No vehicle has looked more menacing, terrifying and intimidating in cinema than the 1955 model Peterbilt 281 tanker truck in Steven Spielberg’s full-fledged directorial debut Duel. Based on a short story by Richard Matheson that appeared in an issue of Playboy magazine, the film follows a day in the life of an ordinary man named Richard Mann taking a long car trip, hoping to make a business meeting on time. Things take an unexpected turn when he provokes the ire of a psychotic truck driver en route and Mann’s life becomes a living nightmare from that point on. What ensues is a long and horrifying chase – a duel to the death – between Mann and this maniac.
What makes the film even more terrifying is the fact that the identity of the truck driver is never revealed throughout the film. Not even once do we get to see the face of the man driving this huge beast of a machine. It’s as if the truck has adopted a persona of its own. There are plenty of scenes here that will make your hair stand on end. It’s like one of those terrifying killing machines from one of those Stephen King novels. Mann and the driver are engaged in an intensely ferocious battle and this is the kind of genuinely disturbing scenario that you wish would never ever happen to you. The film is characterized by its tight plotting, minimalist style and narrative simplicity.
The inspired casting of Dennis Weaver as Mann plays a big part in what makes the film work. His performance is so authentic and convincing. Who knows, we may behave in the same way as he does when we are put in a similar situation. The Hitchcock influences are obvious in the use of a background score that immediately brings to mind the famous score of Bernard Hermann from Psycho. The most notable aspect of the film is its subjective camera work. The interesting visual cues and the eerie background score work together like a charm and deliver a truly unforgettable and fulfilling experience. It’s one of Spielberg’s most accomplished films.
Spielberg talks about the film in length in a 36-min documentary called ‘Duel’: A Conversation with Director Steven Spielberg, which can be watched in its entirety by clicking on the following links: