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Spielberg's simplest and most effective thriller?
on 12 July 2005
Spielberg directed this TV movie for ABC when he was 23 and it is the essence of 'high concept' film - man terrorised on desert highway by truck. It is testament to Duel's effectiveness that it was later theatrically released.
Duel is a relentlessly gripping game of cat-and-mouse between a terrified Dennis Weaver in his red Sedan, and the malevolent driver of a monstrous, greasy truck. That the truck has a driver at all is almost irrelevant. The cab windows of that vehicle are rarely in shot, instead Spielberg focuses on the small headlights and prominent engine grille - the truck's beady eyes and vicious snout. Those features are most threatening when shot at low-level as the truck gains speed on Weaver.
This fatalistic game begins when Weaver tries to overtake the truck in a hurry to make a meeting in California. He has already been framed as a man in a mediocre job with a loveless family life. His impotence is reinforced in one of the film's most memorable scenes when Weaver struggles to assist a stuck school bus. In the distance the lights of the truck come on. As Weaver takes off terrified, the truck smoothly, deliberately moves the bus. It's more terrifying still that the driver has shown he is capable of compassion, but has chosen to play with Weaver's life, beckoning him into oncoming traffic, running him off the road, and edging him onto a rail track.
Weaver is excellent as the hunted man - his paranoia in a roadside café with the truck looming ominously in the background is intoxicating, accentuated by his nervy voice-over. His desperation when the truck pulls out from hidden spots is palpable, and his resolution to take a stand is sincere - understandable as Weaver did many of the stunts himself. His performance, with Speilberg's excellent direction, makes Duel a seminal example of an economical premise turned into a memorable, overwhelmingly edgy thriller.