From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
So back in 1971 Steven Spielberg was working for a studio that pulled him out of college to direct films. Everyone seemed to think that he was a hack so he wasn't getting much work. Then his assistant hands him a Playboy issue with a short story written by renowned Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson and basically has to beg for the opportunity to direct it. And my God, I am glad they said yes. Duel is a very simple story: a man passes a semi truck on the interstate during a business trip and the driver of the truck........spends the rest of the movie trying to kill him. That's it.
This movie rocked my shit. And there were so many things I loved about this flick that I don't know where to start. I guess the best place to begin is with the camera work. The opening scenes have us traveling from the point of view of the driver of the car. I loved this method because it was like Spielberg giving the finger to the safety the audience feels created by the distance of the fourth wall. You were instantly and inescapably in the passenger seat and along for the ride. Later, there is an interesting amount of foreshadowing done using third person omniscient. Wow, that is the snobbiest thing I have ever said. Let me explain so I do not sound like a douche. The main character is simply driving on the interstate and has no reason to think that the semi is any threat, but because we know the synopsis we know that truck equals danger. The innocuous situation is captured perfectly in a way that sets up the terror for us the audience while the protagonist knows nothing. Later on Spielberg uses a hand camera shot really well so as to accentuate the disorientation of the main character after he gets into an accident. Add to that shot a truly befuddling series of directions to the bathroom that he is given by a cafe owner and it's perfect.
The film featured moments reminiscent of other directors that I found to be very interesting (one of which was later confirmed in an interview I watched with Mr. Spielberg so I felt like I was not completely insane). First of all, Spielberg used stillness and the unseen to establish a completely eerie atmosphere. Sound like anyone you know? How about John Carpenter? The truck driver pulls in next to the main character at a gas station near the opening and just sits there. I also liked that his face was never seen (something I later learned the writer insisted upon). The reveal shots were also very Carpenter-like in that they were not cheaply done with musical build up; there was only silence. They were legitimately scary and not at all like the reveal shots in current horror movies. I am aware that this film came out before Carpenter established himself and his style but that doesn't mean I can't compare the two because I loves me some Carpenter!
So maybe the Carpenter connection was a stretch, but there were others that I drew that the man himself confessed to making. One of my favorite directors of all time, ever since I was in high school, is Alfred Hitchcock. One of the cornerstones of every Hitchcock film is that the ordinary man is placed into an extraordinary situation and forced to fight his way back to stasis. The main character in Duel is so much an example of this that his last name is actually....Mann. The music, the few times we hear music, is really, really close to the Bernard Herrmann score from psycho which seemed incredibly appropriate. So basically, strap the Bates Motel on an 18-wheeler and make it chase Cary Grant disguised as this yokel main character and you've got Duel.
The thing that really made this film frightening for me was the tangible terror aspect. Ok, for me, driving on the interstate is nerve-racking enough. But when I see this horrifying scenario laid out without an ounce of anything beyond the realm of possibility, it is freaking scary. This story is absolutely plausible because it isn't zombies popping up from the grave or aliens zapping our planet to space dust, it's road rage. There were a lot of things about the movie that seemed honest and therefore even more frightening. For example, the inner monologue of the main character after his accident perfectly lays out the thoughts that anyone would have at a moment like that.
Ok, the villain. The villain of this movie is the truck. It's not the driver of the truck, whom we do not see, but the actual big rig itself. On the interstate, the semi truck is a symbol of unchallenged power. Much the same way that, oh I don't know, a big shark is a symbol of unchallengeable power in the ocean. It's absolutely predatory and I half expected a cello to play a few notes every time it showed up on screen. My god is the truck imposing. I mean it had this array of license plates on the front bumper like trophies of past victims. It was as if Stuntman Mike traded in his car for a truck. Super Badass!
The writing was great, the camera work fantastic, and the direction outstanding. It is amazing to me how well he did so early in his career. I think it's the mark of a good director that he took a short story with a very simplistic concept and turned it into something very scary. It was also the only horror movie I have ever seen by Spielberg that did not rely on a great amount of heart. I mean Poltergeist was scary, sure but it was seasoned nicely with heart-felt moments that tugged at your soul. Not so much this film, which was interesting to see from him. I highly recommend this movie to anyone who is A.) interested in Spielberg's early work B.) really liked Death Proof C.) or is about to take a long car ride. Seriously badass.
Review by Casper Von Sidecar