Perhaps the greatest television movie ever produced, which for the standards of the day meant the most cinematic. So much so that Duel demanded a theater release. For at least a decade as of this writing television has become the refuge of prestige projects, where serious filmmaking thrives and an exciting laboratory to experiment with narrative structure and form. In the days of Duel however, TV was at best a thankless stepping stone to film work.
Dennis Weaver plays the lead and perhaps more difficult than fending off a homicidal truck driver he is tasked with carrying the whole picture by himself. The best touch of his performance is that he’s not particularly likeable or physically adept. Standing at 6’ 2”, and with pedigree that lent itself to Westerns, Weaver here dons button up shirts and wire frame glasses and transforms into David Mann, a nobody nowhere nebbish. Barely noticeable in any regard, his agreement with wider world seems to be that they’ll leave each alone. In that way he’s like most of us, endearingly unspectacular.
The duel isn’t just content with endangering Mann’s life, it makes him face the low esteem he engenders from the rest of the world. When he’s drafted into helping push a stalled school bus rather than welcome him as a savior the children openly mock him. His attempts to get outside help from fellow drivers is met with outright refusal. Mann seems to need to say things multiple times to get his point across, and even then the effort is fruitless. Others either give up trying to understand him, or just force their will regardless of his protestations.
“Duel” today is generally framed as the vehicle that proved Steven Spielberg was destined for greatness. Spielberg’s voice wasn’t quite fully formed at this stage and his early work clearly showed his indebtedness to earlier directors. You can see Hitchcock in the tension, but also John Ford in the numerous shots of desert skylines. Spielberg was especially good operating in their shadows and Duel when paired with Jaws earned him designations as the heir apparent to the thriller. That proved short lived as future films were content to just hint at Spielberg’s gifts at drawing suspense.