It almost goes without saying that Duel is an American movie. It comes close to being the American movie, like its celluloid could combust at the border; it certainly couldn’t have been made anywhere else.
Its story is simple, as stripped down as a fable or a campfire tale. A man is on a long drive through the desert. He sees a slow-moving tanker truck, its sides scaled with rust, and he passes it: once, twice. That transgression–if you can even call it that–is enough to plunge him into a nightmarish chase, one where the truck appears again and again in his rearview mirror. There’s no sense of escalation. Once Mann–Duel deals its archetypes out face-up–attracts the truck driver’s attention, the driver intends to kill him. And soon he tries–and doesn’t stop trying.
Dennis Weaver plays Mann as a nonentity: nebbishy, ineffectual, and querulous. The faceless truck driver is his truck, but Mann’s Plymouth Valiant is just a facade he enjoys. The one sliver of back-story we get on him comes from a phone call with his wife, who–brisk and annoyed–gives away that Mann watched her get sexually harassed at a party and did nothing about it. In person, then, he’s confrontation-averse to the point of cowardice. His car–bright red, speedy, named for courageous virtue–is a way around that. It’s a space where he can talk to himself, venting insecurities to an empty passenger seat. It gives him the distance from the world he needs. You could say that the murderous truck calls his bluff. Come on, Mann. Be valiant.
But Mann’s not. And it takes him a while to see that he needs to be, that he’s unwillingly entered a contest where nothing outside the conflict–man vs. man, Mann vs. truck–exists in any kind of useful way. Like a lot of quintessentially American movies, this is also a Western. There’s no law here, no social order that can save him.
What there is is landscape, crucial and barren and endless. You don’t just need America’s car culture to make Duel work, you need America’s space, plausible miles of nearly deserted highway with almost no exits because, in this barren desert, there’s nowhere to go.
All of this was, unsurprisingly, put together by two American pop culture icons with a talent for reinvigorating genre storytelling.
Richard Matheson, who wrote both the original short story and the screenplay, was a genius, which isn’t a word I use lightly. He was a horror icon, one of the first major writers to combine terror with pellucid, matter-of-fact prose and ordinary workaday homes. The best of his novels, like I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and even the overheated and oversexed Hell House, would probably have been enough to seal his reputation, but the novel was never really Matheson’s best medium. His books are good. His short stories and screenplays are extraordinary. He and Rod Serling, in particular, were a match made in heaven, turning out classic Twilight Zone episodes like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Third From the Sun,” “The Last Flight,” “Nick of Time,” and “The Invaders.”
He’s almost as good a fit with Steven Spielberg, whose elevated status probably doesn’t require any explaining on my part. Matheson could handle emotions with a surprisingly delicate hand, but he wasn’t sentimental. At his best, Spielberg imbues his work with a wide range of feelings, poignant and well-observed; at his worst, he winds up with overplayed glurge. Matheson keeps him restrained. If anything, Duel could stand to be a little more Spielbergian–to combine its terrific pacing and cinematography with just a little more heart–but it was 1971 and Spielberg’s first feature-length film. He wasn’t that Spielbergian himself at that point.
Duel certainly gets a boost in longevity for being a major director’s freshman effort, especially since it contains the seeds of both Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But it stood a good chance of lasting even if it had been helmed by a complete unknown–assuming you could direct Duel this well, with only that damp squib of a voiceover to mar it, and stay a complete unknown.
One of its best aspects, however, is even more interesting in light of Spielberg’s later career. Duel is full of soured Americana–this is almost the Weird West, a kind of Desert Gothic, where all the oddball touches and relatable settings have curdled. Everything is strange, right down to the seemingly byzantine directions Mann gets to a diner bathroom.
At best, the strangeness is apathetic. An old man investigates Mann’s car crash, poking at him–so insistent on getting involved in his business that he’s sticking his hand through the window–but then laughs off Mann’s insistence that someone tried to kill him. The gas station-slash-roadside attraction of Snakearama offers up a phone booth–Mann complains about its location, because Mann is just That Guy–but it immediately gets destroyed, along with the rest of the location’s dubious charm. The little diner isn’t charming: it’s just full of nearly identical men in cowboy boots, any one of whom could be the truck driver.
Nothing and no one is helpful. Most of the non-Gothic encounters Mann has are equally unpromising. (The one that is–the friendly mechanic who points out that Mann needs a new radiator hose–gets waved off: cynically, truthfully, it’s hard to tell decency and knowledge from your basic upsell.) The elderly couple who are happy to pitch in when they think it’s car trouble backpedal frantically when Mann asks them to call the police–it’s one thing to be neighborly, but it’s another thing to, you know, get involved. A stranded school bus that needs a boost is populated by a cheerfully oblivious driver and the world’s loudest, brattiest children, a swarm of rude gestures and shrieks. You just know their hands are sticky. The movie doesn’t like or care about them, which isn’t a phenomenon you would ever get with later-period Spielberg. It doesn’t care about Mann’s kids, either, who are glimpsed only briefly and who never really factor into his whiny inner monologue. That’s not just “not sentimental,” that’s resolutely unsentimental in a hard-edged and fascinating way.
It all marks Mann as effectively alone. He can’t rely on anyone else even in the abstract–his family is real but so irrelevant that you could easily forget about it, because he doesn’t even pull strength from the nebulous concept of it. It exists most vividly in his failures towards it. He’s on his own.
And in putting him there, the movie achieves an ending that feels almost primeval. Strip away all the social context that makes Mann a specific, named person, and he becomes, well, Man. Words fade out. There’s no voiceover anymore; it’s like he’s even stopped thinking. That’s the only time he can win, the only moment when he really accepts what’s happening. He celebrates wordlessly, too, with joyous capering and then exhaustion. We dissolve from day to a stunning sunset, with Mann still on the edge of the cliff, like he has to make sure the beast is dead. Like there’s no place to go home to. The credits roll over him, taking us to black.