I know folks have formed their opinions about Spielberg these days, but in his early years, the man was ON! I think there’s a consensus that this is one of his most effective films (maybe I’ll be proven wrong in the TBs). Like his later film, JAWS, Spielberg tells the tale of one man versus a monster—but in this case, instead of a shark, it’s a filthy Mack truck barreling down the highway.
Taken from a short story by Richard Matheson, DUEL is a simply constructed masterpiece. The plot is beautiful in its simplicity. A meek man named David Mann, who admittedly does not wear the pants in his family, is forced to man up when he is challenged on the open road by a never-seen tailgater driving a truck from hell. That Spielberg was able to stretch this simple concept to the span of an hour and a half is a testament to his skills as a director.
My apologies, but I can’t help but “Harry” out here. I can’t watch DUEL without thinking back to the first time I saw the film. I was at my grandparents’ house and happened upon it on TBS (which was probably where I saw most of my films as a kid). I remember being riveted in front of the screen. As a kid, nothing was more frightening than seeing this lone man frantically try to get away from this unrelenting mechanical monstrosity. To this day, I can remember the palpable fear of almost every second of my first experience with DUEL and upon multiple viewings after, I must admit that it doesn’t lose its effect.
Seeing this film as an adult, I notice that Spielberg stretches the concept a bit thin by the end of the hour and a half mark. The constant cuts between the frenzied Dennis Weaver and the railroad tie-bumpered truck and back again did get a trite bit tedious. It soon becomes obvious that DUEL was a short story and would have benefitted from a shorter running time. But that doesn’t take away from the intensity Spielberg was able to achieve with some quick cuts, a strong concept by a master of modern storytelling, a good actor behind the wheel, and a monstrous truck riding his ass.