The greasy rig and its concealed driver represent the evil Halliburton and the corrupt Dick Cheney, respectively, and David Mann is the downtrodden proletariat…
OK, I have not actually read that in some self-important dunderhead’s analysis of Steven Spielberg’s 1971 film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such drivel disgraced the screen of my Mac someday while I’m doing some “research” on the Internet. Duel is routinely and rightfully praised as a triumph of minimalist moviemaking, but it is also subject to endless interpretation. Every idiot seems to know the true meaning that lurks beneath the movie’s 90 minutes of Peterbilt/Plymouth rivalry. But who gives a you-know-what?
Certainly not Spielberg himself. The Duel DVD that Universal finally released (after a process as drawn-out as the O.J. trial) contains an interview in which the filmmaker spends over 30 minutes recalling his memories of the movie. He explains that, when Duel was released theatrically in Europe in 1972, the erudite European critics (smoking little cigarettes and wearing berets, no doubt) concocted all sorts of class warfare themes to explain conflict in the film, but Steve-o says that it wasn’t his intention. Understandably so. At the time, Spielberg was a young filmmaker (not unlike myself) who liked to play with long lenses and unusual camera angles to achieve visual experiences that were decidedly different from the tired “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille” sort of crap.
I once read an interview that Steven Spielberg gave regarding Duel. I can’t remember the exact details, but he did say that Dennis Weaver’s character (David Mann) represents the average man that has a wife and kids, occasionally stops at McDonald’s, and generally lives a humdrum life. Having the TV set break and needing to call the repair man is as out-of-whack as things get. Like Mann says in the movie, “Then one stupid thing happens…and it’s like there you are, right back in the jungle again.” If one theme truly exists in Duel it is that an ordinary man–perhaps a somewhat emasculated man–who is pressed to the limit can do extraordinary things.
Dennis Weaver, who is probably remembered most for his portrayal of cowboy marshal Sam McCloud trapped in the filthy, disgusting mess of Lindsay-era New York on the ’70s crime drama McCloud, is adept at conveying a full range of emotion, from the quiet satisfaction of hurtling down the open road to the sheer panic of imminent death. While his distinct voice and animated reactions can evoke more chuckles than goose bumps at times (from more immature viewers), his character is very believable and the audience can’t help but share his puzzlement, fear, and ultimate elation.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked and underrated elements of the production is Billy Goldenberg’s score. Unorthodox for a motion picture perhaps, the score is largely crafted from the same ’70s avant-garde sonic toolbox used for installments of the NBC Mystery Movie and the like—quite understandably, as Goldenberg penned many scores under the Universal Television umbrella. The frantic güiro which anticipates the truck’s first strike would sound appropriate accenting a foot chase on McMillan & Wife. The syncopated, stinging chimes that punctuate Mann’s roadside realization that he must stand his ground could easily underscore an aristocratic murder’s astonished reaction as he realizes he has unwittingly stumbled into Lieutenant Columbo’s trap. For a movie with Duel‘s stark landscape, minimal dialogue, and taut suspense, Goldenberg’s score is a perfect match.
While Dennis Weaver, Billy Goldenberg, and everyone else (we can’t forget the lady at the Snakerama) add a great deal to the production, obviously the greatest contribution comes from the director, Steven Spielberg, and cinematographer Jack Marta. Duel is an intensely visual film, and this duo holds primary responsibility for transforming Richard Matheson’s masterfully-written story into an amazing cinematic vision. If Hollywood had some sort of an efficiency scale that weighed the amount of money spent against the quality of the film and its cultural impact, Duel would be off the charts. Imagining that the production of the movie cost Universal a mere $500,000 is difficult given the incredible result. A decade later, Spielberg directed E.T., and for that production, Universal shelled out over 20 times as much cash. Even if you adjust for the out-of-control inflation during the Carter era, E.T. was still 10 times more expensive to produce. Is E.T. 10 times the movie that Duel is? I don’t believe so.
Perhaps the genius evident in the movie is actually dumb luck on Spielberg’s part. Maybe the insanely rushed shooting schedule (less than two weeks) and tight budget forced the moviemaker to create a film that was just shaky enough and looked cheap enough to be suspenseful. Each frame looks as nervous as David Mann does when 20 tons of “souped-up diesel” is bearing down on him. Whatever the case, Duel deserves a place among the greatest movies of all time. It has influenced countless aspiring filmmakers since it was first televised and will continue to do so for many years to come.