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Monday, 22 September 2014

On 22.9.14 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    20 comments

Released as an ABC TV Movie of the Week in 1971 before getting an international theatrical release, Duel shows off the talents of two great artists – it’s the first feature directed by Steven Spielberg, at the point where he moved from TV into cinema, and it’s written by Richard Matheson, better known for his sci-fi masterwork I Am Legend.

And yet it’s a very minimalist film, with an incredibly simple concept. Driving along the open desert road, a man, conveniently named David Mann, overtakes a slow-moving truck. As most drivers will at some point have done. But then the truck overtakes him back. The man overtakes the truck again. The truck driver attempts to kill the man. A ninety-minute chase sequence ensues.

And I was on the edge of my seat for all ninety. Spielberg directs tense action like no-one else and this early road rage movie screams of a director who’s going to make it big. Though shot entirely in broad daylight, it’s as terrifying as any horror film. The truck is evil, nightmarish, and relentless; we never see the driver but get a sense of his past through the truck's multiple licence plates, presumably trophies of previous conquests. Whatever Mann does to escape, the truck always comes back. When he thinks he’s got away, he stops in a diner, washes himself in the toilets, steps back into the diner… and the truck’s there, in the forecourt. Cue the tensest scene of a man ordering a sandwich you’ll ever see, rich in paranoia as everyone in the room becomes a suspect.

If I were to get philosophical, I’d say it’s a film about courage. Early in the film, Mann calls his wife from a gas station and apologises for failing to defend her when a partygoer made an unwanted advance the previous night. Here, he’s framed through the door of a launderette washing machine – even domesticity oppresses him. He spends the entirety of the film running away from the truck, and is only victorious when he builds up the courage to turn around and confront it. Freud would probably say it’s about masculinity in crisis and the truck represents a giant penis.

But Spielberg and Matheson would probably say it’s about a man being chased by a truck, and that’s thrilling enough for me.

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