Steven Spielberg’s debut feature, and the Richard Matheson short story that it is based on, remain masterclasses in paranoid terror.
“At 11.32 AM, Mann passed the truck.”
There’s a point, in the documentary that appears on the Duel DVD, where director Steven Speilberg talks about how the low budget and tight shooting schedule of the TV movie forced him to be both creative and lean – there was no time to waste, no room for indulgence. You rather wonder why he is looking back on this as a positive, given that the moment he moved into feature film production, he made a habit of going over budget, over schedule and generally indulging himself. You might argue that it resulted in great films – or at least one great film, Jaws. But you also wonder if his work might have been more interesting if he had kept himself on the leash a bit more.
Duel, famously, is the 1971 movie that put Spielberg on the map. He’d been directing solidly in TV, which was already impressive for someone in his early twenties at a time when that was still unusual, and while much of his work was suitably anonymous, when he was given the chance – like on the first Columbo episode Murder By The Book – he showed that he had a sense of style and an ability to create tension. Duel is tension personified, and might have set him on a career of impressive nail-biters, had his next tense thriller not become the biggest box office hit of all time and set him on the road to doing whatever the hell he liked.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone expected very much from Duel in 1971, though Universal did at least have the foresight to see that the finished film had the potential to be more than just a Movie of the Week, and allowed Spielberg to shoot another fifteen or so minutes to bring it up to the length required for a European theatrical release – that’s why you’ll hear a standards and practices-forbidden “shit” on the dialogue of what is now the definitive version. But when the film was being made, it was just another time-filler – if anyone had considered it to be at all important at the time, it’s hard to imagine that Spielberg would have been given the gig to begin with.
The lack of interest in Duel went back to Richard Matheson’s original story, which he’d originally written as a screenplay, one that – despite Matheson’s credentials as a writer of several astonishing Twilight Zone episodes and movies like The Fall of the House of Usher and The Devil Rides Out, failed to sell. Perhaps the idea simply didn’t work within the restrictive confines of a screenplay. Matheson took the idea and reworked it as a novel – a novella, actually, first published in the April 1971 edition of Playboy – where the unusual narrative could be given the meat and emotional connection that the screenplay perhaps lacked, or at least failed to get across.
Matheson’s story is literally man vs machine – or more accurately, Mann vs machine, as his lead character is named Mann – that’s it, no first name (the film calls him David Mann, somewhat unnecessarily). Hardly a subtle touch, you might say, but it’s one that is surprisingly often missed, especially in the film version where the name is only briefly referenced. It’s a story of the ultimate road rage, where Mann is punished and pursued for the simple crime of overtaking a truck – not even aggressively, but enough of a slight to enrage the unseen driver to a point beyond any reasonable level.
While the truck is presented as the inhuman monster hunting down Mann, we know that there is a human being behind it. For years, I could never quite decide if the images of the trucker’s arm, hauntingly waving Mann on, was a good thing or not. On the one hand, it is a chilling image; on the other, it makes this a story of a psychotic, unseen man rather than a sentient, unstoppable machine – Duel is not The Car, or Stephen King’s Trucks or Killdozer. I could never quite decide if that made it scarier or not. But I think now that these moments are vital to the increasing paranoia of the film. By establishing that this is not a supernatural story early on, Spielberg and Matheson isolate Mann even more. When he is left cowering in the truck stop after crashing his car, it might have been a respite from the terror, but instead, it just emphasises how alone he is. Even if the assorted other patrons do not include the mysterious driver – and we never really know if he’s there or not – it’s increasingly obvious that Mann is the one out of place here, with his city fashions and soft hands, and – in Matheson’s story specifically – his mild contempt for the people who live out in the desert, with their trailer parks and pet cemeteries. The truck driver would probably find nothing but sympathy from this diner full of his peers, amusement at putting the wind up the smart-ass, smugly superior office worker. The scene in the truck stop is a masterclass in paranoid suspense – the patrons all stare at Mann with amusement, contempt, suspicion. They could all be in it together. it’s a paranoia that runs throughout his encounters with other people – Mann constantly comes across as the crazy one, ensuring that there will be no help forthcoming. Like the best paranoid thrillers, he finds himself entirely alone simply because his story seems too wild to believe and his reactions are so hysterical.
That we know the truck is not an autonomous machine does not stop it from becoming a monster in its own right. With its curious snout and grill that looks oddly like a face, there’s definitely something beyond normal about this brute. The collection of number plates on the front of the truck speak of past kills – suggesting that there was nothing Mann could’ve done to avoid this encounter – and the unexpected speed and silent lurking definitely gives it the feeling of being more than simply a machine. It wheezes, it roars and it splutters with a hatred that is almost animalistic. Spielberg’s inspired use of a dinosaur roar as the truck finally plummets to its doom allows us to wonder, just briefly, if there is something beyond the human at work here.
