Classic TV: ‘Duel’

duel

Four years before Steven Spielberg became one of the few Hollywood directors to be a household name – thanks to “Jaws” in 1975 – he made one of the most-watched TV movies of all time. It even won a Golden Globe.

“Duel” featured Dennis Weaver – TV’s “McCloud” – as a salesman traveling the backroads of Southern California, pressured to make it to an appointment on time, when he runs afoul of the driver of a tanker truck. The two take turns passing each other on a winding two-lane road and it quickly becomes obvious that the trucker has more than just an attitude. Weaver comes to believe that the man intends to kill him.

When Spielberg made “Jaws” just a few years later, a lot of people drew comparisons to “Duel.” Both do feature a large unstoppable force finally brought down by a lone man. Spielberg has said the movies share the theme of “leviathans targeting an everyman.”

The movie was written by Richard Matheson, one of the great fantasy writers of all time. Matheson’s stories have been adapted into movies ranging from “The Incredible Shrinking Man” to “I Am Legend.”

There’s not a lot of character development – heck, there’s not a lot of characters – in “Duel.” I guess we’re supposed to think that Weaver starts off kind of wimpy – he doesn’t say anything when a neighbor makes advances on his wife – and ends up saving his own life and taking a menace off the road.

Watching this movie again recently made me think it played like a prequel to Pixar’s “Cars.” And not just because the truck in question looks like rusty, lovable ol’ Mater on steroids. The story plays out on a dusty two-lane western road that seems like the one that leads to and from Radiator Springs. No wonder people quit going to that town: the charming little road was filled with psychotic truckers!

“Duel” was Spielberg’s second TV movie, after an episode of “The Name of the Game.” Although it lags in spots – Weaver’s sojourn in a cafe seems to go on forever – it’s tense and gritty when Weaver is on the road, being pushed and bullied by the trucker.

It’s an interesting choice by Spielberg to keep the trucker anonymous. Other than a pair of boots and an arm, we never see him, even at the end.

“Duel” was released in theaters, particularly overseas, and its short running time required that some scenes be added. Weaver’s call home to his wife was one of those, as was a scene with the truck driver idling ominously while Weaver tries to help a stranded school bus. Also added was a great railroad crossing scene.

“Duel” was the state of the art for TV movies more than 40 years ago and is still quite suspenseful and effective.

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