STEVEN SPIELBERG’S ‘DUEL.’ (1971) REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

duel dennis weaver

DUEL. (1971) BASED ON A STORY BY RICHARD MATHESON. DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG. STARRING DENNIS WEAVER, LUCILLE BENSON, EDDIE FIRESTONE AND CAREY LOFTIN.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

This fantastic little thriller is every bit as much a horror movie as the famous director’s later blockbuster film, JAWS, in which a monstrous killer shark is literally stalking the waters off the island of Amity, a popular tourist destination, and its destruction is left to one man.

If you’ve seen photos of a ridiculously young and handsome Steven Spielberg during the making of DUEL, you’ll have seen that he looks like a moody director of French New Wave movies in which marriages fail and complex relationships become ever more entwined, lol. So moody, so handsome, and all before he’d filmed so much as a single reel of film featuring a velociraptor with a mind of its own. (‘Clever girl…!’)

DUEL, Steven Spielberg’s debut film, is the deceptively simple story of an ordinary man, anonymously called Dave Mann, a salesman who is travelling down the highway in his car one sunny day to meet with a prospective client before the client jumps in a plane and flies away out of reach.

We see Mann driving out of his garage, we hear the mindless chatter of the chat shows on the car radio as he drives along and we see the city traffic thinning out as Mann reaches those long stretches of isolated out-of-town American highway where the long arm of the law seems conspicuous by its absence, and where, therefore, all kinds of lawlessness can be tolerated.

It happens slowly at first. A monster truck, like one of the trucks from Stephen King’s MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, gradually intrudes itself on Mann’s consciousness. First it’s behind him, tailgating him to the point of being uncomfortable, then it’s ahead of him but moving aggravatingly slowly. ‘I’ve given you the highway, Jack, why don’t you take it…?’

Mann eventually realises that the anonymous truck driver, of whom we only see glimpses- an arm out the window, usually, or a sighting of a pair of cowboy boots- has actual harmful intentions towards him. The driver waves him on ahead at one point, to Mann’s relief, and Mann takes him up on his offer, only to drive straight out into the path of an oncoming vehicle. From this point onwards, a state of war exists between Mann and the truck driver.

Mann’s emotions range from triumphant elation when he wins a schoolboyish victory over the truck driver to absolute blind terror when he sees that the truck driver wants him dead, and seemingly has no problem with destroying other people’s property or maybe even lives in order to do it.

The psychological tension is ramped ever upwards as Mann desperately tries to explain his predicament to the few people he meets on the highway, but no-one believes him. They all think he’s the crazy one; for example, when the truck driver actually helps the broken-down school bus, whereas Mann just comes across to the school bus driver as someone who has a bit of a screw loose. It’s so unfair, but poor Mann just can’t seem to catch a break.

I love the scene at the diner, where we’re absolutely convinced that we’ve met the real truck driver having his lunch, but then it turns out not to be him. The scene at the roadside petrol station and snake farm after the truck driver has cut a murderous swathe through it all is chaotically spellbinding. Poor Mr. Mann with a tarantula on his trouser leg…! Talk about things can always get worse…

The viewers know by now that they are witnessing a fight to the death. Even Mann probably knows this by now, just like Chief Brody in JAWS is more than likely aware too that either he’s going to kill that massive, man-eating shark or the shark is going to kill him. There can be no other in-betweeny endings. Kill or be killed, that’s how primeval and elemental these two life-or-death struggles are. Mann is Brody and Brody is Mann. God help that truck-driving shark, that’s all I can say…

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

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