Follow TV Tropes


Film / Duel

Go To
Fear is the driving force.

"A duel is about to begin between a man, a truck, and an open road. Where a simple battle of wits is now a matter of life and death."

A 1971 suspense/thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Milquetoast businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is driving across the California desert in his red Plymouth Valiant when he passes a slow-moving semi-truck. Much to his surprise, the truck proceeds to pass him and slow down again. This repeats a number of times, and finally David pulls over into a gas station to get away from the redneck nut.

Except that the truck stops with him. As the movie progresses, the truck and its unseen driver continues to stalk David, getting more and more aggressive in its attacks, until David has no choice but to fight back.

The first full-length feature directed by Spielberg, this Made-for-TV Movie was adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson (who also wrote the script). Shot in just two weeks, it turned out so well it was given a theatrical release in Europe featuring added scenes filmed after its first airing on television.

Unrelated to an old kung-fu movie titled Duel Of The Iron Fist, which is titled The Duel in certain international releases and coincidentally also from 1971.

Duel provides examples of:

  • Action Survivor: At no time does Mann decide to be a hero. He just wants to survive.
  • Actor Allusion: Weaver repeats one of his lines from Touch of Evil, telling the truck driver in the café that he has "another thing coming." Spielberg lobbied for Dennis Weaver to star in the movie because he admired Weaver's work in that film.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Since it was based on a short story, the movie naturally adds a lot of new scenes to expand the story to movie length. These include, among other things, the scene at the railroad crossing and the bus.
  • The Alleged Car: Mann's car qualifies even before getting battered by the truck. Mann mentions early on that he needs to go get the engine fixed. This becomes a plot point when the engine overheats.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Also a Bittersweet Ending. David wins the duel, but at the cost of his briefcase and his car, meaning that he is left by a cliff in the middle of nowhere with no visible means to return home.
  • Attempted Rape: What Mann's wife says almost happened to her at the party the night before.
  • Automobiles Are Alien: Although it clearly has a driver, the truck is made out to be a living entity, inscrutable and irrational, out to specifically kill Mann. Its unkempt appearance makes it all the scarier.
  • Batman Gambit: After the truck driver waves him in front of his truck, Mann's plan at the end is to get the truck on a steep grade where he could easily outrun him on upside. Unfortunately, the strain of it finally burst his radiator hose. He wins the race up the mountain - barely - but it badly damages his car. He knows the duel will soon be over, one way or another.
  • Big Badass Rig: Spielberg "cast" the nastiest, grungiest looking semi he could find on a TV-movie budget. Then he had it made to look even dirtier and oilier.
  • Blood from the Mouth: What happens to Mann when he hits his head after taking a sudden turn.
  • Car Fu: The whole movie in a nutshell. The trucker has a very big preference for trying to ram things.
  • Car Meets House: When Mann stops on a tourist trap to try to make a call to the police, the truck prevents him from doing so by ramming the phone booth and then demolishes several snake cages trying to run over Mann.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The radiator hose.
    • Subverted with the flammable gas tank of the truck, which does not explode at any point.
  • Cassandra Truth: Nobody believes Mann when he claims a truck driver is trying to kill him.
  • Cool Car: For a dirty, grungy, killing machine, the truck is surprisingly impressive.
  • Creator Cameo: Two, both completely unintentional. You can see director Steven Spielberg's reflection in the phone booth, and, in the theatrical version, the change in aspect ratio reveals him in the back seat of the car in one shot.
  • Creepy Souvenir: Implied. The multiple license plates from different states mounted on the truck's front and back. Yeah, they could just be proof that the driver regularly crosses state lines, but given how he behaves, and the fact there are notches carved in the headlights...
  • Disney Villain Death: The truck and its driver end up driving over a ledge after being blinded when they ram into David's car and it catches fire.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Three guesses who this tropes applies to.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Mann does nothing to the truck driver but pass in front of him. Apparently, that's enough for the truck driver to terrorize him and then try to murder him.
    David: "I don't know, all I did was pass his stupid rig a couple of times, and he goes flying off the deep end... He has to be crazy..."
