Stephen Spielberg’s first feature film is a taught thriller that will almost certainly remind you of one of his most famous films – Jaws.

The plot of Duel is essentially the same as Jaws but replace the shark with a semi-truck and the ocean with the open road. David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is an average guy, embarking on an average sales trip, that is, until a maniac in a giant semi-truck decides to turn his world upside down.

What makes this film so effective is the lack of basic information. Withholding knowledge from viewers is a lost art and one that is sorely missing from modern horror. Think about it, how many films recently have gone back to a once fearsome killer’s past and based a whole movie on that (I am looking at you Rob Zombie’s Halloween). It used to be antagonists didn’t have to be psychoanalyzed and understood. They could just kill and scare. That is exactly what the truck does in Duel – terrify for no reason other than to terrorize.

Spielberg is able to quickly build tension (Why is the truck stalking the guy?) and keep it there for the duration (Oh snap, the truck driver is not going to give up until he kills) of the film. A few nice coincidences like a broken down school bus and faulty radiator hose ensure that no matter what Mr. Mann does he remains trapped, driving for his very life.

The truck is quite frightening and made me wonder several times how I would react if put in a similar situation; another sign of a respectable thriller. Malevolent, menacing, and murderous all come to mind as the truck takes on a life of its own. And remember, you never see the face of the driver (okay, maybe a frame or two) outside of an occasional wave. This places the emphasis squarely on the oversized and dirty grill of the death truck.

The directing is superb throughout; Spielberg at a very young age pulls off some very nice shots. It is easy to see why he was given more opportunities to direct. The intro is unique; it follows a POV shot from the front bumper of a car as it leaves it house and makes its way through town. Innovative. Steady wide shots illustrate the loneliness and openness of the California back country and help to emphasize just how much danger the protagonist is dealing with.

If you haven’t seen this, I highly recommend.

Snore Factor: ZZ

IMDB 1971

Trailer for Duel

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