Duel is a 1971 film based on a short story by Richard Matheson and directed by Stephen Spielberg in which a lorry driver forces the protagonist into a road race along the deserted Highways of America. It all starts very innocently with a car leaving the drive way, driving through town and along very straight, empty roads where he eventually overtakes a black lorry who seems to take that a bit personal and overtakes the car driver, almost leading to a crash. David, the car driver, has appointments to attend to and can’t just stay stuck behind the lorry, so he tries to overtake again but almost comes off the road. Seizing the opportunity, the lorry drives David down the mountain at incredible speed until David manages to slide into the car park of a café, where at first he feels safe to relax, until he sees that the lorry has pulled up as well. After a while, the lorry leaves and David takes his chance, but realises soon after that the hunt is far from over. Having had enough, and fearing for his life, he abandons his car which gets driven off the cliff by the lorry.
A very intriguing part of the film is that the audience as well as David never see the face of the truck driver, who seems almost like a ghost. Anderson states “From then on, it's a battle of car vs. truck, civilized man vs. untamed plains. The truck chases him, follows him, tries to run him down, waits for him, etc. All the while we never see a trace of its driver. It's just a giant, rusty, chugging, deadly steel monster.” (Anderson, N.A.:3) Spielberg is perhaps using the faceless truck driver to de-humanize him, emphasising the hopeless situation David is in. A truck driver is a human that can be reasoned with, can forgive. But neither the audience nor David ever get to see the truck driver, he is as a ghost. Instead he is confronted with a huge steel lorry that never relents, perhaps playing on everyones fears of the unknown and pushing further home to the viewer a feeling of hopelessness as well as playing on the old human notion “we fear more the unknown”.
Figure 1. A Normal Day (1971)
Duel is a film that has little conversation but emphasises on action; the car chase seems almost like a cat and mouse game with the truck being the unstoppable predator: it’s massive, black, rusty, has the word flammable written on the back and very predator like behaviour: waiting behind the bend, the noise it makes could remind one of the growling of a large animal but at the same time it is chased off and then hides and waits for its opportunity to attack. As Milne states: “There are no explanations and no motivations, except perhaps for a hint of allegory in the script (the motorist's name is Mann) and an intriguing visual suggestion that this is the old, old battle between the shining, prancing, vulnerable knight and the impervious, lumbering dragon. Simply a rivetingly murderous game of cat and mouse that keeps you on the edge of your seat.” (Milne, N.A.:3) The film perhaps playing on old concepts of a powerful all mighty villain, motivated by some unknown force chasing its victim, in this case David, in a duel that almost mirrors old story tails, where the audience routes for the under-dog.
Figure 2. Back of the Truck (1971)
The music in Duel starts late, quite a while into the film at the first moment of imminent danger towards David. The music gives a very frantic and hectic impression, achieved with high pitched strings, and seems to be used to further illustrate David’s anxieties to the audience and capture the whole feeling of the danger he finds himself in better. Music is then used not as a backdrop but as a sign of danger, a prelude to some big event, further pushing home the danger the main character is facing and the horrific nature of what is happening around him.
As the film is very action based there is little dialog which does not seem very important to the director as a lot of the time when David speaks there is something in between him and the camera, be it an open washing machine or other large objects that build the fuzzy foreground. It almost seems as if the audience is not meant to concentrate on the dialog, since the inner monologues are louder and have a spacey, no room-feeling to them, while the visuals are clearer as well. Maslin writes: “Mr. Weaver is David Mann, the film's only real character, and he's given a few internal monologues that only awkwardly express Mann's anxiety.” (Maslin, 1983:3) which indicate that the outside world is not as important to David in his current state of anxiety which further means that he is hardly concentrating on what goes on around him but instead on his own fear at the situation facing him from his faceless enemy. These scenes are perhaps used to communicate some deeper feelings and to add some clarity to the unfolding events to the audience, after all the movie has no real scenes of human interaction.
Figure 3. David’s Anxieties (1971)
Another interesting part about Duel is the way the cameras move, most of the time to give the audience a good impression of what the car chase looks like and most of all, how David is coping under the stress of what is happening to him. In some situations the camera is used as well to let the audience take in the details David is concentrating on, for example when he was sitting in a café the camera showed a long close up clip of all the drivers boots to identify the truck driver, which unfortunately was unsuccessful for David but the fewer details he could find that matched his memories the more panicky and anxious he got and the camera moved quicker between the details to mimic David’s fast and desperately moving eyes.
Overall Duel is a very fast paced film with little dialogue but lots of skill and background and touches upon topics like man vs. nature, predator against prey and primal surviving instincts combined with human anxieties when faced with an impossible situation. The film uses a faceless villain to add further mystery and intense to the situation and clever devices such as much and close up camera shots to emphasise the terror of the main character.
Figure 1: Spielberg, S. (1971) A Normal Day [Still of Duel] available from: http://www.rigsofrods.com/attachment.php?attachmentid=357719&d=1354713529 (accessed: 12/02/2015)
Figure 2: Spielberg, S. (1971) Back of the Truck [Still of Duel] available from: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-eanOSJM0vlY/TeAXY3Tdk_I/AAAAAAAADMo/PqsrFCMyLJ4/s1600/duelflammable.jpg (accessed: 12/02/2015)
Figure 3. Spielberg, S. (1971) David’s Anxieties [Still of Duel] available from: http://thisdistractedglobe.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/duel-1971-dennis-weaver-pic-1.jpg (accessed: 12/02/2015)
Anderson, Jeffrey. (N.A.) available from: http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/classic/duel.shtml (accessed: 11/02/2015)
Milne, Tom. (N.A.) available from: http://www.timeout.com/london/film/duel (accessed: 11/02/2015)
Maslin, Janet. 1983. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9804EFD81138F936A25757C0A965948260&partner=Rotten%2520Tomatoes (accessed: 11/02/2015)