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Spielberg’s Economical ‘Duel’ Travels on a Different Road

The title “Duel” gives away no more than I hope I will. But I can tell you that it puts a whole new twist on the familiar movie-making road of the big guy against the little guy.

Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough 1971 movie, a made-for-TV film with a small budget, little dialogue and only one featured actor, is obviously about a conflict, which inherently requires two forces. But one of them doesn’t technically appear in person.

Dennis Weaver plays a businessman on a road trip on a lonely stretch of California road. As the traffic, then the scenery, then the radio reception thin out, he’s left alone with talk radio and his imagination. But he slowly begins to realize that a diesel truck driver (whom he cannot see) has it in for him.

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Spielberg reveals his budding genius as he builds suspense in an excruciating series of scenes and seeming non-events. To the credit of the direction, the cinematography and Weaver’s acting, you start to believe the truck has a sinister life of its own. Your imagination runs away with you because virtually all you can see is the truck grille in Weaver’s rear-view mirror.

The script by Richard Matheson is pretty smart, too. Granted, there are certain things that Weaver’s character could do to try to extricate himself, but if he succeeded it would be a very short movie.

Weaver’s performance is exceptional for being mostly wordless. We see him carefree, incredulous, frightened and vengeful in full, measured increments.

You will no doubt find yourself cheering Weaver on, perhaps even coaching him from your couch. When the rules of the road don’t apply, the man has to do what the laws of the jungle dictate. Sometimes you have to take the low road.

“Duel” (1971), directed by Steven Spielberg. 90 minutes. In theatrical release, it was rated PG.


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