Duel is a monster movie set on the highways of rural America, and is one of the most seventies movies ever made. It’s also possibly the first TV movie to achieve somewhat of a legendary status since its release.
Duel is based on a similarly fantastic short story by Richard Matheson and has the simplest premise: a truck driver chases a motorist through the American dust. Why? No reason. At least, no reason that the viewer ever knows. You may call that lazy writing, but it’s actually pretty inspired and shows a lot of restraint in a world where the well of exposition is visited far too often. Sometimes, motivation is not required: sometimes it’s enough that there’s a crazy guy in a big ass truck who just wants to get his kicks from harrassing you until you can’t take it anymore.
Dennis Weaver plays David, the unfortunate soul who has to outwit the mysterious metal assassin, and he is perfectly cast, gradually progressing from mild annoyance to what could be considered outright insanity by the time the credits roll.
Sure, the simple effectiveness of the movie collapses under a modern microscope, because mobiles are ubiquitous nowadays, and internet access is never more than ten feet away, but the abandonment and loneliness felt by David here is palpable. It’s a lean movie – it barely tickles the ninety minute standard – and there’s nothing in here that doesn’t contribute to David’s paranoia in some way.
Duel is like a catchy song that you hear at breakfast and is still playing in your head when you go to bed at night, and it’s telling that whenever I’m driving and I see a big rig close in on my rear view, I invariably think of that Peterbilt 281… and wonder.
I’ve watched Duel many times since I first saw it as a child and it still grips me every time. I think the truck is one of cinema’s most memorable monsters/predators. Somebody once said that the licence plates that are attached to it, are meant to be trophies of the victims it has hunted down in the past.
A classic that proves you can create a gripping story out of a very simple idea… I’ve never heard that about the plates, but something else to add to the legend.