  • Establishing Character Moment: Mann's phone call to his wife, mirroring the henpecked husband from the radio show.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Brazenly inverted. A tanker truck (with "Flammable" prominently displayed on the side), after attempting to ram the protagonist off the road for the entire movie, is itself run off a cliff. The protagonist runs to the cliff, waiting for the inevitable explosion. And... nothing happens. Fade to black, roll credits - this despite the original story and the movie script actually featuring the explosion. Whereas David's ordinary car actually bursts into flames.
  • Extreme Doormat: Mann is a self-admitted Henpecked Husband, he didn't defend his wife after she was inappropriately groped at a party, and his only strategy at first for dealing with the violent truck driver is to try and avoid him as much as he can.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The film takes place over the course of just one day, from the morning to the sunset.
  • The Faceless: The driver of the truck is never seen in full. The audience only ever sees his arm in one scene, his snakeskin boots in another, and a brief shadowy glimpse at the end. Of course, this is to emphasize that the truck itself is the main enemy.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The truck driver helps nudge a stalled school bus back onto the road, presumably because Mann had just failed to and because doing so makes Mann look like a lunatic ranting about truck drivers out to kill him. He's less polite to the owner of Snakearama, whose cages he barrels through.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The whole plot of the movie is foreshadowed with this complaint from Mrs. Mann: "You said there would be no problem getting home on time!"
    • The truck has multiple license plates mounted on it, clearly from different states. At first glance, a viewer would think this is just a marker that the driver regularly crosses state lines. They're a subtle clue that he's a Serial Killer.
  • Funny Background Event: Doubles as an Establishing Character Moment, at the start of the movie, you can hear a caller on the radio calling into the show to discuss his census form, his issue being that he is asked whether he is the head of the household, which he isn't, and feels ashamed of having to fill that in on the census. This is mirrored in Mann, who is somewhat of a henpecked husband.
  • The Glasses Come Off: Inverted; Mann puts on his glasses as he is getting ready to have his final showdown with the truck.
  • Glowing Eyes of Doom: The truck's headlights in the tunnel.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The only sign that the truck driver is killed when his ride goes over the cliff is a brief shot of the cabin's interior, where a very dark red fluid is dripping off of the steering wheel. Even then, one can argue it's just oil.
  • Gut Punch: The trucker spends the first part of the movie being an obnoxious nuisance, but not exactly threatening. It is when the trucker tricks Mann into a head-on collision (that he barely avoids) with another car that the trucker's insanity becomes evident.
  • Henpecked Husband: Mann, and also the man calling into the show on the radio at the beginning of the movie.
  • Hope Spot: When David sees what he thinks is a police car... then subverted when it turns out to just be a pest exterminator's car.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: The truck driver seems to be deliberately hunting other drivers down and killing them, if one takes the "trophies" into account.
  • Implacable Man: The truck driver will not let Mann get away. He repeatedly stops and waits to ambush him if he gets ahead, and even circles back to find Mann on several occasions.
  • Just Toying with Them: There are many moments when the truck driver could have easily killed Mann several times before the climax should he have wanted to, like the scene along the train tracks. But nope, he just wanted to revel in Mann's fear and helplessness a little bit more.
  • Kick the Dog. Sally, a kindly older woman, runs a gas station and has a small roadside menagerie featuring her beloved pet snakes and other desert animals. To stop Mann from getting help, the trucker mows down the phone-booth at "Sally's Snake-O-Rama" gas-station. The trucker also runs over several of the cages, leading to Sally frantic over the welfare of her animals.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Instead of watching hopefully as Mann tries to push the bus to save them, they are making faces at him and verbally mocking him.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Upon finding a phone booth at an isolated gas station, David notes that it's a "weird place for a phone booth".
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Not only is it Mann vs. Machine, it's also David vs. Goliath.
    • In the short story, the trucker's name is given as "Keller." I.e., Man vs. Killer.
    • The DVD commentary by the writer has him, slightly embarrassed, admit he called the hero "Mann" in order to make him represent all mankind.
  • Mighty Roar: Spielberg added one (taken from an old dinosaur flick) as the truck falls down the cliff. (it appears in Jaws as the shark's carcass sinks into the ocean). The Dolby soundtrack on the DVD (the default setting) lacks this.
