I don’t know if it’s just me, but Spielberg’s ’70s efforts seem, perversely, much more mature, or “adult” at any rate, than his subsequent phase – from the mid-80s onwards – of straining tremulously for critical acceptance. Perhaps because there’s less thrall to sentiment on display, or indulgence in character exploration that veered into unswerving melodrama. Duel, famously made for TV but more than good enough to garner a European cinema release the following year after the raves came flooding in, is the starkest, most undiluted example of the director as a purveyor of pure technical expertise, honed as it is to essentials in terms of narrative and plotting. Consequently, that’s both Duel’s strength and weakness.
Strength, because while it was positioned as a TV movie, it carries with it the relentless dread and oppressive nightmarishness of the horror film, the boogeyman as a mechanical dreadnaught of the highways, bearing down with inexplicable fury on its prey. Weakness, because at ninety minutes, you do begin to notice that there’s nothing else to it. No luxuriation in finely wrought characters or comic relief as there is in Jaws, where Spielberg would take Duel’s essentials and swim with them, to undreamed-of box-office rewards.
Richard Matheson’s fortunes on TV and in movies – outside of The Twilight Zone, of course – we’re mixed, starting with the acclaim of The Incredible Shrinking Man, and followed by the various flawed interpretations of I Am Legend, the adaptation of his The Martian Chronicles and all the way up to Richard Kelly’s take on The Box. He adapted his own short story here (originally published in Playboy), and Spielberg knew well enough to accentuate a good thing. The TV movie was about quarter of an hour shorter, with the director reconvening to shoot several further scenes subsequently, several of which are fairly essential to a divergent reading of the movie. These comprise the opening departure and city drive-through by David Mann (Dennis Weaver), the conversation with his wife (Jacqueline Scott), the encounter with the school bus, and the rail-crossing drama.
Without these, Duel is pretty much what it says on the tin: man vs machine, the personification of technofear as an unquenchable behemoth will not stop until it has crushed its target (the truck is The Terminator, basically). Indeed, one might stretch – and stretch is the word – the reading further; the truck represents the Elite (the driver’s face remains hidden throughout), bent on depopulation. David’s surname is, after all, “Mann”.
It seemed clear to me watching Duel on this occasion, however, that the truck is the manifestation of Mann’s wife’s id, set on doing unto him what she very nearly suffered due to her blithely inattentive husband: rape (the truck is, after all, always bringing up Mann’s rear in the most threatening manner). “I’m sorry about last night” David confesses when he calls her, but she is having none of it, owing to how he failed to defend her against Steve Henderson “trying to rape me in front of the whole party”. Naturally, David’s car is a Valiant, the very opposite of his demeanour; his worm has to turn, in order for him to express himself in a Mann-ly way. He can do this only by going up against the inflamed truck, a reflection of his toxic masculinity (is there any other kind?)
However, even conjured in this way, the terror truck isn’t simply a manifested demon. Indeed, it displays a nurturing, maternal quality that belies its phallic rage, and so underlines the feminine force behind it. Mann is disinterested in helping those he encounters on his way. He can’t wait to get away from the bus load of kids (Spielberg, obviously, wants to linger in their company for as long as possible). The truck, however, halts its predatory mission to rescue the vehicle, pushing it back on the road. And perhaps there is also an implicit disapproval of the exploitation of animals when it proceeds to wreck the roadside gas station with its caged creatures for sale; it’s the only time where we see intentional endangerment of life beyond David himself.
Spielberg was up to his ears in an era of everyman protagonists during the 1970s, flawed men who don’t stick up for their wives (David Mann), or even leave their whole families (Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Or fail them by winding up dead (Clovis Poplin in Sugarland Express). Weaver is spot on as the little man who, even in triumph, doesn’t really become a big one (his jig of jubilation after the tanker has crashed to its doom). There’s lots of smart, low-key observation here, from David’s washroom internal monologue, to his café imaginings that the driver is also among the patrons, to his nervy laughing along with the radio (“I never heard of anybody who plays meat”) to take his mind off the menace.
Kim Newman, in the first edition of Nightmare Movies, called Duel “a survivalist Luddite masterpiece, and just about the best monster movie of the last twenty years”. It’s operating very much in the pose of Deliverance, but rather than the untamed wilds, the foe is the beast lurking beneath notionally civilising methods.
For such movies to work, there needs to be a special means of isolating the hero. Sometimes, that simply entails disposing of anyone who might get in the antagonist’s way (The Terminator). At others – Joy Ride – it’s about an environment where there’s only you and your oppressor. Such as on a boat in the middle of the ocean. It’s not for nothing that many still regard Duel as one of the best pictures Spielberg helmed. Becoming slicker doesn’t necessarily make you better, and picking more demanding material doesn’t mean you’ll rise to the challenge. The decade following Duel amounts to far and away the director’s best work.