Why I Love... Duel

WARNING: SPOILERS! 

 In Duel, Den­nis Weaver stars as David Mann, an every­day guy hunted by a killer truck. Here’s why I love it…

1. The truck

Look at it!

And if you’re inter­ested, it’s a Peter­bilt 351, with a Cum­mins NHRBS-600 super­charged 6-cylinder diesel engine. If you’re scratch­ing your head at that, don’t worry, because all you need to know that it’s a rusty, oil splattered hunk of metal that will be the last thing you see in your rear view mir­ror! A ten ton jug­ger­naut of death!

2. Dennis Weaver's "Why me?" expression turning eventually to giggling insanity

Spiel­berg said he wanted an “every­man” to play the man driv­ing the car. In that respect, Den­nis Weaver is per­fect for the part. The every­man is some­thing Spiel­berg would call upon after Duel — think Chief Brody from Jaws, or Roy Neary from Close Encoun­ters of the Third Kind. It’s a quick way to cre­ate viewer empathy.

For example, early on, we see Weaver’s char­ac­ter, David Mann, call­ing his wife from a gas sta­tion. He’s try­ing to clear the air over an unre­solved argu­ment that he’s had with her, shortly before he hit the road for a long dis­tance drive to meet a cli­ent. It’s relat­able. The wife sub plot drops away com­pletely after this phone call, because it’s done its work, estab­lish­ing Mann as an ordin­ary, work­ing class Joe.

From here, the plot focuses more tightly on the cat and mouse between truck driver and car driver. Whilst the iconic truck is prob­ably seen as the star of Duel, a lot of the film’s suc­cess must be cred­ited to Weaver’s role as well. His range is strong — per­plexed, curi­ous, angry, para­noid, des­per­ate, all way through to gig­gling near insan­ity come the film’s end. It’s a com­mit­ted and totally believ­able per­form­ance of an ordin­ary man driven almost bonkers. By a killer truck.

3. Spielberg creates a cool shot out of a washing machine door

4. The roadside cafe scene

After a par­tic­u­larly nasty alter­ca­tion with the truck driver, which has caused Mann to crash his car, leav­ing him shaken up, he stag­gers across the road to a cafe.

5. The moment when David Mann real­ises that the truck driver is pur­su­ing just him and no-one else

David Mann, think­ing once again that he’s given the truck the slip, hap­pens across a broken down school bus full of kids. The bus driver explains that the bus over­heated, and now that it’s cooled down, all he needs is for Mann to push the bus with his own car to get it going again.

Reluct­antly, Mann agrees, think­ing that his car might be too low, and get its bumper snagged under the bus. Sure enough, this is exactly what hap­pens. But as he tries to free his car, he spies the truck in the dis­tance, just sit­ting there. Ter­ri­fied, he gets the bus driver to sit in the car and gun the engine, whilst he leaps up on top of the car, feet first. There’s humour mixed in with the ter­ror here, with Den­nis Weaver act­ing prob­ably his cra­zi­est so far in the film, jump­ing up and down on his car with wild abandon.

Once the car has been shook loose, he tries to warn the bus driver of the danger, who just looks bemused and thinks Mann must be the crazy one! Tear­ing off in his car, the truck passing him along the way, he stops to look back, expect­ing the worst. But as he watches, with unbe­liev­ing eyes, the truck driver being friendly and help­ing the school bus to get going again, the penny seems to drop. The guy in the truck is hunt­ing him, and him alone. It makes no sense, and is the point where the truck becomes an even more ter­ri­fy­ing, demonic presence.

6. Den­nis Weaver did the tele­phone booth stunt himself

I always just assumed that they used a stunt­man for this sequence, but Spiel­berg con­firms that Weaver did the whole stunt.

TRIVIA: Look closely, and you can see a reflec­tion of Steven Spiel­berg in the glass of the tele­phone booth, read­ing the script.

7. You never see the truck driver’s face

I remem­ber being dis­ap­poin­ted by this when I was younger. The face­less driver is a mys­tery through­out the film. We’re used to see­ing mys­ter­ies solved. We need clos­ure. I went nearly the full length of the movie expect­ing his iden­tity to be revealed at any minute. Even as the truck careered over the cliff edge, and I saw brief shots in the cab of the truck driver’s arms and legs furi­ously work­ing the wheel, gear shift, and ped­als, I expec­ted the cam­era to pan up to his face.

That never happened. You learn abso­lutely noth­ing about the truck driver. Is he even human? Is he a meta­phor for class war­fare as some European crit­ics claimed? Who knows? Spiel­berg does, who says he was just mak­ing a cool, killer truck movie. And not see­ing the trucker's face only adds to the terror.

CONCLUSION

A stream­lined, utterly effi­cient film debut from Spiel­berg. After this, we were prob­ably expect­ing him to settle into a reli­able Hitch­cock–ian groove. Whilst his style choices often still echo the mas­ter to this day, Spiel­berg has gone down his own path. Even on films he’s merely pro­duced, you can feel his pres­ence there in the back­ground. The Hit­chock–ian groove became a Spiel­berg–ian groove. But more import­antly, Duel teaches us a valu­able les­son: always keep your car’s radi­ator hose in tip-top condition!