Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Cutting Edge: Duel

When thinking of car chases in film, most people imagine sleek high-speed sports cars zooming down busy highways, skillfully evading other cars in their way. However, Steven Spielberg had very different take on a car chase in  'Duel' (1971). In Duel, Spielberg manages to piece together an engaging film with barely any plot or dialogue through camera placement and characterization of the truck.
Fig. 1 'Duel' (1971)
The truck, not the truck driver, is the antagonist in this film. The quarrel starts innocently as David Mann (Dennis Weaver) passes by a truck that is driving slowly on a desert highway. From there, the truck seems to slowly evolve into a monstrous creature, taunting David as it attempts to kill him. Other than David passing the truck on the highway there is no obvious reason for this attack, "Spielberg, to his credit, never affords the truck any rational motivation - the relentless pursuit takes on its own logic where societal rules quickly become superfluous," (Thomas, 2000).

In truth, this lack of explanation can feel rather frustrating but in time it is silently accepted. We begin to understand that the truck is a mindless being of its own, without any logic behind its actions. In a way, this heightens the audience's ability to feel the sense of danger. There is no explanation for this truck to come after him, and there is no way to escape or reason with it. This feeling of desperation is also partly due to the fact that we never actually see the driver, again there is no one to reason with.

Fig 2. The Truck
While the images of the truck and car feel repetitious at times, there are certain shots that certainly stand out. Camera angles looming low beneath the truck as it barrels towards David's car makes it feel like a great enraged beast. The composition these shots give off a, "cat and mouse theme, pepping up the pursuit with bizarro camera angles (big close ups of Mann captured with a telephoto lens) and sound effects (the truck's heavy duty rumble, the car's pathetic engine whine) all knitted together into stunning editing patterns," (Freer, 2000). Through composition of camera shots and the addition of these intimidating sounds, it is easy to feel David is being preyed upon.

However, David's character is barely developed in the story. In fact, this film doesn't really develop any of the human characters, "the vehicles are the real stars of 'Duel', and whenever the chase is interrupted by the relatively primitive people on hand...the film loses its momentum and becomes somewhat clumsy," (Maslin, 1983). We don't have much of an attachment to these human characters, often their interactions feel odd and uncomfortable. Luckily, these scenes of socially awkward situations and unpleasant, unflattering close ups of David do not last long.
Fig. 3 David Mann
Excluding a few scenes that include little chunks of dialogue and hints from the car's radio, we barely know anything about who David is, what is is doing and where he is going. The film does not have a complex plot by any means, but many speculate it is all about the main character's fight for his masculinity. Conversations on the radio, a few words exchanged with a gas station attendant, and an argument over the phone with his wife confirm his troubles at home and with himself.

This, again, is never explained to the audience. It can only be assumed that David feels a renewed sense of self after we see the monstrous truck descends into a ditch, a scene that is beautifully captured in slow motion. While we expect to either see the driver after this point or have some sort of closer, we don't. Instead, Spielberg ends it abruptly to leave the audience guessing. After his absurd and harrowing experience, David Mann sits himself down in the desert on the cliff the truck fell into and credits roll.

Freer, I. (2000) Empire Essay: Duel At: Accessed on: 3/2/2016
Maslin, J. (1983) Duel (1971) At: Accessed on: 3/2/2016
Thomas, W. (2000) Duel Review At: Accessed on: 3/2/2016

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Duel [Poster] At: Accessed on: 3/2/2016
Figure 2. The Truck [Film Still] At:;postID=231674251756683574 Accessed on: 3/2/2016
Figure 3. David Mann [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 3/2/2016


  1. I noticed a typo 'Other than *the* David passing the truck'.

    I suppose I have a different view on those 'socially awkward situations', as there some of my favourite bits: there's a real sense of 'American Gothic' about the folks in the cafe and the snake woman; were you to check out the original Texax Chainsaw Massacre, for example, you'd see again this rich vein of 'redneck anxiety' - and certainly, Duel begins by showing David leave the city (and the city folk) and entering this new zone; there's an issue of 'class' playing out in this film too; white collar vs blue collar. Another engaging review.

    1. Fixed, sorry thought I got everything! In a way I like the socially awkward situations because it can be accurate, I just guess in this case it put me off for some reason...not that it didn't get across the atmosphere, just it made me feel personally uncomfortable (which I guess in a way is a good thing).

  2. 'Luckily, these...unpleasant, unflattering close ups of David do not last long' - poor David! ;)

    Once again, a great review Dee :)