Spielberg: Duel

Watching the made-for-TV Duel (1971) brought home to me something about Spielberg that I’d missed by focusing on his prominent fixation on father-son relationships, but which is inextricably bound to it: Steven doesn’t really ‘do’ female characters, let alone women’s stories. What’s more, he knows it and he’s OK with it. No wonder that Robert Matheson’s story clicked with him – Matheson was a guy with similar interests in the man alone against the odds. Matheson’s other contribution to the genre is the beautifully bleak pulp masterpiece I Am Legend.

Check out the opening credits to Duel for a taste of how most men bobbing in the wake of first wave feminism were feeling – there’s more going on than just the physical transition from suburb, to city, to lonely frontier from the car’s point of view, especially if you listen to the radio and the rant that the DJ goes on about his wife towards the end:

This spiel about ‘who’s the head of the family’ goes on, even as our protagonist (the generically named David Mann) has his first encounter with the dirty old Peterbilt truck that will become the other central figure in the film. The car and the truck pass each other a couple of times, and then Mann pulls into a gas station to fill up. The “Pete” pulls in too, but we never get a look at who’s behind the wheel, and nor does Mann. We see a glimpse of a hand, a pair of cowboy boots and jeans and that’s all. Meanwhile, the talkback conversation is plainly weighing heavy on Mann. When the pump jockey tells him he’ll need a new radiator hose and Mann declines, the pump jockey shrugs, “You’re the boss” and Mann shoots back, “Not in my house I’m not.” (In fairness, when Mann calls his wife she does seem kind of, um, hard.)

From that gas stop onwards, boy oh boy, is it on. The contrast between Mann and his faceless nemesis couldn’t be clearer. The Pete truck is massive, it’s old, it’s dirty and it’s a work vehicle – it is not the set of wheels you use for picking up a hot date for dinner at a fancy restaurant. From what we can see of him, the guy driving it is clad in the uniform of the hard living West. He’s such a shorthand stereotype that during one scene set in a roadside diner, Mann spends his entire meal staring at the legs of the men around him and realising with mounting horror that the man hunting him could be any one of them.

Mann, on the other hand, is in a tie and collar. He’s fretting about being late for an appointment. He feels henpecked. Instead of cussing, he uses terms like “Man, oh man” and “That’s just beautiful!” when he’s annoyed. His ride is as cherry-red shiny as a cover girl’s pout and just as pretty. There you have it in a nutshell: this is new American masculinity vs old American masculinity. The city slicker vs the cowboy. Mann vs man. It’s little wonder that when Duel was released in European cinemas, critics thought it was a thinly veiled comment on the American class system, though that interpretation mystified Spielberg because he thought he’d made High Noon on wheels.

This is where the casting of Dennis Weaver as Mann is so inspired. Weaver had a long history playing both heroes and villains in Westerns throughout the 1950s, and was no stranger to crime drama either. He’d played five different characters – three of them cops – on Dragnet. By the time Duel came to TV in 1971, Weaver was best known to American television audiences as good-guy game warden Tom Wedloe on the hugely popular and family-friendly Gentle Ben (think Lassie or Flipper or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, but with a bear).

In other words, Weaver was a guy that Spielberg knew would make a believable hero audiences would root for: decent, resourceful, clean-cut and with cast-iron balls the size of throw cushions. No one wants to see the dad from Gentle Ben get smushed on a highway.

Given what Mann is up against, Weaver is going to need to generate all the goodwill for this character that he can. In this scene, the trucker makes it plain that he’s not interested in a one-sided fight and wants Mann to put his dukes up. Shunting Mann’s Plymouth into the path of a freight train would be easy, so where’s the fun in it? Far better to toy with Mann like a tiger playing with a mouse:

As one YouTube commenter has pointed out, this is the moment when most of us would have turned around and gone home. But Mann is in it to win it, baby. He has been challenged to a duel, and by God and the Stars and Stripes, he is equal to the fight. Sure, he does what any self-respecting sheriff in his situation would do and tries to round up a posse by calling the police from a phone booth. Unfortunately his attempt is thwarted when the trucker, horn blaring as he bears down on Mann at speed, calls ‘no fair’ on this tactic. A duel, by very definition, can involve only two combatants at a time:

Dig the dinosaur death noises: a deliberate ploy on Spielberg’s part, as was the license plate collection on the truck’s grille – meant to convey that perhaps this trucker made a nasty habit of engaging in to-the-death drive-offs.

To me, Duel’s ultimate message is that it doesn’t matter how many lawns the modern man mows, or how neatly he trims his hair, or how often he lets his wife have her own way. Deep down, he’s still a primitive blood-lusting beast behind the wheel of his own Peterbilt truck. That’s a view neatly encapsulated by this ‘alternative ending’ to Duel:

Clare Moody

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