"I'd like to report a truck driver that's been endangering my life!"
— Dennis Weaver as David Mann.
Hello one and all.
Before Steven Allan Spielberg became the most influential, wealthiest, most über-famous film director in the 20th and 21st Century, he was just a regular film buff whose imagination was boundless and knew no end. His enthusiasm was never lost on me as a youth. I have the distinct memory of having gone to see his seminal sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind back 40 years ago — and falling asleep throughout most of it. I also recollect being "rescued" by my late aunt back in 1982 and being taken to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, at least twice. His many films, ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, The Terminal, and The BFG were all seen by me multiple times. But it's with great pleasure that this entry is due to what started this fine career in the first place: a horror movie.
I know what you're thinking. It's supposed to be his 1975 masterpiece, Jaws, the film that actually begat his film career. Well, despite that film also being in my "Top Five Best of Spielberg List," it's not the first movie he made that showed a master storyteller here at work. It was actually a television movie from 1971 that gave us all a taste of what was to come, even that classic violin/cello-shark-in-the-water-tearing-through-the-4th-of-July masterpiece. It was an ABC Network movie of the week called Duel.
From a short story by Richard Matheson that was published in Playboy magazine of all places, Matheson adapted it into a teleplay and it became Spielberg's soon-to-be-born movie baby. It became a post-Halloween TV Movie of the Week and starred Dennis Weaver, best known for his work on the NBC police drama series McCloud. His aw-shucks good looks and his gangly frame and business demeanor made him a perfect casting choice for the role of David Mann, the ordinary every-man at the center of the story which was basically a "road rage" story amplified to the fullest hilt.
The Re-Released Poster from 1983
Dennis Weaver as David Mann in a Scene from "Duel" (1971)
The gist of the plot: David Mann is driving cross-country in his Plymouth Valiant to a (mostly) unknown destination. As he drives through desert heat and his car radio keeping him company, a large 1955 Peterbilt 281 diesel truck is tailgating him. He tries to give him the right of way, but drives so leisurely that Mann finally gives up and makes a break for it. The driver of the truck (whom we only see through key parts of his body, namely feet in leather cowboy boots) isn't pleased with this and begins pursuing Mann. Mann is now aware of this large tanker menacing him, stalking him, and purposely making his life a living hell. He attempts to be gallant and civil, but at a truck stop diner, his anxiety begins to show and he takes it out on a rather smug patron. Forced to leave the diner, he then learns that the man he berated was not the driver of the truck after all.
The driver and Mann are now locked in a battle of wits as Mann is now forced to anticipate the driver's every move. I'll stop right here. Basically, what makes Duel so effective is its "cat and mouse" plot and its jagged and nerve-wrecking pace that gets the blood pumping for its very generous 91 minutes. It's clear that Spielberg is channeling Alfred Hitchcock as he puts an everyday human being in the most strenuous and dire of circumstances to see if he'll rise to the challenge or die trying. It's also a simple human story that any of us can relate to (although as a non-driver, it's hard for me to delineate any time I've ever had to deal with road rage, unless vicariously through anyone who's ever had to drive me). It takes its life-in-danger story very seriously and puts us all in the driver's seat, almost quite literally.
In closing, Steven Spielberg didn't become the master filmmaker he is today by shutting out genres that most masters rebuke or shun because they are too risky. Horror movies were finally having their day in the late-60s and early 70s and many masters heeded the call. Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola were all masters because they took chances on horror stories that themselves became outright masterpieces or classics. Duel has always been a staple of mine in past Halloween Horrorthons and will continue to do so. The tanker truck was just the start of what Spielberg would do to us, when he took us all four years later to Amity Beach on the Fourth of July and we sat on the edge of our seats when he introduced us all to... "Bruce!"
Next Up: It was supposed to be a fun night at the senior prom...