Everything I ever read or heard about Steven Spielberg’s feature length directing debut was that it was a masterpiece, but after finally seeing it, I beg to differ. While it is technically well made and has one or two moments of genuine suspense, for the most part it’s rather ho-hum.
The plot is simple: McCloud is driving down the road and is menaced by a psychotic truck driver (whom we never see) who tries to drive him off the road. That’s it. This premise may have bode well on an episode of Night Gallery or something (also directed by the ‘berg), but when it’s expanded into a 90 minute made for TV movie, it leaves something to be desired. The attacks by the unseen driver also get a bit repetitive as the film heads to it’s lumbering conclusion.
Whenever McCloud is driving for his life with the truck breathing down his neck, Duel runs on all cylinders, but whenever he gets out of the damn car, the movie likewise slams on the brakes. There is one terrific moment when the truck nearly runs him over while he’s in a phone booth, but that scene has been copied so many times in countless other movies (like Dreamscape for instance) that it’s kinda worn out it’s welcome.
Another thing that irritated me about the movie is McCloud himself. I know he’s supposed to be the stand-in for the “Everyman” (his last name in the movie is even “Mann” for Christ’s sake), but he makes for a rather wussy hero. Also the voiceover narration of his inner monologues are all pretty worthless and are quite gratuitous to boot.
I will say this about Duel, it is better than most made for TV movies of the era, but in the end, it never fully kicks into high gear. Any fan of Spielberg will definitely want to see Duel, as it’s more or less a precursor to Jaws (Spielberg even used the same sound effect of the truck going off the cliff when the shark died), but it still remains a minor, but notable notch in Spielberg’s oeuvre. It’s not terrible, just severely overrated. (It’s certainly better than crap like Hook, Always or Empire of the Sun, I’ll give it that.) Spielberg and screenwriter Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson later teamed up for Twilight Zone: The Movie.