By Andreas Charalambous

Here we have a film that has gradually grown into an important text – this was originally a ‘made-for-TV’ film – by the up-and-coming film director, Steven Spielberg (You may have since heard of him……).

Based on a short story by Richard Matheson (also known for writing the classic ‘I Am Legend’ amongst other well-known novels), this narrative consists of the effective yet simple concept of ‘cat and mouse’. The ‘mouse’ being a lone driver (Dennis Weaver) on a business trip driving across a desert highway in the United States, while the ‘cat’ is a faceless, smoke-chugging, dirty old truck.

Here, we have a tense narrative unfolding as the result of the most minor case of road rage imaginable. Spielberg takes this everyday situation and cleverly manipulates it to spiral into madness as we are treated to a collection of close-up shots of wheels spinning, dashboard gauges, headlights and views within mirrors. The effect makes the audience feel a sense of dread as if they are being stalked out in the desert highway, as we ‘sit’ in the car with Weaver, checking our speed on the speedometer, looking at the open road ahead, checking out the view in the wing mirror/rear-view and praying no warning lights begin to flash in the dashboard. We are there as a passenger in the car with our protagonist, so his fate is ultimately ours also (We curse the moment we discover that ‘our driver’ really should have spent a few dollars changing the radiator hose when he had the chance. His decision just may have sealed our fate along with his).

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By doing this, Spielberg makes it virtually impossible for the viewer not to identify with Weaver’s character. We are getting sensory information about the chase at the same time as the protagonist does; there is no advanced disclosure, nor holding back of information for the viewer – you are sitting in that car with him. Until the recent development of technology where we can now participate in ‘interactive films’ in the latest video game blockbusters, ‘Duel’ was the closest you could get to an interactive film. It is brilliantly directed and cleverly fosters audience identification. Each shot is carefully constructed to convey important information about the pursuit.
Spielberg’s technique is effective in other ways also. As would be the case in his later film ‘Jaws’ (1975), Spielberg hides the antagonist for as long as possible. In ‘Jaws’, the shark was rarely seen – due to mechanical difficulties – but in ‘Duel’, Spielberg hides the driver of the truck to preserve his mystery.

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This makes the audience ask questions; Who or what is this maniac driving the truck? Why is he so sadistic? Why is he so relentless? These are questions that we the viewer are asking simultaneously with the poor bastard being stalked in that clapped-out little car. Spielberg never answers these questions, making it feel as if we are spiralling into a nightmare of utter irrationality. What kind of a world do we live in when passing someone on a road is a crime punishable by death? Is this a case of extreme road rage, or something more? ‘Duel’ is more frightening because we just aren’t being given these answers.
Matheson’s screenplay is ideal for Spielberg, and is skilful in developing Weaver’s driver. The audience is privy to his thoughts, and they feel pretty real! He escalates into full-scale panic, considers apologies, and tries to act out every possible outcome in his mind. This approach makes the viewer realise how our minds keep replaying and reinterpreting traumatic events, trying to make them right in our heads so we can move on. Yet he is denied any peace because there is no rational explanation for the assault on him. The audience identifies with him because his inner monologues keep trying to reason through the situation – and keep failing – as they try also. It is more frightening to be presented with the inexplicable, and Weaver presents the realistic portrayal of an everyman confronted by the unusual, the terrifying and the unreal.
Along with ‘The Road Warrior’ (1982) and ‘The Hitcher’ (1985), ‘Duel’ is one of the best ‘road chase’ films ever made. This is a suspenseful, exciting “100 mile an hour” (sometimes literally) chase. ‘Duel’ just goes to show that one moment of madness at the wrong time and the wrong place can descend quickly and irrevocably into terror. ‘Duel’ was Steven Spielberg’s calling card to Hollywood, and it is a magnificent text to do so.

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