Steven Spielberg’s telemovie debut, Duel wields its raw simplicity like a weapon. Often, it’s the brute force of a cudgel, as in the bestial roar emanating from the mysterious, menacing truck that looms in the rearview of David Mann (Dennis Weaver) – his surname a nod to the archetypal nature of the story. The truck is something primeval, shot from below as it rumbles through the frame. The cinematography is simple but effective – the fact that most scenes are shot from a neighbouring car isn’t disguised, but emphasised. The open road stretches to infinity but feels oppressively enclosed.
Alternatively Spielberg moves with the deftness of a fencer wielding a rapier, or a thief’s dagger. He luxuriates in the exquisite tension of Mann’s layover at a truck stop, as he desperately surveys the crowd, suspense heightened with every brown pair of boots.
The subtext is shared with Straw Dogs: a buttoned-up businessman’s anxiety over masculinity, but executed with more finesse. Duel’s best moment is not when these vehicles violently crash into one another, but in its earliest moments as Mann takes seemingly forever to overtake this lumbering landbeast, at the mercy of the white lines of the road and the desolation beyond.