Spielberg: Duel

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? David Mann has a suburban house, a wife, two boys and some kind of routine sales job that requires him to make trips along the desert highways of Southern California.

What does he want? Well, like any middle-aged, middle-class cog, we could say he simply wants to get ahead. This desire is given a simple, direct, clear expression when he decides to pass a huge, filthy road-hog tanker truck while traveling to a meeting somewheredown the road.

What does he get? Well the driver of the tanker apparently decides to kill him for his sin of trying to get ahead.

Duel shows that with enough skill and planning, a decent movie can be wrung out of the simplest of premises. There is little dialogue in Duel, and the dialogue that’s there feels like too much (and an extended monologue Mann has at the close of Act I feels like way too much). The idea that a movie this austere and peculiar would be someone’s debut is audacious enough, but the idea that it would be a TV movie-of-the-week, shot in 12 days and broadcast a few days later, is pretty freakin’ astonishing. An apologetic Hitchcock homage (the music explicitly quotes a number of Bernard Herrman themes), Duel announces the arrival of a skilled technician already in firm control of the tools of relentless suspense.

The structure is basically this:

ACT I: Mann sets out for his trip. He has a couple of encounters with the truck and begins to suspect that the truck, for whatever reason, has it in for him. After an apparent attempt on his life, he stops to rest at Chuck’s Diner, where he worries that the driver of the rig is watching him, judging him. He lashes out at a man he’s convinced is the driver, but is proven wrong and made to look like a fool. He continues on his journey.

ACT II: The truck harasses Mann some more, and its attempts to kill him become pronounced and distinct. This is no coincidence, the truck is honestly trying to kill him. After a number of these attempts, Mann fools the truck into bypassing him and takes another rest.

ACT III: Mann’s attempt to elude the truck fail, and the third act is pretty much one long chase scene as Mann desperately tries to turn the tables on the truck.

SOME SUBTEXT: While sweating it out in Chuck’s diner, Mann whines to himself about how one simple thing can tear away the veneer of civilization and put a man “right back in the jungle,” but the laws of Duel seem to have a more medieval origin. “Honor” plays a significant role: the protagonist is a man stuck in an early-seventies world where honor, specifically masculine honor, is under constant attack. His wife criticizes him for not defending her honor at a party, he whinges at the prospect of his mother coming to visit (a prospect that reduces him to a child), he gripes to a gas-station attendant that he’s not the boss of his house, a caller on a radio show he listens to complains about how not having a job has removed his title of “head of family.” (Family is a burden in Duel, a rarity in Spielberg’s work, although not surprising in a movie made by a 21-year-old. 21!) When Mann(the extra “n” is for extra iNadequacy!)’s life is in danger, “real men” in cowboy boots glare pitilessly at him, old men laugh at him, he is made to sit my himself in the “pink section” of the diner, where he can barely muster the manliness to order the ultra-un-macho meal of a cheese sandwich and a glass of water. It doesn’t help his case that Mann, as played by Dennis Weaver, with his tidy mustache, at times resembles a weak-jawed Burt Reynolds.

Balancing “honor” in a civilized world, of course, is “duty.” Mann has a duty to his family, to his job, to the middle-class suburban society he represents. He’s a Civilized Man, and his sense of duty is so great that, even after he suspects that his life is in danger, he still proceeds to his job appointment — even after the truck has tried to shove his car into the path of an oncoming train and he’s hours late for his appointment, Mann does not turn around and head home — he grimly pushes ahead. Perhaps he feels his duty to his family is that great, or perhaps he decides he would rather be fighting for his life with a homicidal maniacthan back home with his shrewish wife and burdensome kids.

(To beat the truck, he runs at it head on, shoves his briefcase marked “David Mann” [his briefcase is his life] against the gas pedal and dives out of the car, abandoning his life, and his suburban morality, seemingly once and for all.)

In Act II, Mann is required to stop to help a stalled school bus get started again — his attachment to suburban responsibilities extend even into his life-or-death struggle in the desert. As he valiantly attempts to assist the bus (the car he drives is even called a Valiant, I am not making this up), the suburban kids make faces and jeer at him for his lameness. (I’m surprised his Valiant is red — the character is about as beige as they come.) The movie not called Truck Fight or Meaningless Attack, it’s called Duel, and one recalls that a duel begins when one’s honor has been offended.

The truck, of course, knows no honor at all. Its filth and smoke stand as a symbol of pollution, its size and aggression stand as symbols of everything that pushes Mann around and makes him feel small and helpless. To string all the symbols along, one could say that the tanker truck symbolizes the heartless, homicidal oil economy (cf There Will Be Blood) that created the middle class that Mann belongs to, and also created the automobile culture that allowed for the suburbs in which he lives so safely.

(Spielberg insists, by the way, that he was thinking of none of this while shooting Duel, and I believe him, but that doesn’t mean that the meaning is not there.  My guess is that the highly skilled direction belongs to the young director and the cultural symbolism comes from the writer Richard Matheson.)

(Or maybe the truck is meant to symbolize a more pure evil. After all, it has “FLAMMABLE” written in huge letters on its sides [although it pointedly does not explode when it falls off a cliff] and it is involved in a set piece staged at a gas station called “Snakarama.”)

