Duel is a film directed to near perfection, its technical efficiency meant to highlight on the “experience” rather than have its logistical details parsed out. It’s something elemental, like the villainous vehicle crawled out of the dirt of the seemingly endless California desert that has served as a tomb for so many other drivers. The telephone lines might as well be crosses in a graveyard. What can man do against such rudimentary construct of primal rage? It’s Spielberg’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. His Earth-Jaws. With so many attempts at bringing in a “proper” third Terminator film, we may as well reconvene and name Duel the secret prequel in the tale of man vs. machine.
Written by Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend, this is as much a tale of man vs. metal as it is man vs. himself. A manic performance by Dennis Weaver as David Mann (subdued in dialogue, amplified in expression) gives us only glimpses into the life he lived before his bad trip on a Southern California Highway. A discussion on a bad time at a party days prior, the semi-mocking nature of the countryside folk he comes across, all compose a portrait of a man struggling with his own feelings of inadequacy. His performance here is exacerbated, constantly struggling to keep himself afloat in alien terrain but he’s in too deep. It’s this fascinating approach we don’t see too often driving Spielberg’s work, though you can find traces of it in characters from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws.
But the gateway to the film’s rightful popularity is a faceless terror we all recognize. The ungodly truck tearing its way through roads and valleys like a bat out of hell. License plates strung up on its shell like trophies from prior conquests. Spielberg’s directing bonafides come into full focus as the film quickly ramps up from a tale of road rage gone wrong, into a downright paranoia thriller set within a diner. As driver David Mann tries to determine which of those truck drivers forced him off the road, Spielberg’s camera glides and halts around the disheveled wreck of a man. Before long, it’s Mann vs. Machine in a final showdown where only one walks away from the conflict. May the best man win.