Cinophile: Duel

4 min read
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Road rage weighing 40 tons in Steven Spielberg’s debut film…

DuelIt only takes 25 minutes and you are back in the jungle. All the threads supporting your comfortable modern life are cut in a flash. Those more or less are the thoughts running through the hero in Duel. Uttering them early into the movie, he doesn’t realise that things are about to get a lot worse.

Earlier that morning, the man had set out on California’s roads, aiming to meet an important client. Along the way he passes an old trucking rig – a battle-worn machine that screams intimidation from every angle. That intimidation becomes very real when the truck’s driver turns aggressive – cutting him off, slowing down ahead of him and eventually chasing him down a mountain pass. After this close shave the man thinks he’s avoided a disgruntled trucker with a case of road rage. But soon he realises he is in the cross-hairs of a very disturbed individual.

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Steven Spielberg originally made Duel as a TV movie. Its popularity led to shooting extra scenes and having the film released in theatres. It propelled Spielberg into the film world. He would follow up with Jaws, partly chosen because it had the same short title as Duel. That movie would also have sound effects from Duel, Spielberg’s thank you to the film that gave him his career.

Made in 1971, Duel still embodies a lot of elements that makes this tale possible. There are no mobile phones – indeed, phones are very few and far inbetween. The roads are desolate and seem to continue eternally. In all of this there is nowhere to go – not when a giant truck with an overpowered engine is on your tail. Granted, our hero does not take the most logical of decisions as this hunt grows. There are moments that you feel he should just turn around and make a run for it. But our hero is just an everyday kinda guy – with a family, bills to pay and little more than a passing confidence behind the wheel. And chasing him is a truck from hell, belching dark smoke and blaring its grotesque horn as it pushes towards him. He’s doing well, all things considered.

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Despite considering more modern flat-nosed trucks, Steven Spielberg chose a 1955 Peterbilt 281 for the role of the antagonist. Because you never see its driver, the truck’s face-like features helps personify the menace. There was even a truck make-up crew who made the truck seem more grim as the movie progressed.

Duel would be Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough into directing films. It is also one of his more cerebral movies and reflects his raw talent before he started forging the formulas that would make him one of cinema’s greatest creators. You never see who the antagonist is, effectively making it the truck itself – a fitting example of the metamorphosis we go through when we climb into our vehicles. Yes, it has moments where it drags and other moments of slight absurdity. But Duel strikes a chord with anyone who has had to deal with overly aggressive drivers. At least it makes you happy those guys are only having a bad day… you hope.

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The truck was driven by Carey Loftin, a famous stuntman who also did driving stunts for Bullitt and Vanishing Point. The first truck was destroyed in the original TV movie, but three trucks were bought and used for the shoots that turned it into a theatrical release. Only one of those still exist today.

Best Scene: The truck cuts short a phone call by taking out the booth – and all the snake cages around it.

Best Quote: “My snakes! I’ve gotta find my snakes!”

 

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: February 24, 2014

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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