Duel (1971)

Duel is most likely the closest thing to a Hitchcock film not made by Hitchcock. In fact, it’s the debut film of Steven Spielberg, a film so small in scope it was ushered off to the small screen. Yet it’s often the simplest ideas that prove the hardest to execute and in its execution one can trace the direct lineage to the film that put Spielberg on the map, Jaws.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is taking a simple business trip through New Mexico. It would prove to be an uneventful, boring and drawn out ride if it wasn’t for the tractor-trailer that seems to be harassing David, cutting him off when he tries to pass and speeding past him when he finally does pass. As the road flies by, the passive-aggressive road rage starts tilting more to the aggressive and David finds it harder to handle the overbearing truck driver.

Distilled to its essence, the film is a fantastic exercise in suspense. It’s restrained on the front end to nothing, a mild curiosity as the audience wonders at the intent of the trucker. But as the film builds and the conflict escalates, the film becomes a discipline in pacing and editing, crafting a series of memorable, engaging moments around the simplest idea.

Part of the reason why this idea works so well is that most people can relate to this. We’ve all been stuck behind that driver who is going too slow but won’t let us pass or wondered if somehow things have gotten a little too personal on the road when we’ve been cut off by a driver. Maybe it’s just me, but driving can be a terrifying phenomena, especially when you’re dwarfed by those massive trucks that fill the highways. The film encapsulates that fear well and uses it to drive the entire film.

Compounding that is the psychological disintegration of the David character. He’s already in some trouble with the wife and is in a rush to make it back in time for a family event. And then this trucker (Carey Loftin) starts toying with him, messing with his mind and hampering him from progress. While having a breakdown on the road might not be the most conceivable way of going loony, the film does a good job of getting the audience into David’s troubled state.

But it’s not all serious thrills for Duel. As a clear homage to Hitchcock, Spielberg insets little bits of dark humor. It’s clearly not the dry, British sensibility that Hitchcock built his persona around, but more of a wryly Southern tang of morbid humor. It’s not plentiful and only pops up now and again but it’s enough to give a bit of levity to the film.

However, the penultimate conclusion of the film is somewhat perplexing. It’s simultaneously an atypical and expected ending from Spielberg.  It conveys something beyond the actual scope of the screen yet ends on a note completely different from what one would expect. It’s a compelling and interesting ending but somehow feels at odds with the maker of the film.

Perhaps this simply is an issue of retroactively looking back on a film. Cleary, after Jaws, Spielberg got to do what he wanted to and here he may have simply had to be controlled by a number of forces. In any case, he does an excellent job with what he was given and it hints at the idea of a completely different kind of director than Spielberg ended up being. Duel may be at odds with his body of work but as a singular film, it’s a fantastic picture.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

Duel [DVD]