Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Cutting Edges: "Duel" (1971) Film Review

Fig 1: Film Poster

Making his mark in cinema with mischievous and monstrous truck that torments David Mann (Dennis Weaver), “Duel” (1971) by Steven Spielberg certainly shot a film with limited possibilities into something straightforwardly intimidating and luring. Janet Maslin states that “Duel” is a film that is: “...building excitement from the most minimal ingredients and the simplest of situations” (Maslin, 1983.)

As soon as the film begins, the audience is alongside David on a car journey that lasts the entirety of the feature. Immediately there is a sense of his vehicle being alive, as the viewpoint is from the cars “eyes” – the headlights – as it drives along the road. 

Fig 2: The fear in David Mann

Spielberg, much like Alfred Hitchcock, has fine tuned “Duel” into a high tension movie filled with suspense and a fear of what will happen next. It is also mostly a silent film, with only a few exchange of words of David talking to himself, people at wherever he stops, and his inner thoughts. Maslin states that: “”Duel” might almost have been a silent film, because it expresses so much through action and so little through the words that are here” (Maslin, 1983). Ian Freer also sums up “Duel” : “but the film thrives on the lean meanness of its (road) rage against the machine” (Freer, 2000)

An interesting point is that of the focus on David Mann being a hysterical male. In cinema and media in general, it can be seen that the majority of female character are usually the ones with extreme emotions such as panic; fear, tearfulness and desperation. With the characters last name also being “Mann”, this could be an nod to masculinity. Davids paranoia and stress shrouds him, first of all as he as anxieties that another man approached his wife, and now his focus is on the enormous mysterious truck chasing him. Maslin explains: “And Mann himself is shown to be a henpecked husband who regains his masculinity only through the contest on the road” (Maslin, 1983). This sense of a man succumbing to extreme emotions is a bold statement from Spielberg, this being because there is a general assumption in society that men keep their emotions buried deep inside themselves.

Fig 3: The train and truck

The vehicles themselves seem alive, and even though there is a driver behind each of them, the fact that the driver of the truck is never shown implies the truck is a beast of its own. It is like a taunting chase between predator and prey; cat and mouse; bull and red flag. In fact, the colour of Davids car being red and the rumble of the truck presents itself much like the Torero sport; the truck charges towards David and the scene in the tunnel where the trucks lights snap on like an almighty demon ready to pounce.

Spielberg willingly uses black humor: such as the scene were David drifts off to sleep after letting the truck go past him, only to be woken by a blaring horn, which he believes is the retched truck, but is in fact a train. The trains that appear in the film also play a part in taunting David – the truck and train communicate with their horns as though they are plotting something. The truck also successfully attempt to be friendly by helping a school bus at the side of the road get going again. Other times, the truck is completely reckless and crashes into a phone booth that Mann is in, looking desperate to crush him.

Fig 4: David in the diner

When David stops at a diner, the audience can really see the panic set in and eat away at David – his thoughts are heard as he analyses who the driver of the truck is within the diner, and as he thinks he’s found the culprit, he confronts him, only to be mistaken. One after the other, men from the diner leave in a different vehicle, heightening Davids anxiety. The truck parked outside begins to drive away and pure shock is on his face as he still doesn’t know who is doing this to him.

Fig 5: The fall of the beast

Ultimately, the truck pays the price for its antics in Davids final move of desperation; as he leaps out of the car with the truck following, both vehicles plummet and are consumed in a fireball. Before its demise, and here Chris Justice describes rightfully:  “The word “FLAMMABLE” is written on it, which foreshadows its potential for chaos”. (Justice, 2005). Happening at the end, the viewers will see themselves breath a sigh of relief after a 90 minute journey of lump-in-your-throat tension. However, during the course of the film and at the end, there are still so many questions: Why David Mann? Why was the truck driver trying to kill him? Who was the driver? How would David get to his destination with no car at the end? Won’t he be arrested? Why was the drivers face never shown?

The viewers will find themselves asking all of these questions and then realise how immersive and clever “Duel” really is.


Freer, I. (2000) empireonline (Accessed on 02/02/16) http://www.empireonline.com/movies/empire-essay-duel/review/
Justice, C. (2005) classic-horror.com (Accessed on 02/02/16) http://classic-horror.com/reviews/duel_1971
Maslin, J. (1983) nytimes.com (Accessed on 02/02/16) http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9804EFD81138F936A25757C0A965948260

Illustration List:

Fig 2: "The fear in David Mann" (Accessed on 02/02/16) http://www.liveforfilms.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/duel-truck.png
Fig 3: "The train and truck" (Accessed on 02/02/16) https://nilsendavid.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/duel-train-2.jpg
Fig 4: "David in the diner" (Accessed on 02/02/16) http://www.bloggang.com/data/z/zero1408/picture/1393659235.jpg
Fig 5: "The fall of the beast" (Accessed on 02/02/16) http://pics.imcdb.org/480/duel1971bdrip1080p16-33-23.jpg


  1. Sounds like you enjoyed this film, Manisha :) Nicely written review...