Tuesday, November 11, 2008
David Mann is a salesman on his way to a far away business meeting. During a particularly long stretch of California highway he finds himself behind the only other vehicle on the road for miles, a large 18-wheeler that is moving too slowly. After passing the truck he searches for things to listen to on the radio in an effort to kill time on the long journey. As he fiddles with the radio, the large truck barrels past him and once again slows down, this time intentionally blocking David’s efforts to pass. After much cursing David manages to pass the unsightly truck for a second time, which results in a loud horn blast from unseen driver of the diesel menace. For reasons never explained, David finds himself the victim of a dangerous cat and mouse game with the seemingly evil trucker. Although David is initially angry at his predicament, anger soon turns to terror when he realizes that the dark 18-wheel menace is trying to kill him.
Based on a short story by Richard Matheson, Duel is famously remarkable for a number of reasons. Spielberg in his debut film shot this made-for-television thriller in 16 days and it was broadcast 3 weeks later. Despite a negligible budget, an ordinary truck, and miles of open road, he manages to engender a level of primal, claustrophobic dread that most filmmakers aspire toward yet generally fail. Spielberg economical use of camera angles and movements make the truck appear larger than life, a living entity that belches smoke with its growling engine and opaque appearance. Duel is an amazing feat for a young (24!) filmmaker and this early effort foretold Spielberg’s future success as one of the most important filmmakers of our time. The film was so popular after it aired on U.S. television that it was then released theatrically in Europe with 20 extra (unnecessary) minutes added to pad out the runtime.