that really got to me, and it remains one of my all-time favourites.

I was already a confirmed car and truck fan when it was shown on British terrestrial TV almost exactly 40 years ago, so was glued to the screen from the first minute.

The faceless truck driver scared me, the chases thrilled me, but it was the ending that had the most impact. I just couldn’t get my head around leaving David Mann (Dennis Weaver) literally staring into the abyss after vanquishing his nemesis.

‘Duel’, adapted by the great Richard Matheson from his own short story, premiered on American TV as an ABC Movie Of The Week 50 years ago this month, and was later released as a feature with a few added scenes. It did for trucks what ‘Jaws’ did for sharks and ‘Psycho’ did for showers.

It’s arguably the ultimate road-rage movie – lest we forget, it was inspired by a real event experienced by Matheson when he and a friend were driving home soon after hearing of JFK’s assassination.

‘Duel’ was filmed in just 13 days mainly around Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles. Spielberg meticulously mapped/storyboarded every shot, many of which were achieved with the low-angle ‘camera car’ specially built for Peter Yates’ classic 1968 thriller ‘Bullitt’.

Spielberg had earned his big break after working on TV shows such as ‘Columbo’ and ‘Marcus Welby MD’, but had to fight his corner with the ABC executives who wanted him to shoot ‘Duel’ mostly in a studio, using ‘poor man’s process’ (shades of ‘Jaws’, which the suits mostly wanted him to shoot in a tank)!

Gregory Peck was the first choice for the role of David Mann (geddit?) – Spielberg heartily approved as it would have meant the movie would get a theatrical release. But when Peck declined, the director loved the idea of casting Weaver, mainly based on his manic performance in Orson Welles’ ‘Touch Of Evil’.

The truck is a brilliant baddie, and accordingly it was put into make-up every day, a team of assistants applying oil, muck and dead bugs. It was driven by the great Hollywood stuntman Cary Loftin, while another, Dale Van Sickel, mostly drove the car, though Weaver did some of his own stunts. Like this one:

Comedian Dick Whittington’s initial crank-call sets up the main theme of the film, a theme that both Matheson and Spielberg ratchet up throughout. Is Mann one of Nixon’s ‘silent majority’, a lower-middle-class, hen-pecked schlub who ‘wouldn’t take it any more’?

He is certainly the ultimate everyman, with a fairly snobbish attitude towards the ‘locals’, but we still like him, mainly due to Weaver’s classic performance.

Of course Mann could give up the duel at any minute, turn around and drive home. But he doesn’t. His decision to nail the truck driver is possibly the most terrifying moment in the film (with echoes of Sam Peckinpah’s movie ‘Straw Dogs’).

The school bus scene (one of several added for the feature-length version) is possibly the standout. It’s the coverage and editing – the kids’ mocking faces, the bus driver’s naivety, Weaver’s humourless striving, the contrast between the kids’ innocence and the adult duel operating in a twilight world of petty grudges and micro-aggressions.

(Interestingly, ‘Duel’ is arguably Spielberg’s most ‘adult’ film and thus, for me, avoids the sentimentality and ‘childhood perils’ that plague some of the later films. This excellent – if controversial – article is a potent and worthwhile contribution to the theme.)

The truck, a 1961 Peterbilt 351, shot from the ‘Bullitt’ camera car

For such a simple story, Matheson’s plotting is exemplary. We should be able to second-guess Mann’s actions and motives at every step, but we don’t. Weaver/Mann’s voiceover takes us through all potential courses of action.

And then there’s Billy Goldenberg’s brilliant soundtrack. Of course it occasionally hints at Bernard Herrmann but also stakes out its own soundworld with a delicious cocktail of zither, bells, piano, strings, ethnic percussion and harp.

Thankfully there has never been a remake of ‘Duel’ but its influence is everywhere. Spielberg himself continues to view it with great affection and has referenced it in many films, from ‘Jaws’ to ‘1941’.

Finally, back to the ending on the cliff edge. What’s left for Mann? Will he ever recover? What will his punishment be, if any? Will he return to his wife and kids, or ‘drop out’ and join a hippie commune?

Then there are the rumours that the stricken truck is still visible at the bottom of Soledad Canyon. Approach it if you dare. Just don’t end up like David Mann, or the psychopathic trucker for that matter…

Further reading: ‘Steven Spielberg & Duel: The Making Of A Film Career’ by Stephen Awalt

4 thoughts on “The Cult Movie Club (with spoilers): Duel (1971/1981)

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