This first film, made for TV, by one of the wealthiest director of its time, and maybe of all-time is a success of Hitchcockian grandeur. The story can be resumed to one line: a rep/seller on the road of California is menaced by a trucker until their ultimate showdown. As for Hitchcock’s The Birds not much is explained here except the fact that the menace is there and we are on the edge of our seat from the first moment until the generic. Do we really have to know why the birds attacked this little Californian town? No! It is the same here, the trucker is never seen and the tension rises gradually until the very end of this confrontation of the man versus the machine. The plot also revolves around the symbolism of the manhood of the two opposite forces. The little red Plymouth Valiant against the truck as a phallic representation of the two males. The impotent car against the powerful all-American truck. It also represents a rite of passage for Dennis Weaver’s character: his relationship with his wife is mentioned in a quick phone call where he demonstrates his inability to be a man, a real man. This event will make him face himself and be a stronger person.
However, the qualities of Duel mostly resides in its stylistic beauty and the mastery of its director. The simple plotline could have made this a poor TV-movie that could have been in the shelves and forgotten. Nonetheless, it was released in theatres and applauded. Made in thirteen days, Spielberg shows how he understood moviemaking and how he innovated with few resources. Nowadays, Spielberg has hundreds of millions of budgets and his films aren’t has great has they were in the 1970’s. The mise en scène of Duel deserves its place amongst the great films of its time. The way Spielberg places the viewer into the action, just like the master Hitchcock, is inspired and thoughtful.
As an admirer of Spielberg’s earlier work (Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones original trilogy, even Jurassic Park I loved as a kid) and a detractor of his later work (War of the Worlds, Munich, The Terminal) it will always be a tormenting thing when thinking about the filmmaker himself. Nonetheless, Duel is an astounding start for the career of one of the most prosperous director of all-time.