  • Mundane Horror: There's nothing overtly supernatural about the truck or its driver. As far as the audience or the protagonist know, he's just some guy in a rusty big rig who likes to pick another driver at random and run them off the road, for who knows what reason.
  • No Full Name Given: In the original story, Mann has no first name, while his wife has one. In the film, this is inverted.
  • No Name Given: The truck driver is named "Keller" in the story but is nameless in the film.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The truck driver's status as being almost completely unseen definitely plays on this trope and contributes to the terrifying confusion as to exactly what the hell is with that truck.
  • Oh, Crap!: Mann's reaction when he sees the truck stopped at Chuck's Cafe. And, later, Mann's reaction when he sees the truck in the tunnel. Also when his car begins breaking down.
  • The Oner: The scene from when Mann first goes into Chuck's Cafe to when he sees the truck has no cuts.
  • Pet the Dog: Subverted. The truck driver gets a few moments of these to show that he is not above helping out a school bus full of kids in need or giving a friendly honk to passing trains. This is part of a simple but extremely effective scheme by the truck driver, to isolate Mann from any possible source of help. It works, but Mann wins the duel by sacrificing his car.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • Mann could have asked the man at the diner which truck was his before he started blaming him. Instead fisticuffs ensued.
    • In the original TV version, David sees that the man is wearing boots identical to those he saw at the gas station which leads him to incorrectly assume that that's the trucker he's after. He even thinks "Oh yeah, that's him, all right, that's him." This explanation was removed from the theatrical version which makes it seem like he just picked a random guy and hoped he was right.
  • P.O.V. Cam: The opening credits are shown from the perspective of Mann's car as he drives out of the city.
  • "Psycho" Strings: Heard when the truck begins to back up towards Mann and the elderly couple, causing the elderly couple to flee the scene.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Mann is nearly pushed into a moving train at a grade crossing by the truck, as it continues to toy with him.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Writer Richard Matheson based the original story on an incident where a truck driver started tailgating him on his way home from a golfing match. (Interestingly, it happened on the day JFK was assassinated.)
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: As if Mann wasn't having a bad enough day already, at one point he has to avoid snakes and spiders released from their cages by the truck as it tries to run him over. Subverted, as their owner is a kindly woman who clearly cares about them and is distraught by them being put in danger.
  • Rule of Scary: The truck has a large steel girder affixed to the front bumper, perhaps replacing it. In addition to adding force to a ramming attack, it makes the truck look even more intimidating than it already does. It probably wouldn't be allowed in real life.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: The exterminator car's company is "Greblieps" - Speilberg.
  • Serial Killer: A careful examination of the truck suggests that the driver has done this before, several times.
  • Sinister Car: The main antagonist of the movie is a truck which is treated almost as a living, sentient entity; the identity of the driver is deliberately obscured.
  • Specs of Awesome: David, at the end.
  • Spiritual Successor: Road Games (1981) and (some say) Joy Ride (2001), along with Breakdown (1997) and Premium Rush (2012). Road Train also probably owes a bit of inspiration to this film, albeit with an explicitly supernatural antagonist. Also thought to have inspired the "possessed car" genre of The '70s and The '80s, including works like Christine, The Cars That Ate Paris, and The Car.
  • The Spook: The truck driver's name and his reasons for why he chases and torments Mann are never made known. We don't even get to see more than the occasional glimpse of a limb or two. His nature is a complete mystery.
  • Surprise Vehicle: At one point the truck suddenly appears behind Mann, despite the fact that he was keeping an eye out for it.
  • Tired of Running: At the end, with a badly damaged car, Mann is forced into facing the truck and completing the duel.
  • Vehicular Assault: The truck is treated as the villain instead of its driver, with several shots devoted to making it seem alive.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: When David tries to use his vehicle to help push a school bus, his puny Alleged Car is an ineffective disappointment. The truck driver shows up and does a much better job, making David look bad, making himself look good and frustrating the shit out of David even more.
  • Why Don't Ya Just Shoot Him?: There are several times the truck driver could kill Mann easily (especially when he is on foot), but swerves clear in order to give him a fair chance and/or to toy some more with him. The one time the truck driver nearly kills him outside his car is when he tries to call the police at the gas station.