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.
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!