31 Days to Scare ~ Duel

The Facts:

Synopsis: A business commuter is pursued and terrorized by the malevolent driver of a massive tractor-trailer.
Stars: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Carey Loftin
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  With directing, as in any artistic medium, it often takes time to develop your craft and find your signature style. No amount of formal education can prepare you for the rigor of getting out there and doing it, working with a crew, and the logistics of the business of filmmaking. There are compromises to be made along the way in service to many people that sign on the dotted line, and how one navigates this process is key to their ongoing success.

Then there are those rare unicorns of the industry that are natural champions, who make it look easy from the moment they arrive on the scene. Maybe it’s because it was their pre-ordained destiny, or perhaps, they came along and filled a necessary gap at just the right time. Whatever the reason, they came out of the gate burning bright and blazing throughout their career. The peaks outweighed the valleys, and their eventual obit won’t speak of any setbacks but of the advances they made, contributions that will go on forever.

You must put a name like Steven Spielberg at the top of that list. Born in the late ’40s to a middle-class Jewish family in Cincinnati, OH, the stories of a 12-year-old Spielberg making his first film involving a train crash are legendary. (At least to movie nerds like me.)  Creating films into his teens and dreaming of making it in Hollywood, Spielberg eventually caught the attention of a Universal Studios vice-president, who gave him his first job directing for the television wing of the studio. Working with the likes of Joan Crawford on his first gig, Spielberg continued to impress with his exciting approach to using the camera to assist in telling the story.

This early work led to the TV movie that would change Spielberg’s career: Duel. Based on a short story from Richard Matheson (who adapted it for the 1971 film), it’s got the simplest of set-ups miraculously stretched to a nail-biting feature-length. A businessman (Dennis Weaver) is driving across the Mojave Desert and inexplicably attracts the ire of a tanker truck driven by an unseen individual. As he continues his trip, the businessman is stalked by this truck through the twisting mountain roads and dangerous terrain, seemingly actively trying to do more than just run him off the road. Whether the increasingly terrified man slows down or speeds up, the truck continues to stalk him until a showdown at the edge of a canyon gorge. 

Debuting on ABC on November 20, 1971, Duel scored so high in both the ratings and with critics that Spielberg was brought back to shoot more footage so the film could be released theatrically in the US and abroad. A new 90-minute Duel contained more scary scenes between Weaver and the terror truck and a few more character-establishing scenes for Weaver. You can tell what scenes were shot after the fact because these inserts almost signal a forced acceleration that doesn’t always pan out as the filmmakers wanted. That’s especially true in a poorly written scene with Weaver on the phone with his wife who awaits his return.

Those quibbles aside, when it’s just Weaver vs. the truck (so skillfully driven by Carey Loftin), it’s a breathless excursion that ratches up the tension with each new mile clocked on the odometer. Weaver is perfectly cast as a mostly bland everyman that starts to unravel with frenetic energy wondering why he’s being targeted. In the sublayer of Weaver’s performance, you get the impression his character may be a bit of a blowhard in his daily life, so the “why are you picking on me” vibe feels like divine retribution. Yet, the situation is so realistic it’s easy to put ourselves in his place.

The comparisons to Jaws are inevitable, and Spielberg used visual and aural elements of this finale in the conclusion of his 1975 summer blockbuster. You can almost draw a straight line from Duel’s man vs. machine showdown on the barren highway to the confrontation the three men have with the great white shark on the open ocean. That’s another reason shooting outside the studio was so crucial for Spielberg to fight for in both movies. While it can be humorous in Duel to see the same landmarks fly by repeatedly due to Spielberg and cinematographer Jack A. Marta having limited highway to work with, there’s an openness to the location shoot that gives the impression that our leading man is very much on his own. 

Telling its story from the moment the credits begin, Duel is a wonderful (and still menacing) film to look back on as an origin story for a director on the rise. Though he’d stick around TV for a few more years, he wouldn’t make his feature debut with the Goldie Hawn-led box office disappointment The Sugarland Express until 1974. Still, the good critical notices for that film and the strong reputation he’d built in television, especially in Duel, is why producers trusted him with Jaws. Without that, who knows where we’d be today and if the summer blockbuster would have ever existed?