Duel (1971)

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There’s only really one moment in which there is, in fact, a Duel going on here.  In this Steven Spielberg film, David Mann’s red sports car is perpetually tormented by a large truck, the driver of whom is never visible.  They are never equals: the truck is bigger, faster, more capable of handling sharp turns and the truck is always the aggressor while David tries to outmaneuver him after realizing it’s something he can’t simply avoid.

In the scene in which they face off, David finally takes action.  Basically, the truck waits on the side of the road, encouraging him to drive by so the truck can follow him.  David waits about a hundred or two hundred feet back.  He jams his foot on the gas, accelerating towards the truck.  In response the truck pulls out to cut him off, and David pulls a sharp U-turn and heads back in the other direction.  He then stops his car again on the side of the road, having retreated to his corner.  The truck does the same, slowly backing up to be on the edge of the road.  That’s basically the only time they’re equals.

So backing up a little, David is a businessman.  He wears a tie, nice pants, nice sunglasses (in that time period at least) and a nice, shiny red sports car that he cares about maintaining.  The film begins with him leaving his home in Los Angeles and driving through traffic before hitting the road.  All the while he is silent, getting his kicks from listening to melodramatic callers on the radio.

Once he hits the highway he’s having a grand ‘ol time, window down, shades up, wind blowing softly through his mustache.  But then, on a two lane highway, he runs up behind an oil tanker with the warning words “FLAMMABLE” plastered on the back.  This is like Chekhov’s oil tanker, but spoiler, it never blows up.

So, wanting to maintain his speed, David puts on his blinker and goes around the massive truck.  Then the truck gains speed on him and flies past him, honking its deep groan of a horn and startling David.  Once in front of him, the truck immediately slows down, pissing off David who passes him again.

When David pulls over at a gas station, the truck pulls up beside him.  David eyes the truck, hoping to get a glimpse of the driver, but his view is obstructed and he only sees the driver’s boots.  This is also when David calls his wife, the only glimpse into his personal life we get.  It turns out David has a disagreement with his wife about something the night before, but that’s all we know.

So David gets back on the road, and the truck continues to terrorize him.  First the truck passes him and blocks him from going around the truck, by swerving back and forth on the road.  It’s only then that he realizes he’s in real danger.  Going down a windy section of the road, the truck tails him, even hitting his bumper a couple times and David finally skids off the road near Chuck’s cafe.  The truck speeds on.

David has now lost his mind, and he tries to figure out why this happened.  Did he do something to piss the driver off?  Is he just crazy?  Turns out the driver is just crazy.

The torment continues when, in the cafe, David looks out and sees the truck parked there, having turned around to continue harassing David.  He really loses his mind here and accuses a stranger of being the driver, asking him to stop messing with him.

So, now a little loopy, David watches the truck leave… and he thinks that might be it.  So he gets back on the road.  Soon after, David comes across a stranded school bus, in need of a push to get it started.  So David helps, but then his bumper gets stuck under the bus, and David sees the truck waiting menacingly on the opposite end of a tunnel just ahead.  The truck is in the middle of the road yet it just waits there.

Panicked, David tells the school bus driver that he and the kids are in danger.  David desperately jumps up and down on his car to shake it loose.  By now he no longer cares about the superficial damage, he just wants to get away.

David drives off, and in his rearview mirror he sees the truck stop to help the bus driver, making David look like the crazy one.

Next we see David waiting at a train crossing, no truck in sight.  All of a sudden the truck is there, completely out of the blue, and trying to push David’s car into the oncoming train.

Eventually David makes it to a gas station and uses the phone to call the police.  That’s when the truck really steps up his game and drives full speed into the phone booth, demolishing it just after David manages to leap to safety.  The truck makes a few more rounds, damaging a few terrariums, knocking loose snakes, iguanas and spiders.

The scene with an actual “duel” that I mentioned earlier happens next.  David then gets out on foot and tries to run up to the truck, but it simply moves further down the road.

Okay, so this story doesn’t need this much description.  At the end, David spins out of control as he drives in neutral down a mountain (his radiator belt broke), and he finds himself car to car with the truck.  He puts his briefcase on the gas pedal and drives towards the truck, diving out to save himself.

The truck runs over the car and drives over a cliff, killing the driver.  Despite the “flammable” warning, the trucker never explodes on the way down, a real subversion of audience expectations and hopes and dreams.

So that’s it.  We never see the driver, and that surprised and fascinated me.  The story is so simple and straightforward that instead of wondering how David will survive, I was wondering why the driver was doing this.  Has he done this before?  How does it usually end?  Because David didn’t seem particularly cunning and he killed the damn guy.  What if instead of David, it was a retired race car driver?  I don’t see him faring any better than David, so kudos to the business man with the red sports car.

The beginning of the film showed just the road as a car drove over it, fading to different shots throughout (and leaving) Los Angeles.  It reminded me of the camera movement in Jaw to represent the shark.  This is like the perspective of a monster, driving amongst us, and yet this is also the perspective of David’s car, not the truck’s.

In making this film, Spielberg was told to add scenes to increase the run length from 74 minutes to 90, for a theatrical release (and not just for TV).  One of the things he added was this opening, with shots of the city.  So it’s just to fill time.  Neat.

This film definitely didn’t need to be this long.  It’s like the premiere of the current season of The Walking Dead (of which I only watched 10 minutes).  In TWD you can only take so many shots of Jeffrey Dean Morgan sneering and breathing.  Jesus, all they were trying to do was fill time so they could squeeze in another commercial break before the reveal of who died.  And Duel was like that.  While I was engaged with the film, it did get a little repetitive at a certain point.  There were only three or so big beats to hit: David’s being terrorized, other people think David’s crazy for thinking he’s being terrorized, David wins.

The scene when he calls his wife was completely unnecessary, and the same goes for the school bus scene.  Well, I guess that second scene shows that the truck driver knows how to blend in and pretend to be nice, but it emphasizes that no one believes David, and we already got that story beat when he was at the cafe.

So who’s this driver?  We obviously never find out.  We only see that he has boots, he’s white (his arm) and he’s wearing a beige shirt rolled up at the elbow.  He’s murderous, clearly, but what’s his day to day?  Does he just drive slowly, waiting for someone to come up behind him and then torture that person?  He has the opportunity to harass other drivers but he passes that up because he’s already got David in his sights.  It’s also late enough in the day when they first cross paths that David could not have been the first driver the truck came upon.

So does David’s appearance provoke the driver?  Probably.  He sticks out, wearing his trim shirt and tie, his sunglasses, his windblown mustache and his red sports car.  You know who would have been fun to see the truck driver mess with?  This guy:


That is to say Tom Cruise’s character from Rain Man, not Dustin Hoffman’s.  Though seeing the two of them together up against the mad trucker would have been something.  I guess that’s the crossover I want to see.  Either that or the mad trucker coming across…


Whole new ballgame.

Up Next: The Mighty Aphrodite (1995), The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

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