A while back, I met the Jalopnik crew out for drinks. I approached Justin Westbrook—president of the Jalopnik Movie Club—and asked him why he hadn’t written about what I called (and what the world should know as) “the greatest car movie of all time.” He asked me what movie I was referring to. “Duel, of course,” I answered.
“All you old guys always say that,” he said, taking a sip of his fancy IPA before ripping a giant Juul hit and rolling his eyes. “You can write that one.”
(Welcome back to Jalopnik Movie Club, where we take a look at cars in movies and movies about cars, and you write in with all of your hot takes. This week, David Obuchowski is guest-reviewing Steven Spielberg’s Duel.)
While I do not appreciate being called old, I do appreciate any opportunity to watch this film, which was Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut as a feature filmmaker.
Seriously, just watch the trailer and tell me you don’t want to stop what you’re doing and see this:
Based on a Richard Matheson short story, Duel is very lean, extremely mean, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Packed with metaphors and functioning as an allegory about masculinity, it’s quite a smart film, too.
But above all, it is a car flick. And it is a simple car flick: 89 minutes of road rage. More specifically, it’s about an hour and a half of a Peterbilt tanker truck terrorizing a guy in a red (Tor-Red, I believe, would be the factory designation) Plymouth Valiant.
Duel is at all times a car movie. Start to finish. There are three scenes that don’t take place on the road and two of them are in gas stations, and one of them is at a roadside diner. There aren’t any subplots about loyalty or brotherhoods, no heists, no romance, no love triangles.
Hell, there aren’t even any crazy cars with expensive mods. This is a 100 percent pure car movie for the people, and it establishes that right from the start.
Directly after the Universal Pictures logo, the film opens black and you hear the sound of a car starting. The blackness, it turns out is merely the dark of a garage. The camera is mounted on the front of a car, and so we get the grille-eye view of what starts as a rather mundane commute through suburbia, then through the city, and then out onto the California highways toward Bakersfield.
All the while, the soundtrack is the radio. The traffic report gives way to sports, and then finally gives way to a comedy bit in which a man calls the Census because he has a question about filling out the Census form. The friendly woman on the other line is happy to help. The caller explains that even though he’s a man, he also stays home with the kids while his wife works. Consequently, he doesn’t know whether he should mark himself as “head of the household” or not. On one hand, he doesn’t feel like he is. On the other hand, he doesn’t want anyone at the Census Bureau to judge him, a man, as being anything less than that.
I know. It was the ’70s.
But this tortured, dated comedy routine, it turns out, is central to the film’s thesis, which is, simply: what does it mean to be a man? Over the next hour and a half, we watch the traditional notions of masculinity get both reinforced and razed as we follow along with our main character who is not-so-subtly named Dave Mann.
Mann, portrayed by Dennis Weaver, is the driver of the Valiant (which, according to my research, was portrayed by three different Valiants with engines ranging from the 225 Slant-6 to the 318 V8). Yes, this is a movie about a man named Mann who braves dangerous roads in a Valiant. Sometimes it’s best to not beat around the bush.
In a normal world, I’m sure Mann would appear to be just your average, everyday businessman. But in Chuck’s Cafe (where one of the few non-driving scenes takes place), a watering hole/diner on the side of a rural California highway, he looks woefully out of place amongst the locals, who all look like Merle Haggard (emphasis on the haggard) stand-ins.
To be more precise, he looks weak in his khakis and dress shirt and tie. And this perception may be closer to the character’s reality. Twelve minutes into the film (shortly after his first run-in with the Peterbilt From Hell), he stops at a gas station to fill up. Because this takes place in the early ’70s, there’s a full-service attendant there, who checks under the hood and suggests he could use a new radiator hose (which will obviously come into play later). Mann tells him he’ll get one another time. “You’re the boss,” the attendant says. “Not in my house, I’m not,” Mann mutters.
As the attendant fills up the Valiant (“Fill it with ethyl,” Mann tells the attendant. “If Ethel don’t mind,” the attendant replies), Mann calls home to his wife and immediately starts apologizing to her. Turns out, he failed to defend her honor at a party the night before. And though he’s contrite, he’s just as defensive. “You think I should go and call Steve Henderson up and challenge him to a fistfight,” he stammers.
“Of course not,” his wife answers. “But I think you could have at least said something to the the man. After all, he was practically trying to rape me in front of the whole party.” But never mind, she doesn’t want to talk about it, she says, because doing so would cause a fight. And then she adds cuttingly: “and you wouldn’t want that, would you?”
On top of the tension at home, work is stressful (he’s in danger of losing an important account), and his mother is coming over for dinner that night—-something his wife tells him he needs to be home on time for.
Good luck with that, Mr. Mann.
In other words, Mann’s having a hard day within an already hard life. So you’ll forgive him if he gets a little impatient when he comes up behind a slow-moving, black-smoke-belching, tanker. Needing to make his meeting, and sick of huffing diesel exhaust, Mann decides to pass the truck.
