Review: Duel (1971)

david looking back

Duel, one of Stephen Speilberg`s earlier efforts, proves to be an exciting, tense and thrilling 90 minute experience that in turn is one of his best films. The story is as simple as you can get, lone, family man, David Mann is on his way to a business trip and a rusty truck is trying to kill him on his way there, and the aforementioned Mann is trying his best to survive.

On the surface, the picture just sounds like an amusing, exploitation, one trick pony premise that repeats itself throughout its running time. But, the picture is more than that, in part to the direction by Speilberg. His camera work is outstanding throughout, from the crisp point of view shots that are shown of both the car and truck, to the disorientating angles shown from Mann`s vantage point in the diner scene. They all combine together to create a quick paced, and engaging viewing experience.

Additionally, Richard Matheson`s screenplay is very good too, though it has a brisk pace, there is an underlying inclining of a story and theme. It being that the protagonist essentially is gaining back some semblance of his manhood, which is evidenced by an off the cuff remark he makes in casual conversation. While, at a gas station, a young man serving him says- “You`re the boss” to which Mann replies, “Not in my house, I`m not”

It is further reinforced by the dialogue on the radio that the protagonist listens to at the beginning of the film. On the show, a man bemoans that he is not the head of his household because he looks after the kids at home while his wife goes out to work. Mann does not turn it off, perhaps because he relates to it in some way, from actor, Dennies Weaver`s intently listening expressions, it seems that way. Finally, Matheson sets up simple things at the beginning that are paid off towards the end of the film, lending his screenplay with great coherence.

In an odd way, the film also possesses an Odyssey story structure. Although, instead of witnessing a Cyclops, Circe or Sirens, we are instead treated to subtle but important elements that would become staples of Speilberg`s extensive filmography. For example, Mann`s first stop is at the aforementioned gas station where he makes a call to his wife, whose point of view we see, with one shot of his children. It is a scene that cements Speilberg`s fascination of showing the mundane and fantastical, and the importance of the family`s point of view dealing with a crisis.

The next stop is a diner that seems to have a tight-knit small community, speaking to the director`s tendency to depict small scale suburbia. There`s is even a shot later on from a child`s point of view, repurposed here as a source of tension as opposed to awe and wonderment like in films such as ET and Jurassic Park.

The film is a quarry of shots, motifs and perspectives for where Speilberg would go with his later work. The picture works more than being a mere blueprint for these conceptions and instead proves to be an exciting prologue to the promise of Speilberg as a world class director. It is humble, quaint, bursting with energy, and a fine film indeed.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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