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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Duel (1971)
(50th Anniversary Edition)


Starring: Dennis Weaver
Distributor: Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises
RRP: £14.99


Certificate: PG
Release Date: 31 May 2021

This 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray release from Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises couldn’t be more timely, as far as I’m concerned. Duel is one of my favourite movies of all time – certainly registering high in my top dozen – and I’ve only recently been searching for a Blu-ray or 4K version to replace my old and well-worn DVD. I couldn’t be happier to finally view this amazing film from 1971 in HD.

Dennis Weaver – best known for the 1970s police series McCloud, which first aired from 1970 until 1977 – plays David Mann, a travelling salesman on his way to California to meet a client for a lucrative deal. At one point he overtakes a slow-moving 40 ton truck, which shortly afterwards overtakes him and slows right down again. Concerned that he might be late for his appointment, Mann makes a risky movement to get past the truck. Thereafter, he is singled-out as prey for the super-charged huge truck, and Mann is caught in a desperate down-spiralling game of cat and mouse for survival.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But believe me, this movie is packed full of nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat suspense. It’s as though a proverbial ratchet is steadily clicking-up the tension. Several factors come together to make this work in synergy. The first is the choice of actor. Dennis Weaver was chosen based on his impressive performance in Touch of Evil (1958), and achieves the impossible by carrying this portrayal alone. There are around fifteen or so peripheral characters whose cameos Mann has only the briefest interaction with (his wife on the phone, a roadside café’s handful of patrons, a petrol pump attendant and a school bus driver and some kids. For ninety percent of the running time it’s simply the man, his car and the terrifying truck. This works really well, as the viewer sub-consciously bonds and sympathises with Mann to the point that they replace him in the car and experience many of the emotions he very clearly feels: humour, impatience, annoyance, fear, terror, the edge of madness, and an underlying survival instinct. Weaver also performed many of his own stunts.

The second factor is the source material. Duel originated as a novelette tale by master storyteller Richard Matheson, which was printed in Playboy magazine only a short time before it was optioned for the screen. Legendary filmmaker Stephen Spielberg was to be the director. Yes, him. But I’ll come to that. Matheson was a master of his art and had countless novels and shorts adapted for TV or the big screen – many of which he also wrote the script/screenplay for. Among his many successes you might recognise are The Shrinking Man (it had the word ‘Incredible’ added for the film), I Am Legend (adapted into at least three different film versions), Hell House (The Legend of…) , A Stir of Echoes, The Button, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, and of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (the classic Twilight Zone episode, starring William Shatner).

A young Stephen Spielberg was shown the Playboy story of Duel by his assistant, as she felt it would be of interest. Spielberg had worked in television, so the original idea was to film it as a TV movie, but ultimately after editing it the rare decision was made to film additional scenes for a theatrical release. As a fan of silent movies he wanted to make the truck a sinister character rather than simply an object. Spielberg auditioned seven different trucks as if they were actors, deciding on a 1955 Peterbilt 281 because the front resembled a face. In doing so, he created one of the most unusual and menacing characters in a movie. The filming is very low and contact-based, giving the feeling you are not just witnessing events but are actually a part of them. He also achieved a number of ‘firsts’ with the professional aid of Stunt Co-ordinator Carey Loftin, who arranged the times car chases in Vanishing Point (another favourite of mine), Bullitt, and The French Connection. Loftin drove the truck. First person-effective low shots of the road create a sense of speed and panic, which has subsequently been copied in multiple films. Also, rogue trucks and cars with faceless unseen drivers have been used many a time but to much lesser effect. Spielberg proved to the producer that he could film the entire script on location (the director fought against using soundstage sequences) in little over ten days. It was well worth the fact he went two or three days over on the shoot, otherwise we might have ended-up with back projection and Steven Spielberg might not have been given the leeway to achieve the impressive career he has.

You would think that the roadside café scene would be utilised as a breather – a break in the pace – but there is no downtime here, as he silently scrutinises the patrons and their boots, attempting to discover which, if any, is the driver of the truck. We hear his thoughts, and frantic reasoning. There are some amazing set-pieces, and also some red herrings in that certain other things are made to sound like the truck as we experience Mann’s shaken psyche. Spielberg even incorporated a primeval monster roar at the conclusion. The camerawork is amazing, with unusual shots and angles which enhance the off-kilter reality of events. The striking sound score (not really music) accompanies the picture well, making the truck even more menacing. I played the film through my new home cinema system and the loud rumble each time the truck approaches is both exhilarating and unnerving.

The entertaining extras include A Conversation with Director Steven Spielberg; Steven Spielberg and the small screen; Richard Matheson: Writing of Duel; Trailer; Photograph and Poster Gallery; and an all new Graham Humphrey artwork sleeve. If you like road movies and buckets of suspense, I can’t urge you enough to add this to your collection.


Ty Power

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