The truck driver (driven by stuntman and actor Carey Loftin who also did excellent driving work in other car movies like Vanishing Point, Bullitt, and Maximum Overdrive, among many others) takes umbrage to the pass and retaliates by passing Mann and then, of course, he rides the brake.
At this point, we’ve all been in Mann’s shoes. We’ve all dealt with asshole drivers who take things personally. It’s standard-issue road rage. And at this point, you might even do what Mann does in the film and pass the truck yet one more time, because really, fuck that guy!
If that’s what Mann was thinking then, it turns out he’s wrong. It becomes quickly apparent, when there’s a lunatic truck driver hellbent on killing you with his Peterbilt, there’s not really any safe place to be.
Duel unfolds with the Valiant trying to outrun the Peterbilt, the Peterbilt boxing out the Valiant in passing lanes, the truck driver cooping, stalking, rampaging and the Valiant skidding, speeding, drifting, and swerving.
Meanwhile, you don’t have to put up with any cheesy good guy/bad buy dialogue. Because, in fact, we never hear the truck driver, and Dave Mann is by himself. Occasionally he provides a voice-over so we can “hear” his thoughts, and every once in a while he makes pithy comments to himself. But, really the movie is rather remarkable in just how little dialogue there is. (This might not be such a daring move for an “art film.” But consider that this was originally released as a made-for-TV movie, which aired on ABC. It was so successful with viewers and critics, Spielberg shot additional scenes to get it to its current 89-minute runtime for a theatrical release.)
Despite the scant dialogue, the movie effectively and constantly turns the screws. There’s no doubt that the truck driver is the “bad guy.” But I also take issue with more traditional summaries of the film that cast Mann as a lowly victim. The film is called, after all, Duel. And a duel, by definition, needs two participants. And only one can come out on top.
So, yes, clearly the truck driver is the the antagonist, particularly as he tries to run over Mann when he’s in a phone booth, or tries to push Mann and his Valiant into a train. And yet, even though Mann at times seems to be trying to extricate himself from the situation, he always comes back, and he never turns around.
After nearly an hour and a half of road rage, the movie builds to its climax, in which the truck driver goads Mann into a final showdown. There’s almost a kindness and respect with how the truck driver does this, and it’s all communicated with his driving. By the end, the exhausted Valiant and grimy Peterbilt are engaged in a sort of danse macabre, which does indeed end in death.
There’s already so little to this movie, that I feel like I’ve given up too much, and I hate to spoil the ending of a great movie (even if it is more than 45 years old). But suffice it to say, Spielberg proves he’s not only a master of direction, but of misdirection, too. The movie sets itself up as a straightforward tale of a man with his tail tucked between his legs and who must “man up” in some traditional (or more accurately: outdated) sense.
Rather, this movie is an hour-and-a-half-long object lesson about the dangers of machismo, about how there are no winners in what is, essentially, a pissing contest. Long before anyone was using the phrase toxic masculinity, this movie shows how where it can lead when it goes too far. What is the cowboy-boot-clad truck driver, after all, if not the ultimate embodiment of tough-guy manliness and male aggression? In the end, the very word “Mann” (or “man”) goes up in flames. In the end, the violence is pointless, and that is the point.
Thematics aside, this movie is a car movie for people who see Bullitt and Vanishing Point and French Connection and just fast forward to the chase scenes. This movie is a car movie for people who see cars leaping from helicopters onto skyscrapers and say, “Bullshit, I want to see real driving, and real cars.” This is a movie for people who saw Jaws and complained that they should have used a real shark and that, oh, the shark should have been eating people in every single scene for 90 minutes straight.
As it was filmed primarily in 1970, there is no CGI, and there are almost no special effects of any kind. There is just a red Plymouth and a massive Peterbilt going at it. In the scenes where Mann is pushing the Valiant up into the 90 mph range, it is actually somewhat frightening to watch. The Plymouth sways side-to-side, threatening to completely spin out of control multiple times. It fishtails and drifts and careens off posts in a way where I have to think the stunt driver must have broken out in a sweat more than a few times.
There are no unrealistic acrobatics, no moments where, suddenly, Mann drives like The Stig. In fact, one of my favorite parts about this movie is that Mann constantly looks behind him, and as he does, the car swerves, sometimes all the way on to the shoulder. He’s a normal guy, not some pro. That’s the kind of attention to detail that really makes the entire thing so convincing.
It’s an unrelenting film, and part of that is how real it is. Duel not only immediately established Spielberg as a brilliant director, but it set a bar for car movies that will I believe can never be reached.
After all, who needs a great car chase scene, when you can have it as the entire movie?
David Obuchowski is a writer whose essays regularly appear in Jalopnik. He’s also the host and writer of the podcast Tempest, the first season of which is available where ever you get your podcasts. His work has also appeared in The Awl, Longreads, SYFY, Deadspin and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidOfromNJ.