Duel ★★★★½

I'd like to report a truck driver who's been endangering my life.

Duel is a travelers worst nightmare.

Sure you can get caught by a murderous band of backwoods cannibals, but at least you have a chance to escape.

One of my worst nightmares is one that involves me being pursued relentlessly by an unstoppable enemy without anyone else to help. I mean nightmares in a literal sense.

I've had that nightmare before.

It was called Terminator.

But seriously, there is just something so dreadful and tense about a chase that will never end. The situation breathes urgency and wits into the characters and gives them a fight for their life that only exists in films. This is a scenario reserved only for the imagination. I can only imagine how I would act in a situation that would pit my little Ford against a monstrous gas tanker truck with a driver hell bent on destroying me for whatever reason. We are locked in this battle to the grave on a hot stretch of winding roads in the desert mountains in Southern California where filling stations are sparse and travelers generally just mind there own business. Its the most dreadful place you can imagine being stalked by a ton of diesel burning hate.

And that's essentially Duel. This feature debut by the young Spielberg is among one of the most impressive film debuts around, as it blends a devilishly entertaining but almost criminally simple plot cutting through clever camera tricks and editing that really makes this a suspense Titan that ranks with some of Hitchcocks first films. In classic Spielbergian fashion, the film revolves around an everyman (his last name is literally Mann) waging war agains an unstoppable, almost supernatural force. In spirit its almost like a prequel to Jaws which is an undeniably perfect gem of cinematic Americana that happens to be my second favorite film of all time. Like Jaws, Duel gains its strengths from what it cleverly does not show you. The driver of the truck is always masked by the dusty dirty windshield and anything about his personality is physically exemplified by the truck. Its big. Its loud. Its dirty. It spews black smoke. Its got parts hanging off of it and it looks like its been on its fair share of hauls.

Its an inanimate object but it looks and sounds angry. The anonymity of the truck driver and the everyman quality of the main character allude to the ever increasing tension and senseless violence and irrational hate that was brewing at the time. It dips into a pool of common anxiety amongst, well, everybody. Spielberg himself said it was essentially a bully movie dressed up like a tight little Hitchcockian suspense film. And boy is it sure tense. To explain some of the more suspenseful scenes would ruin the effect, but know that not since '71 has a truck ever looked so scary. Low camera angles filming the truck and eye level scenes of the car help influence the idea that Dennis Weaver is dwarfed. Quick cuts, the use of mirrors and sometimes seeing the truck before the characters do help tremendously in making the film a sweaty affair. Just like Dennis Weaver getting more sweaty and dirty as the film goes on, you will continuously be impressed by how crazy the film gets, and how crazy nervous it makes you.

The film starts in a big city and its ending shots are an exhausted man sitting in the sunset lazily throwing rocks around. Its a return to primal form and brings people back to their violent naturalistic roots. The cheap looking poster (step it up, Letterboxd and IMDB), its small budget, and its stint as a TV movie may make Duel seem like a cheap thriller. But it was a dedicated and skillful effort by one of the now biggest names in the industry that I think any fan of Spielberg AND Hitchcock MUST see.

I think the creepy truck in Jeepers Creepers comes close to being another spooky truck in the movies....

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