Duel (1971) / Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG for language and violence
Running Time: 90 min. (74 min. TV version)
Cast: Dennis Weaver
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Richard Matheson
Review published April 13, 2005
Originally airing on ABC (yes, on television), later beefed up to 90 minutes to show in European theaters, Duel is a wholly visceral thrill-ride that shows the potential of the great Steven Spielberg's (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler's List) eye for letting the visuals tell the story. Although it has been often recycled in b-films today, in such feeble entries as Joyride, Highwaymen, Road Rage, and a plethora of others, this is still the best of them all, and probably the only one that merits a viewing. Nail-biting suspense combined with story elements almost unheard of outside of a horror film, this is a riveting experience that has a scant story and almost no dialogue, but is a quintessential showcase on how editing, music, cinematography and inspiration account for 95% of what makes a thriller truly compelling.
The story is about as basic as it gets. Dennis Weaver ("McCloud") plays a businessman on his way for an important meeting that ends up stuck behind a slow moving truck while traveling the long stretches of freeway in rural California. He passes the truck, only to have the truck pass him again, and then slow down. The cycle continues for a while, until the businessman realizes the trucker is out for a deadly game of cat and mouse, never relenting on his pursuit, making him fight for his life at every turn.
Duel works on the most primal of levels, employing a great deal of mystery as to the trucker's identity or appearance, and keeping his motivations completely to the viewer's imagination. It starts slowly, building up the premise, with Spielberg taking his time in letting the ambience of the open road envelop us. Spielberg would use this same feeling of terror through isolation in his oceanic masterpiece, Jaws, which would further solidify his reputation as one of the best showmen in the business.
It's a worthwhile thriller, ingeniously conceived and masterfully executed in almost every way. Perhaps the only thing that would make me love Duel more is if Spielberg could have made it without voicing the thoughts of Weaver's character throughout, as it seems unnecessary (at least to me). Highly recommended for all Spielberg fans, or just thrillers in general. Duel has been often imitated, but far from duplicated in sheer tension. A truly riveting and timeless b-movie concoction that feels just as exciting today as the day it was released.
©2005 Vince Leo