To make your antagonist a macabre, brown truck would be ludicrous. Not to see the driver, but to physically have a giant 18-wheeler strike fear into the hearts of those that don the road alongside it. But Stephen Spielberg’s film debut, Duel, does just that, and has a striking nerve about it. Never wavering into parody and taking itself seriously the whole way through, Duel is a competent and enjoyable thriller from a director who would go on to make classic after classic.
His small start with Duel provides us with a showcase of his artistic talent. Spielberg is a real fan of lingering camera angles, intense close-ups and sudden surges of adrenalin pumping action. Tension is right at the heart of Duel and the mostly strong leading performance of Dennis Weaver paves the way well for a near one man show.
Weaver’s leading performance is pretty good, an almost neurotic style man who is pushed to his very limit by the dangers of the road. For those of you that drive you’ll know the frustrations of other drivers on the road, and Duel sets out to amplify that into a horrifying cat and mouse game. With a real focus on the severity and suddenness of driving, Spielberg manages to create a vacuum for terror. His claustrophobic camera angles make it feel like we’re in the car with Mann, chased by a vicious truck.
It becomes rather formulaic towards the end of the movie though, as there’s only so much you can do with the truck and car dynamic. Sudden tension boils over towards the very end, but there needs to be some padding throughout to pull Duel through its already running time. These scenes often include Mann contemplating why the truck is following us, a question that definitely needed answering, but didn’t need to break up the action for.
Duel is an incredible debut, one that catapulted Spielberg into the world of film. His key tropes are as visible in Duel as they are now. A definitely unique idea with a handful of flaws that don’t get in the way of what is, at its core, a terrifying thriller.