A key moment in the ascent of Steven Spielberg from promising young Hollywood talent to genuine cinematic wunderkind, this arresting TV movie demonstrated Spielberg’s gift for using nimble camerawork and sure-handed pacing to create powerful onscreen excitement. Particularly since Spielberg made something from virtually nothing—the story is thin to the extreme of barely existing—it’s no surprise that historians often cite Duel as the project that gave Universal Studios the confidence to entrust Spielberg with Jaws (1975) just a short while later. (If you take the menacing big-rig truck in Duel and replace it with the shark in Jaws, the thinking goes, you’re dealing with similar storytelling problems.) Duel was written by acclaimed fantasist Richard Matheson, and the narrative couldn’t be simpler—when an everyman, who’s literally named David Mann (Dennis Weaver), gets into a lane-change hassle with the unseen driver of an 18-wheeler on a desert highway, the driver seeks revenge by spending the rest of the movie running Mann off the road, slamming into the back of Mann’s car, and taunting Mann into the last-man-standing battle suggested by the movie’s title.
Yes, it’s 90 minutes, excepting a few bits when Mann stops for meals or phone calls, of a dude driving a car while a truck pursues him. The fact that Spielberg makes this relentlessly interesting is testament not only to his inherent gifts as a filmmaker but also to the soul-deep ambition that fueled the early days of his career. Undoubtedly stretching meager resources way past their limits, Spielberg shoots scenes elaborately, collecting every imaginable angle to create options in the editing room, and yet his camera’s nearly always in the right place—whether Spielberg’s shooting from a camera mounted by the rear wheels of the truck or from a camera positioned by the gas pedal of Mann’s car, looking up at the driver, Spielberg finds myriad ways to accentuate the physical details comprising a harrowing experience. We’re right there with Mann in a phone booth when the truck emerges from the rear of the frame, barreling toward the phone booth like a tidal wave; similarly, we’re right there with Mann in the driver’s seat when, at a crucial moment, his car succumbs to mechanical problems, creating a suffocating degree of instant panic.
So, while it’s easy to list all the important things Duel lacks—a deeply developed leading character, an explanation for the truck driver’s psychotic behavior, a spectrum of integrated supporting characters—it’s more relevant to note how well Spielberg minimizes these shortcomings. Simply put, Duel was just the right project at just the right time for the young director. Rather than smothering a nuanced script with cinematic pyrotechnics—as he did with his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express (1973)—Spielberg exploited a one-note script for visual opportunities that might never have occurred to anyone else.