David Mann is trying to drive his car across California. When he tries to pass a gas tanker, the driver somehow takes offence. At first the unseen driver just annoys David by continually passing him and slowing down. Then he starts playing mind games with David, tempting him to pass the tanker, only to prevent him when he tries. The story is seen from David's point of view, with commentary as he thinks to himself.
In August 1978, after ITV showed an episode of seemingly innocuous comic book adaptation The Incredible Hulk — apparently, you won't like him when he's angry — the station's switchboard was jammed with irate viewers. Rather than moaning about the poster-paint green prosthetics or Bill Bixby's balsa wood acting, the indignation arose because the episode had purloined a wealth of car chase footage from Steven Spielberg's Duel which the channel had screened earlier that year.
In retrospect, it was a pretty dumb idea to plunder from Duel. Built on a skilful ebb and flow axis of surprise and suspense, it has few rivals when it comes to sustaining an action agenda throughout the full running time. To be sure it's a slender story — mild-mannered suburbanite David Mann is chased along desert highways by a malevolent truck — but the film thrives on the lean meanness of its (road) rage against the machine. Not only is the vehicle never ascribed a simplistic motivation (like the shark or velociraptor of future Spielberg hits, it simply exists to kill) but the driver is never ever revealed. Tension and terror, not characterisation and plot, are what matter here.
The genesis of Duel can be traced to celebrated sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, author of The Shrinking Man and regular contributor to the Twilight Zone. Shortly after the JFK assassination Matheson and writing partner Jerry Sohl were driving through a narrow canyon when a truck began tailgating them with reckless abandon. "Partially we were terrified," the screenwriter recalled, "and partially infuriated, turning our rage about the Kennedy assassination into rage at the truck driver. We were screaming out of the window but the truck driver's window was closed and he couldn't hear it. My friend had to pull up, skidding onto one of these dirt places in the road. In the writer's mind, once you survive death, you start thinking of a story."
With the subsequent yarn published in Playboy, the resulting movie adaptation is a masterclass in how to shoot and cut a car chase. Plotting the action and camera placements on a map that Spielberg fashioned stunning variations on the 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.
If the casting of Mann was vitally important — Spielberg approached Gregory Peck, Dustin Hoffman and David Janssen before Universal closed down the shooting of McCloud to free up Dennis Weaver — perhaps more crucial was the casting of the truck. Presented with a line-up of vehicles, Spielberg opted for a Peterbilt gasoline tanker truck, partly due to its strangely human aspect suggested by a small snout at the front and two ear-like hydraulic tanks by the doors. Over the meagre 16-day shoot, the stunt drivers — Bullitt's Carey Loftin in the truck, Dale Van Sickle in Mann's red Valiant — put the pedal to the metal, achieving top speeds of 135mph, while Spielberg emphasised the pace and scale of the vehicles by placing the camera low to the road.
The compositions are amazingly dynamic and diverse, but so is the tone. From the black humour of Mann mistaking a train horn for a blast from the truck to his paranoia at a roadside diner trying to guess the identity of his tormentor; from the full-on spectacle of the truck chasing Mann around a snake farm, to the strangely beautiful finale, Duel is a far more protean experience than it had any right to be. Extended from 73 minutes on TV to 90 minutes in the cinema, some of its best moments are only viewable in the theatrical version: the POV shots from the bonnet of Mann's car, which skilfully chart his journey from suburbia to sticks; the truck's attempts to push Mann in front of a train, the darkly comic moment in which the truck comes to the aid of a school bus after Mann has been unable to help them.
The big screen version also features one of the greatest faux pas in recent movie history — due to the change in screen shape, glimpsed briefly but clearly in Mann's rear view mirror is a youthful Steven Spielberg directing from the back seat. He is not the only one undertaking the ride of a lifetime.
A made-for-TV movie that proved so remarkable it received a theatrical release (first in Europe, then 10 years later in the US), Spielberg's calling card is as distinctive a piece of visual storytelling as you're ever likely to see.