One Mann’s Valiant struggle against a mechanical murderer: a parable concerning diminishing manhood in this modern world of repressed anxiety and changing cultural mores. Dennis Weaver wonderfully portrays David Mann: a businessman whose identity is at stake, a man who feels tiny and insignificant in his tiny red Plymouth Valiant, his under-powered engine barely able to climb steep hills and get him safely to his destination.
Mann’s spiritual crossroads collides with a bullying truck driver, whose grimy and angry steel weapon dwarfs his own, a demon on wheels that pursues him through the hills and valleys pushing Mann to his very limits, until the final duel on the fiery ledge of the abyss where only one will survive. Director Steven Spielberg films in tight close-up, which reveals the sweaty anxiety of our hero while never showing the driver of the truck: he’s just a faceless monster in cowboy boots. This allows a suspenseful interlude at a diner where Mann must confront this unidentified killer and we are allowed access to his inner thoughts as he reasons his way towards hysteria. Spielberg gives us subtle clues and quick edits to lead us astray and build suspense, so when the truth is revealed we reel in shock.
Soon the diesel stench of fear permeates the air and we become claustrophobic, enclosed in the coffin-like interior of Mann’s car, while the temperature gauge and speedometer both slowly crawl towards their deadly nadir. The sparse music adds an element of suspense and dread as wicked strings and grinding metal punctuate the drama. Richard Matheson’s slender script is devoid of excess, allowing Spielberg to rely on frisson of visual momentum.
David Mann finally regains his manhood and his wild victory dance soon turns towards a languid glowing sunset, physically and emotionally spent from the ordeal. DUEL is one of Spielberg’s best films since it doesn't rely on the typical “happy ending” melodrama where the family reunites and everything is OK. Here, on this dismal precipice, David Mann’s future remains uncertain.
Final Grade: (A)