In the early 1970's, the man who would go on to single-handedly introduce the concept of the "blockbuster" film was toiling away as an assistant and occasional director on episodic American television shows like Night Gallery and Columbo. Plucked from college by a producer with an eye for talent, Steven Spielberg was a director looking for that one special project that would help put him on the map. That film would come in the shape of "Duel", a short story by horror icon Richard Matheson that had been optioned as a television "Movie of the Week" by Universal. After much lobbying, Spielberg got the job, and the rest is motion picture history.
On an isolated stretch of desert highway, David Mann (Weaver) finds himself an unwilling participant in an automotive game of cat and mouse with a mysterious truck driver. At first, the truck driver just plays simple road games with Mann, blocking the passing lane, slowing down in front of him, and being a general nuisance. However, when the games take a decidedly violent turn, Mann realizes that he is now playing for his life.
Duel is minimalistic filmmaking at its finest. From its threadbare plot (man vs. man/machine), to its small cast, and it's vast, empty locales, Spielberg's film is a lean, mean, thrilling machine. Spielberg takes these skeletal elements and fleshes them out with deliberate doses of suspense that gradually build toward a coda of sustained hysteria. The director embraces his inner-Hitchcock here, but also flexes a bit of the creative muscle that would later become a hallmark of his work. Watching Duel, one can pick out trademark Spielberg moments, like the moment where Mann tries to help a stalled bus and the children inside make faces at him while the truck driver waits at the end of the tunnel. As the kids pour out of the bus, Mann panics, fearing the psychotic trucker will run them down, and tries to usher them back into the safety of their vehicle. This scene foreshadows Brody's beach hysterics in Jaws, and Spielberg employs the same methods of creating the tension only in the mind of one character, while the other peripheral characters go on about their business, oblivious to the potential danger our hero is so certain they are in.
Duel is full of moments of deliberately paced quiet unease. The calm before the storm that lulls us into a state of security. Is Mann finally out of the woods? Was this all a big misunderstanding? Is it over now, so that he can get to the city and land his big account? And then, with a deafening roar, the truck is upon us again, it's bumper buzzing against ours, maliciously tapping us forward and over the brink. What does he want? What have we done? Who is he? These are questions that are never answered and that is exactly why they are so terrifying.
Duel finally comes to DVD courtesy of Universal and it's a great set, featuring a gorgeous full frame transfer, Dolby DTS sound, three very satisfying featurettes, trailer, production notes, and more. While there is no commentary track, that shouldn't surprise anyone seeing as how Spielberg is loathe to do them. However, one of the featurettes is a long and informative interview with Spielberg that focuses on the entire process of making Duel, and it's the next best thing to a full-fledged commentary track.
Duel is one of my all-time favorite films, and I am confident that those of you who haven't seen the film will find yourselves equally in love with this classic picture.