In North America, you get from A to B mostly by car, and Duel is a bona fide B-movie with a plot that could not be more simple: a menacing trucker tries to run a man off the road, ruining an otherwise leisurely drive through the California hills.
And the savvy move by Steven Spielberg was to internalize the horror of that man. After all, road rage is ultimately a solitary experience. Cooler heads prevail when there is at least one cool head.
On this site, we reviewed a remake, Wrecker. In that one, the driver, Dennis Weaver’s character (David), is replaced by two college students on a road trip, seemingly for the sole purpose of having them yap with one another.
Here, David is left to his own devices on lonely swaths of road, doing battle with a muscular, rusted tanker truck while perspiring like a rodeo bull.
At first, it’s a simple tailgating cat and mouse. Then things escalate when the truck driver, seemingly as a show of good faith, waves David past — but into oncoming traffic.
When the frantic driver narrowly escapes with his life, he eventually skids into the parking lot of Chuck’s Cafe, a local road-stop. There, he becomes increasingly paranoid the trucker is one of the patrons at the bar. He does his best to compose himself and try and find a way out of the situation alive.
Duel makes you really appreciate how tough it is for modern screenwriters to have to account for the convenience of a smart phone. In 1970, Spielberg had no such concerns, and these lonely highways weren’t exactly peppered with phone booths at roadside.
Frequently cited as the best TV movie of all time, Duel was inspired by a story by Richard Matheson, who’d been out golfing in 1963 with a buddy, the day Kennedy was assassinated. They decided to cancel their stint on the greens and hightail it back home when a truck bore down on them. They sped up to 60 MPH, their car fishtailed and they spun out, luckily with their lives intact. Matheson grabbed a pen and scribbled — not the license plate of the menace on the road — but the following: STORY IDEA: MURDEROUS TRUCK CHASES MAN DOWN RURAL HIGHWAY.
Inspiration comes from the weirdest places.
Shot for $450,000, Duel looks great and holds up really well. It’s a neat early glimpse into the kind of fun, populist storytelling Spielberg would later explore in his masterpiece, Jaws.
***1/2 (out of 5)