The great network of roads and highways has made America into a truly mobile country, gas shortages notwithstanding. People from every social class have at one time or another traveled the highways, often on long, tedious journeys for business or pleasure. What Duel does is take the mundane and create a tale of tension, apprehension and fear. David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a typical, everyday sort of fellow. He has a job, a wife and family and the usual stress that results from his pursuit of the American dream. His job requires that he travel to see a client to make sure the client will not leave the firm that David works for. Add to this the fact that David just had a fight with his wife for not defending her from the amorous advances of another man. Yes, David set out on his business trip with a mind full of doubt. The very last thing David needed that morning was to become involved in a deadly cat and mouse game with an ominous semi-truck. David just wanted to pass the slower moving vehicle and winds up pulled into a game of tag along the deserted road way. David could not possibly imagine the terror this day would bring. It should have been a day that David saves the account and make up with his wife turns into a frantic struggle for his life.
While originally created as a made for television flick Duel remains a taut piece of cinema. There are several factors that have made this film work and remain such a cult classic. First, there is the role of David. He is not a hero; there is nothing particularly special about him. Dazed after an encounter with the truck we can identify with the sweat stains around his arm pits, the dazed look on his face and staggered gate. In more modern times we can also identify with the concept of road rage. While it has intensified in the past few years as long as men took their vehicles on the highway anger and aggression have surfaced. You have to remember that this story is back in those dim days before cell phones, air bags and teleconferences. Now the story would be a lot shorter. Either David would have met online with his client or called the police on his cell. This lack of current technology sets the stage nicely for one of my personal favorite themes, the reasonable man forced into dealing with the most unreasonable circumstances. David Mann is an isolated individual dealing with a fight for his life.
While there are some supporting cast this film is basically a one man show. Dennis Weaver has for a long time been one of the better actors on the small screen. For over fifty years now Weaver has personified the everyday man in most of his roles. Here, he continued that tradition in one of the better performances of a long and successful career. The audience will find themselves immediately drawn to the plight his character is in. We may never have been in this drastic a circumstance but the surroundings are so familiar that we are emotionally connected to Weaver’s character. Weaver also has to face a difficult job as an actor. This is not a dialogue driven movie. A good part of the dialogue is in the form of dissociated voiceovers. Since many of the best scenes are with Weaver alone in his car much of what is going on must be conveyed through his very expressive face. Weaver is a long time working actor for just this reason, we don’t see something special in him, and we see ourselves.
At the time this film was produced the director was a little known burgeoning, auteur named Steven Spielberg. Having cut his teeth on such television shows as Columbo, Marcus Welby and Owen Marshall, the young director was ready for his first television feature film. It should be kept in mind that back in 1971 there was still a solid distinction between working in film and television with TV considered a lower caste. Made for TV movie was one of the few avenues available for moving up to movies for the ambitious artist. Even then few proved up to the challenge but in the case of Mr. Spielberg that special factor that made him one of the great story tellers of all times could not be prevented from reaching its potential.
Since almost everyone that enjoys movies is familiar with his works watching Duel affords an excellent opportunity to see the beginnings of his various cinematic trademarks. The truck here is the unnamed, dehumanized terror much like the famous shark of Jaws or the government in E.T. We have the desperation of a man standing alone albeit less heroically than Indiana Jones. While this is somewhat primitive by his current standards it was visible then that this director had something special that would entertain us for years to come. Spielberg knows how to turn the everyday into something of a thriller and this is where it really began. Based on a story by one of the best writers around, Richard Matheson the collaboration with Spielberg shines in the way the story is told. The exposition is subtle, we learn that David is meek by nature through is phone call with his wife. Its little touches like this that help this film stand the test of time. There were some digital touchups down on the film, mostly removing the crew form mirror shots. I hope Mr. Spielberg has a little talk with his friend George Lucas about the proper extent of movie alterations.
There is a bit of history with this movie’s journey to home theaters. It was scheduled for release and literally the night before it was to street it was pulled off the shelves leaving a few stray copies of fortunate collectors. Now after a long time this early example of an incredibly talented filmmaker has received Blu-ray edition it so well deserved. The Collector's Edition DVD released in 2004 had an acceptable transfer, at least for a made for television movie from the 70’s. The color palette was muted and the rear speakers only active during a few pivotal moments. In the remaster to this new high definition edition the colors were noticeably richer with a greater depth and more balanced saturation. The audio, now DTS-HD MA 5.1 with a secondary English track in DTS-HD MA Stereo, are more robust than ever. The stereo version is closer to what was heard in the original two channel mix but again with a significantly broader range.
There are two featurettes provided on the disc. The first, Steven Spielberg and the Small Screen is a personal retrospective of Spielberg on his early career in television. Real fans of the director will enjoy it but for the uninitiated it may come off as a bit pedantic. Then there is The Writing of Duel where Richard Matheson relates how this was loosely based on his own experience and how it grew to the tale that was told. Last there is ‘The Photograph and Poster Gallery’ and the typical cast biographies. In all this was well worth the wait to own on DVD.
Posted 8/16/04 05/01/2015