Review: Duel

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Richard Matheson
Starring: Dennis Weaver
Released: 1971 / Genre: Suspense-Thriller / Country: USA / IMDB
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Before Steven Spielberg had cinemagoers lining up around the block in 1975 for his summer masterpiece Jaws, he had television viewers begging for water and hiding behind the nearest pillow with his tense, desert-heat thriller Duel. It was way back in 1971 that Spielberg first put his directorial talents to something that has stood the test of time. In Duel, a simple story about a family man pursued along endless, desolate roads by a crazed truck driver, we see the skills that made Chief Brody’s line ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’ so terrifying in Jaws, come to early fruition.

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The idea that something or someone you cannot understand wants to kill you: that there is no logic or reasoning behind their pursuit, and that they will stop at nothing, works beautifully if handled with a sure directorial hand. Other films have prospered with very similar premises from Rutger Hauer’s psycho hitchhiker in The Hitcher, to Rusty Nail in Roadkill (aka Joy Ride), but none have had the sheer bare-bone simplicity of Spielberg’s effort. He doesn’t need night to fall or muffled voices on a radio to create fear, he just uses what is there: the quiet, empty roads – endless and inescapable; the growling, powerful engine of the pursuing truck juxtaposed with the weak, stalling car engine – the fuel gauge getting lower, the heat gauge getting higher.

duel, steven spielberg, dennis weaver
“There you are, right back in the jungle again.”

But the film works because the characterisations perfectly employ the very essence that makes watching a suspense film a thrilling event. We can rationalise with Dennis Weaver’s character (the man who is being pursued) but like him, we cannot find reason in his pursuer. Spielberg uses voice-over superbly to get into Weaver’s psyche, but his fear is simple: there is seemingly no escape, not just from the physical threat of the pursuing truck but from a threat that doesn’t understand any boundaries, doesn’t have any morals or values – how can you escape if you don’t know why it is trapping you? This is perfect suspense cinema.

Review by Daniel Stephens

5 stars out of 5

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Castor Reply

    This movie is hypnotic and quite hitchcokian in how it builds up tension. Very underrated imo.

  2. Thomas Reply

    @Castor: I agree with the first part of your comment, but not the second. Isn’t the film some kind of film buff darling? everybody seems to like and recommend it, and as it was never released theatrically, it is probably one of the most well-known and acclaimed tv movies ever.

  3. Castor Reply

    @ Thomas: To be honest, I never heard of it before I stumbled upon it on the Reelzchannel a few months ago. I didn’t even know it was a Spielberg movie until now 😉

  4. Will Reply

    Yeah Duel is awesome! It was filmed about a half hour from where I am. That restaurant with the rock building is a French restaurant now and every time I drive by I think of Dennis Weaver almost crashing right outside. Such a great debut for Spielberg!

  5. Dan Reply

    @Will: That’s great Will. I would love to drive along those roads one day – I could remind myself of this and The Hitcher (kill two birds with one stone).

    @Castor/Thomas: I think because it wasn’t released theatrically in the US there has always been more noticeable affection for it here in Europe. But it’s a terrific film and should be seen by anyone with a passing enthusiasm for the films of Spielberg.

  6. Richard Reply

    Great movie. Weaver was totally sympathetic in the lead. Good review, dude.

  7. James Blake Ewing Reply

    I agree, it’s a fantastic movie that works so well because of the simplicity of the concept. I just actually posted my review up today.

    Looks like you guys beat me to the punch with my ’70s Spielberg marathon. It will be nice to have some reviews to read and think about after I write my own.

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