Although this was originally filmed in just 12 days as a TV movie in the US before receiving a theatrical release in Europe, it remains one of the very best films to have been made (it was his first feature-length production) by a director with a glorious future – Steven Spielberg. Duel (1971), which was adapted from a Richard Matheson short story by Matheson himself, is a near-peerless acount of how the irrational can intrude into everyday life, with terrifying consequences.
Matheson said that he was inspired to write the story following an incident he experienced with a tailgating lorry when driving on the day of JFK’s assassination, 22 November 1963, and Dennis Weaver is perfectly cast as the somewhat harried, brow-beaten businessman David Mann, who’s making a trip across the desert for an important meeting. Innocently overtaking an old-fashioned, lumbering truck, Mann is at first flustered when it once again overtakes him, then refuses to let him past, shaken when the driver signals him to overtake, straight into the path of oncoming traffic, then increasingly terrified when it quickly becomes apparent that the driver (whose face he never sees, nor do we) is engaging him in a duel to the death.
It really is but a stonesthrow away from what we consider to be the safe, sunlit world of reason, is the irrational – as Mann himself says at one point, early on in proceedings:
David Mann: There you are, right back in the jungle again.
Even down to his name, our hero is meant to be Everyman, and Weaver does a stirling job of communicating the confusion, frustration, anger and ultimately out-and-out terror as the driver pursues him hither and thither (with a nicely souped-up engine) across California’s near-deserted highways.
And guess what? There’s a little trivia that Spielberg never tires of repeating to this day – if you look real close at the truck’s headlights, you will see that there are 17 (count’ em) notches. Brrrrr….