I am not one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest fans. I think Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a horribly over-rated film and Jurassic Park a dreadful waste of film. But there was a time when Spielberg was capable of creating wonderfully crafted cinema. Spielberg’s first film, Duel, a made-for-television film written by veteran Richard Matheson, remains one of his most perfectly realized works, a tight, effective cross between an action picture, allegory, and horror film.
Dennis Weaver plays David Mann, a Los Angeles businessman on his way to a meeting in the nether world of two-lane highways and truck stops that lie outside of L.A. On an abandoned stretch of highway, he tries to pass a slow-moving gas tanker truck, a huge, lumbering, rusted monster of a truck that spews a steady stream of polluting black smoke. Mann pulls his red Plymouth in front, but before he can get back to singing along with the car radio, the truck is behind him like a shot, pushing him out of the way, horn blaring. No matter where Mann goes, the truck now pursues him, the windows of the truck’s cab black with soot.
When Mann stops for gas, the truck stops too, allowing Mann only a glimpse at the driver’s cowboy boots. In a scene similar to one in Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, Mann, in a local diner for lunch, tries to identify the driver in a room full of men wearing cowboy boots. He accuses a likely candidate, only to be promptly felled by a right to the stomach. Back on the road, he plays a dizzying game of cat and mouse with the truck, which, like the shark in Jaws, manages to pop up where Mann least expects it. The driver even taunts him by doing things Mann’s puny Plymouth can’t: when Mann can’t give an effective push to a stranded school bus, the truck complies. Take that, city boy. Every time Mann seems to have a respite, the truck appears again, pushing him into railroad crossings and letting him pass only to be waiting for him somewhere else down the road.
It would be wrong to give too much more away, but this is, after all, an allegory whose conclusion is a assured from frame one. (The character’s name is “Mann” and he drives Plymouth “Valiant.”) Duel presents a Twilight Zone-style hero, a middle class, middle age, white collar husband and father of two whose burdens in life follow him everywhere – even outside the city – and who must endure a rite of manhood before he can return to the urban jungle. There are some missteps – several times Mann gets out of his car and inexplicably runs after the truck, and the horrible music apes the stabbing strings from Bernard Herrman’s score to Psycho – but this remains an incredibly sharp, edgy film, and a hell of a lot of fun.