Everyone starts somewhere. Before horror icon John Carpenter made Halloween, he did the low-budget sci-fi nerd-fest Dark Star. Before George Lucas became a household name with the space opera Star Wars, he created the futuristic vision THX 1138. Even the debatably biggest name in filmmaking, Steven Spielberg, had to pay his dues; before the sharks of Jaws, the aliens of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and the Oscars of Schindler’s List, the budding director made Duel.
Duel is about a travelling businessman named David Mann (Dennis Weaver from “Gunsmoke” and “Gentle Ben”) who, while driving on a remote stretch of desert highway, comes across a Peterbilt Tank Truck that is hogging the road. Mann is able to maneuver his red Plymouth Valiant around the truck, but at a price; the truck’s driver becomes irate, tailgating Mann, passing him, then slowing down again whenever he gets in front. Every time Mann thinks that he has lost him, the trucker appears again, ready to torment and terrorize Mann further with his 40-ton weapon. The deadly game of cat-and-mouse continues until Mann has had enough of the ruthless trucker’s antics.
Rumor has it that Steven Spielberg commandeered an office on the Universal lot and worked on Duel from there, unbeknownst to the higher-up studio powers that be. Whether that is true or not is uncertain, but what is true is that the film is based on a story by Richard Matheson (The Legend of Hell House, The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver) that was originally published in Playboy magazine and brought to Spielberg by his secretary. Matheson was approached to adapt the screenplay himself, and Spielberg got the film made, taking just under two weeks to complete principal photography. Originally a television movie, the initial cut of Duel was a mere 74 minutes long; additional scenes were written and shot, including one scene with a stranded school bus and another that takes place on a train track, in order to lengthen it to ninety minutes for a theatrical release. It may have been made for the small screen, but Universal saw big-screen potential in Duel.
What really sets Duel apart from other road trip/road rage movies like Night Terror, Breakdown, or The Hitcher is the complete facelessness and anonymity of the antagonist. There are several places in the movie where the audience can almost see the trucker’s face, either through a window or reflected in a mirror, but the most that is ever really shown is an arm or a leg. In the mind’s eye of the viewer, Spielberg’s selective imaging makes the Peterbilt Tanker itself the actual villain of the movie, a decision that went on to influence many other automobile horror movies such as The Car, Christine, and Maximum Overdrive. In one pivotal scene, the shaken and unnerved protagonist stops and goes into a diner, and notices the truck is parked outside. He analyzes every patron of the diner, trying to figure out which one is the driver of the truck. Of course, he’s unsuccessful, and the film’s antagonist remains a rusted metal box, but it’s another tense scene, full of “who’s the villain” suspense.
One of the elements that makes Duel more than just another television movie is its cinematography. The movie was shot by director of photography Jack A. Marta (“Route 66”), and his work is, well, cinematic. From the opening car POV driving sequence to the movie’s exhilarating climactic demolition derby, Marta’s photography is stunning. Of course, most of the movie takes place on the open road, and there are plenty of shots from inside the car, but Marta gets creative with them, peeking over Dennis Weaver’s shoulder from the backseat, shooting the driver’s face from the passenger seat, or capturing the roaring Peterbilt through the rear window of Mann’s Valiant. Marta also uses lots of cool reflection shots of Weaver’s face in mirrors, as well as cleverly using foreground objects like windows and washing machine doors to frame his subjects, bringing attention to what needs to be seen without being too obvious about it. There’s also a ton of camera motion in the film, whether it’s inside the car creeping up from the back seat to the front to get a shot of Weaver’s tense eyes in the rearview mirror, or outside swinging and craning wildly around the cars as they rumble along the two-lane roadway. It’s a gift that Duel was released theatrically, because Jack A. Marta’s cinematography should not be confined to a tiny tube television screen.
The music for Duel is an interesting story in and of itself. The score was composed by Billy Goldenberg (Helter Skelter, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), who rushed through the writing process because of the shortened production schedule. Unfortunately, most of Goldenberg’s score was ultimately not used, music being relegated to non-driving scenes to fill silences and, in a Jaws-like move, to announce the presence of the villainous truck. During the driving scenes which take up the bulk of the film, the soundtrack consists mostly of diegetic sound effects in place of a score, noises like revving engines, screeching tires, honking horns, and blaring radios. The sound design, which was done by a small army of uncredited audio editors that included, among others, Dale Johnston (Body Parts), Jack Kirschner (I Bury the Living), Ronald LaVine (The Initiation), and Richard Raderman (The Seduction), was mixed with Goldenberg’s score to create an abrasive and atonal sonic landscape. The audience doesn’t just hear the sound and music in Duel, they feel it all around them.
Everyone knows that Steven Spielberg went on to become one of the most important men in Hollywood, making summer blockbusters like Jurassic Park and awards-season hits such as Saving Private Ryan. But even in his early days, the guy knew how to make a movie. Without any frills, he turned a deserted road, a menacing truck, and a terrified driver into an experience as memorable as Duel.