Duel

1971

Universal Studios

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Produced by George Eckstein

Written by Richard Matheson

Before we get into the actual review a brief history lesson: The Made-For-TV Movie is a phrase you don’t hear much these days but it was used all the time back in the 1960’s and especially during the 1970’s when ABC, CBS and NBC who at that time were The Big Three of programming got into the business of producing their own movies specifically made for a television audience and tailored for 90 minute prime time broadcast television viewing slots. Which meant that no longer did they have to rely on movies they purchased from Hollywood movie studios. Now all three networks had their own special movie night but the one that most people remember is the “ABC Movie Of The Week” which aired from 1969 to 1976 on Tuesday nights. ABC had other movies nights such as their Sunday Night Movie but those were generally theatrical features. And of course there was the long-running and classic “The 4:30 Movie” which had an opening credit that was so popular it eventually was adopted as the opening for all of ABC’s late night movies:

And then of course there’s the opening for The Tuesday Night Movies itself:

Now, yes, most of ABC’s Tuesday Movie Of The Week’s movies were forgettable, disposal entertainment.  Many TV series such as “The Six Million Dollar Man” “Alias Smith and Jones” “The Immortal” and “Starsky and Hutch” made their debut as 90 minute pilot films here. And then you had a whole truckload of movies that are still remembered and indeed have become legendary in pop entertainment culture. “The Love War” “Brian’s Song” which is still hailed today as one of the best football movies ever made and a movie that guys unashamedly admit they cry when they watch it. “A Cold Night’s Death” which is a movie that screams to be remade. “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” starring Elizabeth Montgomery. “Get Christie Love!” “Bad Ronald” “Haunts Of The Very Rich” And then there’s the movie we’re going to talk about now: DUEL, which along with “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” comprises The Holy Trinity of Made-For-TV horror movies.

DUEL is a Made-For-TV Movie with the most interesting history of any Made-For-TV Movie. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story originally published in Playboy. The movie was only Steven Spielberg’s second feature-length directing job and the movie proved to be such a critical success and ratings hit that Universal asked Spielberg to spend a couple of days filming additional scenes and it was then released to theaters overseas where it played to sold-out audiences. Then, amazingly, Universal released DUEL theatrically in some venues here in the United States. This was an unheard of event back in those days and Universal was rewarded with DUEL going on to make a very respectable profit in its limited U.S. theatrical run.

But it’s no surprise to me why the movie has gone on to earn the reputation it has. Next to “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” DUEL is probably the best known Made-For-TV Movie of all time and rightly so. It’s a white-knuckle thriller that taps into the deepest fear of any motorist on the highway. I know that for me, DUEL is a movie that represents one of my worst nightmares. A movie like “Saw” doesn’t scare me at all because there is zero chance of me being forced to play some bizarre game by a hyper-intelligent serial killer. But there’s every chance I can innocently piss off some maniac behind the wheel of a truck and without meaning to find myself engaged in a life or death battle on a highway.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) starts out his day peacefully enough. He’s a salesman, driving on his way to an important business meeting. In a wonderful bit of characterization, during a phone conversation with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) we learn that David actively works at avoiding confrontation, a personality trait that greatly factors into what happens to him during the course of his horrifying day.

During his drive he encounters a tanker truck driving slower than the posted speed limit. David passes the truck and thinks no more of it. But after a stop at a gas station he is passed by the same truck which gets in front of him and again slows down. David again passes the truck and the truck’s driver (who we never see) appears to take umbrage with this as he first tries to trick David into a collision with another vehicle. The truck’s driver continually ups the ante of this deadly game, chasing David down the highway, trying to push his vehicle into the path of a passing freight train. As this long day goes on, David cannot escape the fact that the driver of the truck is trying to kill him and if David wants to survive he is going to have to stop running and confront his unseen enemy.

And eventually it does come down to just David and the truck driver. David cannot convince anybody he meets along the road that this man is trying to kill him. Taken from a psychological point of view, the truck represents David’s fear of confrontation that is relentlessly pursuing him, forcing him to make a stand and fight for what his important to him. In this case: his life.

But you can throw that psychological stuff out the window. Taken purely as a horror movie, DUEL delivers on every level. Dennis Weaver gives an Academy Award level performance. He’s on screen for the entire running time of the movie and he is just flat out terrific. He is never less than totally convincing as this perfectly regular guy caught up in a situation way over his head, caught up in a deadly road game with a serial killer and no idea of how he’s going to survive.

So should you see DUEL? Absolutely YES. DUEL is an absolute masterpiece of suspense on all levels. You can see echoes of Spielberg’s later work on “Jaws” in this movie and the story by Richard Matheson is so tight it hurts. I’ve provided a link below where you can watch the complete movie on YouTube. If you’ve never seen DUEL before, do yourself a favor and watch it right now. Enjoy.

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