Duel is often called Steven Spielberg’s first feature movie. This is not exactly the case. His first feature movie is The Sugarland Express released in 1974. Duel was released in theaters, but it first was released through Universal Television as an ABC Movie of the Week on Nov. 13, 1971. It was heavily praised and was one of the most watched TV movies of the year.
So, Universal decided to release in in theaters as well overseas to audiences who didn’t see it. Since most TV movies of the time were only around 70-75 minutes as they were broadcast in 90-minute blocks with commercials, additional scenes were added but more on that later. Spielberg wasn’t even 25 yet and he was already being praised.
The premise written by Richard Matheson, based on one of his own short stories, involves David Mann (Dennis Weaver) as a businessman on his way to meet with a client driving through the Mojave Desert when he comes up behind a Peterbilt tanker truck going slowly. He passes the truck, but then the truck speeds up and passes by him before slowing down again. Frustrated with this, he revs his Plymouth Valiant when he has the chance and speeds very quickly pass the tanker truck only for it to blow its horn.
Confused by what’s wrong with the truck driver, Mann keeps on driving without thinking much of it until he comes to a gas station where he needs to fill up. And then the truck pulls up on the other side of the pump while the attendant pumps the gas, washes his windows and checks the oil, telling him he’s going to need a new radiator hose. But Mann says he’ll get one later and goes on his way so the attendant can deal with the trucker.
However, down the road, the truck comes roaring up behind Mann and passes him again before slowing down. At one point the driver, whose face is never seen, waves for him to pass but Mann nearly hits an on-coming vehicle. Frustrated, Mann gets around but finds the truck riding his tail causing him to speed up dangerously to 80-90 mph. This causes him to run off the road and cause the passenger side into a wooded fence across from a restaurant called Chuck’s Cafe. The truck goes on down the road.
Rattled and dazed, Mann goes into the restaurant to compose himself using the restroom and hopefully relax but sees the truck is parked across the road outside the restaurant. And there are several patrons in the restaurant that can be the driver. Most of them seem like blue-collar people whereas Mann is more of an office businessman type. However, there’s no way of him knowing who the driver is and when he accuses one, a fight breaks out. But he hears the truck begin indicating the driver never came in and when the proprietor tells Mann to leave, he gets in his car and drives on down the road.
Of course, part of me has always wondered why didn’t Mann just turn around and go back home, as it seems the truck driver is messing with him. But I’m guessing Mann really needed to make the appointment that day. In some scenes added for the theatrical release, he calls his wife, Mrs. Mann (Jacqueline Scott), when he stops at the gas station who is upset over an argument that happened the previous night with a man who may have gotten physical. I think this adds some to the fact that Mann seems to be the type to avoid confrontations.
Even though he was mostly known for playing cowboys and law enforcement on Gunsmoke and McCloud, I would say Mann is kind of a weenie. Since this is the American Southwest, the businessman from the city is having to face off with the people of the land – the desert. A different opening was filmed for the theatrical release that is Mann’s point of view as he backs out of the comfort of his suburban home and drives through the city out into the desert.
Another scene added for the theatrical release involves a broken down school bus shortly after the restaurant scene in which the bus driver (Lou Frizzell) tries to get Mann to use his car to push the truck. Mann initially is hesitant but when he does, the front bumper gets stuck underneath the bus’ rear bumper, causing Mann to panic when he sees the truck appear down the road. Mann and the bus driver get the car unstuck but Mann quickly drives off as the truck, which has a railroad tie on its bump manages to push the bus.
Using mostly Mann’s interior monologue, we hear his frustration throughout the movie as he deals with trying to figure out who the driver is in the restaurant. Also, down the road when he is trying to get away from the truck, the radiator hose causes some problems. Anyone who’s ever had car trouble on the road will understand Mann’s frustrations.
In the end, Mann realizes that the truck and its driver isn’t going to leave him alone unless he confronts it. He tries to notify the police at a roadside attraction but the truck drives over the payphone and when he tries to get other motorists to help him, the truck driver harasses them nearly running them off the road. In the end, it’s a showdown between the two. It’s no coincidence that the character is named Mann and has to battle it out with a truck, i.e. man vs. machine.
Spielberg does some great direction as Mann is finally able to outsmart the truck driver causing him to drive off a cliff into a canyon. As the truck crashes at the bottom of the canyon, the tires slowly spin until they stop and even the little oscillating fan the driver had in the cab stops. Universal wanted Spielberg to have the truck explode at the bottom of the canyon but he said that wouldn’t work, because he’s showing the death of the truck as it slowly dies at the bottom of the canyon.
Because we never see much of the driver, the truck itself becomes a character in the movie. Not knowing why the driver is upset with Mann is also helpful. For all we know the driver is a sadistic person who likes to mess with motorists. Or the driver is having a bad day and mistakes Mann or his vehicle for someone who’s wrong him. It’s quite possible that the driver may know Mann from his business work and had a bad experience. Like I said, Mann in the theatrical release and even in the TV edit, comes off at first as someone not wanting to cause problems. In the end, Mann has to prove his manhood by standing up to the driver.
Whatever the driver’s reason, the movie is a creepy look at how one little thing could set another person off. Road rage is a problem anytime you get behind the wheel and get on the highway. You’re either going too fast or too slow for some people. It’s quite possible the driver had just finished a delivery and got screwed over. I’ve heard of some truck drivers expecting to travel up to 1,000 miles a day, which isn’t impossible but it can be frustrating.
As the Thanksgiving season is around the corner and people are expected to be traveling more this year, it might make you wonder the next time you pass someone on the road, how will they react? Will they flip you off, blow their horn, or just think nothing of it?
What do you think? Please comment.