SOME CONTEXT: Mann and his bespectacled, civilized-man-in-the-moral-jungle predicament recall the protagonist of Straw Dogs (Mann’s wife even complains of being “almost raped” by another man), the physical predicament allude to Wages of Fear (and predict Sorcerer, its remake), the motiveless-evil of the truck recalls The Birds and anticipates Halloween and Death Proof. I don’t know if Hitchcock saw Duel, but its out-of-control downhill car chase is echoed in Family Plot.

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21 Responses to “Spielberg: Duel”
  1. craigjclark says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen this, so I forgot that Dennis Weaver’s character was named Mann (as in Mann vs. Machine).

    Speaking of Jamie Leigh Curtis (well, you did mention Halloween), another Hitchcockian picture in a similar vein — albeit one in which the antagonist eventually takes human form — is Richard Franklin’s Road Games, which came along a decade later. Not quite up to the same level as Duel, but worth at least checking out.

  2. ndgmtlcd says:

    His car was a warhorse, a valiant beast from the analog days before digital gauges, ubiquitous sensors and space age oils scared off the souls of cars. It was fitting that it be red. Spielberg says that he chose red so it would stand out in the desert landscape, but there were a lot of other colors available. For the first three minute forty seconds of the long movie version we see everything from its viewpoint, at grille and headlamp level. It’s as much a major character as Mann. It died in combat.

    (It was probably ashamed of its rider at first)

  3. emeraldsedai says:

    Strangely enough, I was just discussing “Duel” with my niece, who’s been accepted at USC’s film school and is now passionately interested in the genesis of the great filmmakers. She hadn’t seen “Duel,” and didn’t seem to even know about it. I had a hard time adequately describing it to her, except to say that I’ve only seen it once–as a teenager, when it first aired–and even back then knew I was in the presence of greatness.

    I’ll refer her to this journal.

    • ndgmtlcd says:

      Tell her that the full 90 minute theatrical version is on YouTube, for now. You probably saw the shorter broadcast version.

    • Todd says:

      Check this out — I was 10 years old when it was first broadcast, and not only did I watch it, I knew it was going to be great because it was directed by the guy who had directed one of my favorite episodes of Columbo.

      • emeraldsedai says:

        A couple of “wows” to that: you mean Spielberg directed television before he made “Duel”? Wow. (Okay, I just looked at his bio on IMDB and though it seems to have him assistant-editing at the age of eleven and is therefore suspect, it does mention his Columbo credit in the same year as “Duel”.)

        And wow, you are a film geek from way back! Does that make tonight a HIgh Holy Day for you?

  4. Does this mean we’re about to get a weeks-long, three-and-a-half-decade-spanning, film-by-film retrospective of the works of Steven Spielberg from you?

  5. Anonymous says:

    (Family is a burden in Duel, a rarity in Spielberg’s work, although not surprising in a movie made by a 21-year-old. 21!)

    Ditto, Close Encounters.

    • Todd says:

      Roy Neary does abandon his family, but they aren’t portrayed as nearly the grating, oppressive menace as they are in Duel.

  6. I too saw Duel when it first aired, I was around 9 or 10 years old. That’s when ABC had the Tuesday and Wednesday Movie-of-the-Week, the “home” of Duel, The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, etc…

    I had no idea who the director was, but I believe Spielberg had first worked on the pilot movie for Serling’s “Night Gallery” TV show prior to making Duel. Specifically the episode where Joan Crawford plays the blind woman who acquires the eyes of Tom Bosley.

    Thinking about Duel all these years later it dawned on me how it’s definitely a creature of it’s own time. It’s a story that, I don’t believe, could be told today. In a world where communication to civilization is only a cell phone away, the idea of anyone getting trapped in Mann’s situation would probably ring false.

    And as an aside, I REALLY wish that TV Land would start showing these classic made for TV Movie-of-the-Week films, so that a new generation would get a chance to enjoy them. Well, without sifting through You-Tube.

    • Todd says:

      I was obsessed with Night Gallery when it was on, probably because I had never seen Twilight Zone and didn’t know any better. I think I saw his segment of the pilot once but it was a long time ago.

      I used to watch the movies of the week all the time. I remember being glued to the set watching Ordeal, about a rich man dumped in the desert to die by his conniving relatives, Killdozer, about a killer bulldozer, and The Five Daring Dobermans, about a team of bank-robbing dogs. And then there was one about James Brolin being trapped in a shopping mall after hours.

      • Todd says:

        That is, this one. Also with dobermans.

      • curt_holman says:

        Movie of the Week

        I wonder what films qualify as the best made-for-TV movies of all time? I’m thinking one-evening movies, not multi-night events like “Roots” and “Shogun.” (And would be inclined to disqualify movies for pay cable.) Not much come to mind: Duel, Special Bulletin and then… uh…

        There are probably many good ones that have gone forgotten, though.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Movie of the Week

          Well, Killdozer got a hardcore band named after it, that’s got to count for something.

          Honestly though, you would think that they’d put out a box of movies-of-the-week. You and I can’t be the only people interested in seeing them again.

          • craigjclark says:

            Re: Movie of the Week

            Best TV-movie ever probably has to be The Night Stalker. It was good enough to spawn a sequel and a follow-up series (which itself begat a remake a few decades down the line).

  7. urbaniak says:

    A film only marred by Weaver’s refusal to play his role like his eye-popping cartoon character in “Touch of Evil.”

    • Todd says:

      You do understand, of course, that Spielberg cast Weaver because of that performance, and in the hopes that he would bring that same kind of manic intensity to the role.

  8. teamwak says:

    Scared the hell out of me as a kid! There can be no higher praise than that! 🙂