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.
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.
“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