A modern version of Duel might feel tempted to give us all the answers because either modern audiences are too dumb to figure things out for themselves or modern filmmakers are too scared of ambiguity not to spell things out. The beauty of this film is just how utterly sparse it is. Other than an ill-judged bit of padding early on, when Mann calls his wife and we cut to the family home for a moment, the entire movie takes place on the road. It doesn’t try to expand its story to give us more background to the central character, or to anyone who he meets. There’s a relentless determination at work here, a single-minded vision that racks up the tension to an almost unbearable level. Like Matheson’s other great work of paranoia, The Twilight Zone‘s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the film introduces its central terror and hammers away at it relentlessly (Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is the only story in the Twilight Zone movie that improves on the original by isolating the central character more and giving us a genuinely unnerving monster as opposed to the teddy bear gremlin of the original). The best horror stories are those that strip away all the fat – the padded introductions, the superfluous characters, the needless cutaways from the isolated terrors at their centre – and simply hammer away at the audience with a grim relentlessness.
Like many of Matheson’s leads, Mann is not especially admirable. The novella, told in the third person but entirely awash with the lead character’s internal monologue, paints a character who sneers at everything around him, cynical and snobbish until he is slowly ground down by absolute terror as the pursuit of the truck continues relentlessly. he is, in other words, all too human, a flawed, petty and frightened little man who can do nothing in the face of this faceless, mechanical terror. Well, almost faceless. Matheson’s story gives us a look at the driver – just a look, nothing more – and a name – ‘Keller’, which Mann understandably reads as ‘killer’ at first glance. In the novella, this is fine – a brief description of a face that we have to imagine anyway does little to demystify or humanise Mann’s assailant. In the film, it would’ve been a moment that changed everything and we should be grateful that Spielberg resisted the urge. Even if the driver was a dead-eyed brute, seeing him would’ve changed how we perceived the story. The film might have been no less tense, no less terrifying, but it would’ve been less interesting. We don’t need to know who the truck driver is. As Matheson says in the story, “the knowledge of his face and name seemed to reduce his stature”, and while the story can get away with that, the film certainly couldn’t.
Beyond this, and a few moments to expand the story – a more dramatic rendering of the cafe break – the film is extraordinarily faithful to the text. The fantasies and imagined conversations of Mann have, of course, been reduced, but the film manages to allow him a dialogue that doesn’t feel contrived – people speaking to themselves in movies to externalise thoughts is a tough thing to pull of convincingly, but Speilberg and – most importantly – Dennis Weaver make it convincing, and when the film needs it, we get a voice-over instead.
Weaver’s performance is central to the film – he is, after all, at the centre of every scene. It’s inspired casting, matching the character in the novella to perfection. The film needs a Mann who will be someone that we can believe in – not at all heroic, but desperate, terrified, almost pathetic as the horror of the situation develops. He’s a perfectly twitchy character, woefully out of his depth – you imagine that he’d probably be intimidated in the truck stop even without the terror of the chase. His physical deterioration as the film develops, sweating, bleeding and crying, makes his plight all too real and his weeping desperation as his car – which we also see go from gleaming and new to a dusty, steaming wreck – starts to fail him is almost painful to watch. The tension created by the combination of Matheson, Spielberg and Weaver is unlike anything else ever filmed, a relentless and emotional hammering that is never lessened on repeat viewings. Horror films are rarely terrifying, no matter what people might say – but Duel genuinely does leave you breathless.
As Matheson has said, the title of Duel is a bit of a misnomer, because there is no duel at all in the novella, and only in the final moments of the film – this is a decidedly one-sided battle. But it is a story of man vs machine, a battle to the death. Mann ultimately has to fight to survive and is left, at least briefly, that little bit less civilised afterwards, enjoying a primal moment of triumph over his monstrous foe at the end. Whether this victory is something he will enjoy for long, and whether he can ever go back to his buttoned-up existence again after this… well, that’s for the reader and the viewer to decide.
Duel might well be Matheson’s best work – I’m a big fan of his writing, and I can’t think of anything that quite has the impact that this story has. There’s a temptation to say that it is Spielberg’s finest moment too – if Jaws actually is the better film (and I’ll agree that it is), it’s not by much, and everything else that he has made comes nowhere near the simple genius of this. Yet it feels like a film that is somehow underrated, overshadowed perhaps by the glossier, more immediately crowd-pleasing films in the director’s oeuvre, and often dismissed as little more than an above-average TV movie, damned by the limitations of broadcast technology and TV screens that could never do justice to its very cinematic power and claustrophobic tension. The stripped-back intimacy that makes the film so great probably works against it in a world where people demand bloated sensationalism. Yet I suspect that now, the film would have an even greater impact, so unused are audiences to anything that strips away the fat and focuses on pure, simple impact. Duel – in print and on film – is one of the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s – the decade of great paranoid thrillers – and if Jaws made people afraid to go into the water, then this should be emptying highways across the world.
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