David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a businessman on a long distance car journey to his next appointment. On the way, he passes a huge truck whose driver takes a serious, inexplicable dislike to him, so much so that he tries to run Mann off the road. But it doesn't end there - it becomes obvious that the trucker will not be satisfied until Mann is dead...
Richard Matheson's screenplay for Duel is essentially an aggressive cross between a road movie and a monster film. Steven Spielberg originally directed it to be shown on television, but it was considered to be so effective that addtional scenes were added to increase the running time to ninety minutes, and the film was released to cinemas around the world.
The truck itself is a formidable beast: bulky, grimy, billowing exhaust fumes and sounding its horn, it would be threatening even if it wasn't trying to murder Mann. We never get a good look at the trucker, all we see of him are his arm as he waves Mann past (both times to potential doom) and his cowboy boots as he walks around the side of his vehicle. This adds to the air of paranoia and menace - we are never given a reason for the trucker's murderous intent.
Mann, on the other hand, is represented as weak: Weaver is nervous and sweaty, his voiceovers are panicky and desperate. The whole drama feels like a test of his manliness (or lack of it). In the scene at the cafe, after he has been run off the road for the first time, he has to take an aspirin, then grows to believe that the trucker is sitting amongst the cafe's customers with him. But when he picks a fight with the most likely suspect, Mann ends up cowering and beaten on the floor; he doesn't actually pick the right guy, either. In fact, nobody he goes to for help actually believes him or assists him, cranking up the tension all the more.
The chase scenes are superbly filmed, with the roar of the engines and fast cutting between the two opponents' vehicles as they speed through the dusty desert landscape. Details are added which make the action more exciting, whether it's the radio blandly playing country music while Mann's life is at stake, or the truck smashing through cages of rattlesnakes as Mann dives out the way. What could have been forgotten as just another TV movie became, in the hands of Spielberg and Matheson, one of the finest, most suspenseful, car chase films of the seventies.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.