Directed by Steven Spielberg
A businessman (Dennis Weaver) on his way to a meeting with a client comes across a dirty, large tanker truck on the road through the Mojave desert. Unwilling to sit behind the chugging heavy load, particularly as it’s spitting thick smoke out of its exhaust, he decides to overtake it as most people in his situation would do. However, it would appear the driver driver of the imposing truck isn’t too impressed with businessman David’s manoeuvre and sets about hunting him down in this suspenseful, intimidating road-rage thriller.
Steven Spielberg may be known for E.T, Jaws, Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, to name just a few of his many highlights, but it was vehicular thriller DUEL which first caught the attention of viewers with its TV debut. Focusing on how one man’s life is turned upside down when a truck driver makes it his mission to hunt him down on the road with a view to killing him, DUEL is a terrifying tale that could happen to any one of us, particularly in the stressful times we live in.
Occurring in broad daylight with no-one seemingly willing to help, our protagonist David is on the verge of losing his mind as he seems to be systematically stalked by the driver of a dirty, great big 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck. With its towering presence looming in the rear view mirror, the rust bucket-looking truck, with its giant grill, looks every inch a monster on the road. Couple this with the fact that it can easily do higher speeds with the driver somehow maintaining control of such a lumbering beast of a vehicle, whilst poor David in his Plymouth Valiant struggles to gain any sort of gap from him, is enough to send anyone’s heart rate soaring. David’s paranoia and fear only intensifies as the film progresses as it becomes evident that the driver of the tanker truck is purposely making a point of hunting him down. With only a flash of his arm waving David to overtake him only to be almost taken out by oncoming traffic, to the sight of his brown, snakeskin boots treading around the vehicle at the petrol station, the driver’s identity is never revealed. He could be anyone, but in this movie, he is very much personified as the dirty old tanker he commands.
DUEL is a tense movie at times. As a viewer, I found myself empathising at David’s frustration and despair as it becomes painfully obvious that the tanker driver won’t stop until he’s run David off the road to his death. Throughout the movie, you can’t help but question the motives of the driver. Is he simply a nutjob? Was his ego dented when David overtook him on the road? Is he a serial killer? Other questions also came to light, one of which involves a scene where David rings up his wife to tell her he’s running a bit late. They reference an argument from the night before where it seems David failed to accost a guy who attempted to sexual assault his wife at a party they attended. His wife seems fairly disgruntled at the violation, as you’d imagine, but seems more concerned that her husband didn’t have the balls to actually confront the perpetrator. Shying away from confrontation seems to run parallel with his experience on the road in this movie as we see him dithering about in a cafe where he suspects the driver of the truck is having something to eat. Dennis Weaver’s voice, as David, narrates the scene as we get an insight into the inner-workings of what’s going through his head. When he finally does build up the courage, David comes across as a loon as he fires accusations here, there and everywhere, all based on the boots a guy is wearing. David talking to himself becomes an important part of the film as we see him lose grip on the frightening reality he finds himself in, only for the fight or flight mechanism to kick in as desperation takes effect.
DUEL is a fascinating film for me. It evokes feelings and similarities to other hopeless situation films, such as The Hitcher and Funny Games, in which the lead character(s) become victims through no fault of their own; are they ever the only ones to succumb to the fate we see played out on screen? Whilst there’s aspects in Duel that don’t exactly work for me, namely when the truck driver attacks David in front of others (I much prefer the truck being the villain only to David, enhancing the paranoia), as a whole the experience is a thrilling, gripping yet gruelling one which, like David, you can’t wait to be over. Despite its age, the film still holds up to this very day with its premise one that may hit home for many people, particular those who drive a vehicle themselves.