When we meet David Mann (Dennis Weaver), he's clipping along a deserted highway in his 1971 Plymouth Valiant, listening to talk radio. The DJ has called in to the Census Bureau, and he's playing a bit of a prank on the woman who answers the phone. He tells her he's struggling with how to fill out his form, which asks him if he's the "head" of his household. On the one hand, he tells the Census Bureau employee, his wife is the only one who works ("I hate working, I hate going out and meeting people"). On the other hand, he's the "man of the house," so surely he must be the "head of the household," right?
"Well," the woman on the phone tells him, "If you don't consider yourself head of the household, and you think your wife occupies that position, I would suggest you put your wife's name there." Yes, the DJ replies, "but that's so embarrassing. What would you people think when I send in the form?" The operator assures the emasculated caller that "no one's even going to know," and it's supposed to be laughable, the problem this guy on the phone's having. Just a gag. But a guy like David Mann, well, we'll soon find out that proving himself to be a man is one of his biggest concerns. At home, at work and, very soon now, on the road, David Mann will wage a life-or-death struggle against emasculation.
Mann breasts a hill, and that's when he sees the Truck for the first time.
The Truck is a 1955 Peterbilt 281 Tanker. It is truly monstrous. The Truck belches smoke in great, billowing plumes. It takes up more than its fair share of the road. Its every edge is rough, its every surface coated in dirt, grime and oil. The collection of license plates on its front bumper (more of a battering ram, really) indicate that the Truck and its Driver get around. We see what David's Plymouth looks like next to the Truck, and it's almost comical: he and his car look like a flickering match held up to a raging forest fire.
So begins Steven Spielberg's Duel, a made-for-TV movie (later expanded to feature length) that pulls double-duty as a tense psychological thriller and a deconstruction of masculine panic. Written by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, numerous Twilight Zone episodes) and based on one of his own 1963 short stories*, Duel has just as much power today as it did when it debuted in 1971. It's a remarkable film, and in a number of ways: for its economic storytelling, for its enduring relevance, for the fact that it was shot and edited in approximately three weeks. So what if Duel's symbolism isn't subtle? It's damn effective.
The majority of the film plays out along a series of deserted highways in California. The Truck - David's fear of other men and his own rubbery spine made manifest - chases him relentlessly through the hills, down a mountain, in and out of a truck stop diner (filled with smirking good ol' boys swilling beer and shooting pool, naturally) and alongside perilously steep cliffs. There are small moments of triumph along the way, but every time David thinks he's gotten the better of the Truck it pops up again in his rearview mirror...or, even worse, directly in front of him. It's inescapable.
We learn more about David along the way, and every bit of character development works in support of Matheson's emasculation theme. He calls his wife from a gas station and apologizes for a fight the couple had the night before: apparently, one of David's co-workers made a pretty strong pass at his wife, and David failed to do anything about it ("He was practically trying to rape me in front of the whole party," she says with palpable disdain). An injured David, entering the diner after being forced off the road by the Truck, endures barely concealed snickers from the men inside. The men around him order burgers, while the timid David orders a Swiss cheese sandwich. Later, he will be asked to help get a broken-down schoolbus full of children up and running, and they will point and make faces at him when his dinky little car is unable to get the job done. And through it all, the Truck bears down on him.
Eventually, David Mann will have enough of this, and - in the film's most famous sequence - he will stand up for himself. The Truck (whose Driver is never seen, because the Truck/Driver is intended as a symbol, not a character) makes one last push to wipe David out once and for all, and David leaps out of his little red car (read: frees himself of his cowardice) just as the Truck barrels into it. The Truck tears into the now-flaming Valiant, shoving it - and itself, and the Driver - over the edge of a cliff. David looks on from above, running the gamut of emotions: he jumps for joy, he cries, he laughs. He's "won." He's a "man" now.
When Spielberg made Duel, he had next to zero directing credits to his name. He'd directed an episode of The Name Of The Game for NBC in 1971, and a chunk of the Night Gallery pilot in 1969, but this was his first, big, notable production. Duel would go on to be nominated for a "Best Made For TV Movie" Golden Globe in 1972, and shortly thereafter Universal brought The Beard in to add another 16 minutes worth of footage to the film (the schoolbus scene and the railroad crossing sequence were added) so that it could be released theatrically. A few years later, he went on to direct Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express, and shortly after that, Jaws happened. Things pretty much snowballed from there.
Nowadays, we know Spielberg as a modern master, but it's easy to take that status for granted. One of the most thrilling things about watching Duel today is seeing how much of that mastery was already intact four decades ago: the film is perfectly paced and balanced, and the staging is assured. Spielberg gets a brilliant performance out of star Dennis Weaver (it's basically a one-man show for much of its run-time, and a great one, at that), and many moments operate as perfect little nods to Hitchcock, one of Spielberg's greatest heroes and influences. Some might take issue with Duel's ending, considering the non-reveal of the Driver and the sudden destruction of the Truck to be anticlimactic. Such people are missing the point. Everything Duel needed to do to stick the landing happens in the film's final shot, with an exhausted David sitting at the edge of a cliff, staring into the middle distance and absent-mindedly tossing pebbles down onto the wreckage below.
Note: Duel poster by Nicolas Bannister
* = Fun Fact: The short story Duel is based on originally appeared in Playboy magazine, and was inspired by a real-life encounter Matheson had on a stretch of highway the same day JFK was assassinated.