Duel: adapted by Richard Matheson from his novella; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann) (1971): The late, great Richard Matheson adapted his own novella for this television movie, one of the first (and best) things ever directed by Steven Spielberg. Hitched to a great script, the young Spielberg pretty much shoots out the lights in this gripping, terse tale of Man vs. Truck(driver). David Mann vs. Truck(driver), actually.
Dennis ‘McCloud’ Weaver plays David Mann, a frustrated California travelling salesman driving through California’s scrub brush and deserts to make an appointment. He’s having problems at home, centered around his wife’s perception of him as something of a nebbish. Then he innocently passes a slow-moving truck. All hell follows.
You can view this a great thriller with a sub-text that deals with a modern man’s battle with his own feelings of inadequacy and emasculation. You can view this as a thriller of paranoia and terror, as the early stages of Mann’s battle with the truck-driver (never fully glimpsed at any point during the movie) repeatedly put Mann in situations in which no one believes that he’s in a duel to the death with a crazy person.
Weaver is flat-out terrific, sympathetic and squirmy. Screenwriters aspiring or otherwise should look at this film as a model of how to effectively use voiceover narration in a movie. We’re privy to Mann’s internal dialogue at points, and it’s beautifully done. The scenery is suitably deserted. The truck, as much a character as Weaver, is about as sinister a vehicle as one could want, grimy and menacing and way, way too fast for its weight class.
Duel taps into very specific fears related to driving, and driving around large trucks. But it’s also rich and wide-ranging in its use of fear and suspense. There are moments that have the quality of a nightmare, and suspense scenes that Spielberg would never surpass in all his later years of film-making.
In a way, this is a companion piece to two of Matheson’s great 1950’s novels that were adapted into movies, The Shrinking Man and I am Legend. Both dealt with self-doubting masculinity left virtually alone to confront some mounting horror. Taken together, they form a triptych, though I am Legend has never received a satisfactory film adaptation in the way the other two have. Highly recommended.