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Duel (Collector's Edition) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 17 August 2004


Universal Studios Home Video
MPAA rating: PG
starring: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell, Lucille Benson, Gene Dynarski, Carey Loftin, Dale Van Sickel.
director: Steven Spielberg
film release year: 1974
DVD release year: 2004 (Collector's Edition)
film rating: Four-and-a-Half Stars
sound/picture rating: Four Stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

This TV movie remains one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies; it’s free from the sentimentality that has harmed some of his later films, and lacks the professional slickness that has also hindered some. It’s a tight, beautifully-structured thriller; it has a simple, almost elementary story, and one goal: to scare the bejabbers out of watchers. It does this brilliantly. Its success is partly due, as the director himself admits, to him being a very young man (25) when it was made.

“Duel” was based on what turned out to be the last short story written by Richard Matheson (he limited himself to novels and scripts from then on); it was purchased by Universal as an ABC-TV movie. Spielberg had been working on TV projects at Universal for some time, and when the script crossed his desk, he became eager to do it.

His production manager told him it would be best to shoot most of the movie in a studio using rear-projection, but the excited Spielberg insisted on shooting all of the car and truck scenes on real locations. He was given ten days to make the film, but ended up taking 12 or 13, much to the annoyance of the studio. Their annoyance eased when they saw the film and vanished when its TV showing earned high ratings.

The movie could hardly begin in a more low key tone; we’re in the car driven by the initially unseen David Mann (Dennis Weaver) as he leaves home, drives through downtown Los Angeles and heads for another city. All we hear are traffic sounds and the radio in the car; Mann occasionally changes stations. And yet, partly because of the low angles and partly because there’s no music other than that heard on the radio, this opening sequence already begins to build tension.

We finally see Mann, just as ordinary a guy as his name suggests (in his interview, Matheson allows that perhaps he got just a little too symbolic in naming his man Mann), talking to the radio as he drives through the arid hills near Palmdale and Acton. He gets stuck behind a rusty gasoline tanker truck, and is slightly annoyed when he finally can pass the truck. (We never see anything of the driver except his feet and his left hand and arm, but he’s stunt director Carey Loftin.)

But then the truck passes him—and soon slows down again. Clearly the truck driver sees the two of them as rivals, perhaps combatants. And as almost anyone would, Mann briefly shares that view. Until he finally realizes, much to his horror, that the truck driver wants to kill him.

That’s the setup, and that’s the story. It’s told mostly in shots of the two vehicles hurtling down the winding highway, but there are occasional stops, at a gas station, a diner, and a “snakerama”—a roadside attraction. (Spielberg gleefully points out that the woman running the snakerama turned up again in “1941,” gassing up John Belushi’s plane.) He also tries to help a stranded school bus populated with the most realistically annoying children in ANY movie up until that time. They’re not witty smartasses—they don’t really have any dialogue—but they’re very amusing and annoying.

The truck becomes personified; we tend to forget there’s a man driving it, and the vehicle itself seems alive, a menacing monster of the asphalt. It’s a beat-up old truck, not even hauling a cargo (as the climax makes clear); we get the unnerving idea that this truck only roams the highways looking for victims. David Mann is just the lately hapless, uncomprehending target. The movie very deftly builds, mounting suspense on suspense, to the highly satisfying climax.

Spielberg uses a variety of camera placements: some are beside the highway, watching the vehicles hurtle by; some are on a very maneuverable camera car, racing alongside Weaver’s ordinary red car and the huge rust-brown truck. And there are views inside Weaver’s car, too, from the passenger seat, from the floor, and from the back seat. (In his interview, Spielberg points out that originally, in one or two shots, you could just make out the director, crammed into a corner of Weaver’s back seat.

The disc—there’s only one—is housed in a locking case with a slip cover, adorned with the best ad art yet for the film. Spielberg has never done a commentary track, and has rarely even done one of these interviews for DVD, but he’s clearly having a great time here. He explains how he came across the script and talked Universal into letting him direct it. When he says that he thought of Dennis Weaver for the lead because of Weaver’s memorably jittery performance in “Touch of Evil,” we see a couple of clips from that Orson Welles movie.

Spielberg explains that when he made “Duel,” he had yet to adopt his now-common practice of using storyboards. Instead, he and his team created a huge aerial-perspective map of the road the car and truck would traverse, drawing in each specific incident and showing camera placement. Spielberg says it wrapped around all four walls of his Palmdale motel room. A few shots of the map—which evidently still exists—are included, great fodder for your remote’s Pause button.

Spielberg comes across as lively, friendly and warm, very decent, very smart—and with an astonishingly complete memory of making this movie.

The DVD also includes another interview with Spielberg about his work in television; he directed episodes of series, including “Marcus Welby M.D.,” “The Psychiatrist” and others, and occasionally found himself directing formidable older stars, like Joan Crawford. What’s odd is that little mention is made of his other TV movies; one was a horror story, “Something Evil,” which also deserves to be released on DVD. It isn’t anywhere nearly as good as “Duel,” which is practically perfect, but it doesn’t deserve to languish unseen, either.

There’s an interview with screenwriter Richard Matheson, who explains that the story (published in Playboy), derived from an incident when he and a friend were pursued by a truck in just the manner shown in the film. The two got away, of course, but Matheson knew the basis for a story when he saw—or experienced—one.

The print is crisp and clean with excellent color; no one says so, but it seems to have been partly shot on 16mm. The image is no better than any other from a 1970s TV movie, but it’s no worse, either. The sound options are a little unusual: the DTS 5.1 track and the Dolby 5.1 track begin with different images; the original 2.0 track begins in the same manner as the Dolby track. Although the film wasn’t shot stereo, the best of the options does seem to be the DTS track. It offers richer, more colorful sound.

The other extras are minor—a trailer, some actor/filmmaker biographies, and a very peculiar collection of photos and posters. These images are all squeezed, as if they needed an anamorphic lens to widen them out. As the film was made for television, it’s available only in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio in which it was filmed. But perhaps the photo/poster gallery requires 16X9 unsqueezing.

One very odd thing that’s almost completely omitted from any of the interviews, and isn’t mentioned in the brief production notes, is that the movie on the disc is NOT what people saw when the TV movie first aired. That print ran about 74 minutes, this is about 90 minutes. Well after the movie was completed, Universal decided to release it theatrically overseas, and so Spielberg, Weaver and the crew had to reassemble to shoot some additional sequences—and to somehow find another truck. The first one was hardly in condition to be used again. The added scenes include the one with the school bus and another in which the truck tries to push Weaver’s car into the side of a passing train—these two scenes run consecutively. Also added was the scene in which Mann talks on the phone to his wife.

The movie has only a little voice-over narration of Mann’s frightened thoughts; there was another cut of the film with a great deal more narration, but I don’t know if that was intended for overseas release, or for a later American TV presentation. It’s strange that apart from an offhand mention by Spielberg, there’s nothing on this otherwise well-stocked disc about the various versions of “Duel.”

more details
sound format:
5.1 DTS; 5.1 Dolby; 2.0 mono (original track)
aspect ratio:
full frame 1.33:1
special features: A Conversation with Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg and the Small Screen, Richard Matheson and the Writing of Duel (featurettes), Photograph and Poster Gallery; French and Spanish subtitles available; trailer; cast & filmmaker biographies; production notes
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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