Based on Richard Matheson's short story, Duel is a 1971 TV movie about a guy being taunted by a big truck on the road for no apparent reason. It stars Dennis Weaver and is directed by then newcomer Steven Spielberg who made the film on a 500K budget.
Duel is often quoted as being the best TV movie out there and, although on paper it doesn't sound like much, it's easy to see why once you do check it out. It's not so much the story which makes Duel as memorable as it is but the suspense and the cinematography, Spielberg using every Hitchcockian trick in the book to not only keep the film entertaining but make the vehicular antagonist into a convincing threat. The movie opens with everyman David Mann (Weaver) driving across the Californian desert for a business trip in his red Plymouth Valiant casually listening to a radio show where Dick Whittington can be heard conducting silly interviews. Eventually, a rusty tanker truck pulls up in front of him, blocking his way, so he decides to finally overtake him. Little did he know that this would turn out to be the biggest mistake he ever made.
From then on, the film turns into an increasingly intense cat-and-mouse game as the mysterious, faceless trucker taunts poor old David Mann to the point where he's basically trying to flat-out kill him. Mann is shown to us as being a bit of a wet blanket early on and he comes across as pretty dorky, cowardly even. He's constantly looking at his watch, wanting to make good time, he gets paranoid very quickly and we get the feeling he's only on this trip to avoid talking to his wife. Little by little, he starts to "Mann" up and fight back against his inexplicable enemy. It's a battle between Man and Machine but also between predator and prey and Man against himself. Duel is almost like a lost, feature-length Twilight Zone episode as the identity of the trucker remains hidden from us throughout giving the film a weird, surreal quality.
Weaver is excellent throughout and you're always on his side, even when he's acting foolish or a tad gutless but this is Spielberg's show. You can definitely see the birth of his trademark style here: the inventive shots he uses preparing us for the likes of Jaws or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Duel is a relentless, perfectly executed mini-adventure best seen in its original TV movie form as the ad breaks actually enhance the cliffhangers but even if you're checking out the Theatrical Cut, it's certainly something of a must-see for anyone looking to get into filmmaking as it's a bare-bones story told expertly and with visual flair.
A lower-key cult gem from Mr Spielberg.