TTAC At The Movies: "Duel"

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Give any long-haul truck driver enough beer to loosen his tongue, and he will tell you something you don’t really want to know: that tractor-trailer drivers are both fully aware of their ability to murder their fellow motorists with impunity and occasionally desirous of doing so. This simple fact — that in a collision between car and truck, the truck always wins — is the basic premise behind Steven Spielberg’s 1971 film, Duel. Originally produced as a made-for-television “Movie Of The Week”, Duel could easily have been forgettable garbage, a simple thriller, or a plodding drama.

Instead, with just one minor change from what was already a conventional formula, Spielberg created a truly great movie. The change? It’s simple: we never meet the truck driver. (More) spoilers ahead…

David Mann (and yes, we are intended to see him as Man, not merely Mann) is a henpecked, miserable, embattled salesman. We see him calling his wife and apologizing for not “standing up” to a man who made a pass at her during a party. He looks at the ground and stammers when he deals with people. He drives a Plymouth Valiant with a low-power Slant Six; about the least masculine car money could buy from an American manufacturer back in the day. (A 318-powered Valiant was used in a few of the scenes, but as we will see, the movie car is definitely a Slant Six.) We’re talking about 115 gross horsepower to push three thousand pounds or more. In an era where American men are measured by their charm, charisma, bravery, and horsepower, Mann has none of the above.

On his way to an important appointment, Mann passes a slow-moving Peterbilt tanker truck… which then re-passes him at a high rate of speed. The battle is then joined, as Mann attempts to evade the truck and the truck attempts to kill Mann. Note that I say “the truck”, not “the truck’s driver”. We never see anything more than the driver’s tanned left arm and his generic cowboy boots.

The situation outlined in “Duel” couldn’t happen today. Mann has no mobile phone with which to call for help, and the locals are unsympathetic to his plight. The police are entirely absent from the story; ask any California resident how reasonable it would be to drive fifty or a hundred miles nowadays without seeing a single cop. Mann himself is no fighter, and is easily thrashed in a roadside cafe by a trucker whom he mistakenly believes to be the Peterbilt’s driver.

Most interestingly of all, the Valiant simply cannot escape the truck. There’s a bit of a hand wave about why the Peterbilt is so fast — it has a “special engine or something” — but more importantly, the Valiant is slow. It can’t run steadily at ninety miles per hour, the way any Kia Rio or Hyundai Accent would easily do today. It’s mechanically fragile, yet because there’s so much slack in the old designs, a cooling system failure doesn’t totally disable it. (As I found out while driving a 500ci Cadillac, the old iron-block American engines can be remarkably heat-resistant.) Mann can’t even out-handle the truck. On the positive side, the Valiant easily handles bad roads and obstructions that would probably stop a GMC Envoy dead in its tracks.

Mann is powerless. Stuck in 1970s America, he has no horsepower, no muscle power, no respect from others, and no respect for himself. It’s easy to see that Mann represents the (stereo)typical American man of the era: beset on all sides by high fuel prices, an invasive, untrustworthy government, increasingly empowered and shrill women, and a war that defies all reasonable expectation. Any parallel with the modern era, by the way, is strictly prescient on Spielberg’s part. Mann, as played by Dennis Weaver, is no DeNiro or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and he has no way to muscle, fight, or bully his way out of the situation.

I’ve always thought that John Frankenheimer’s Ronin was a truly great movie because the car chases moved the plot forward in non-action-oriented ways. Each driver reveals a significant amount of his or her personality in each chase, and as such the chases become more than action sequences; they are conversations expressed in rubber and steel. Duel is no different. It’s one man, straining against an impersonal, merciless machine, and their conversation is written across the California desert. You can see it as man(n) versus machine, you can see it as Weaver’s City Mouse fighting the anonymous Country Mouse at the Peterbilt’s tiller, or you can see it as simply a battle to survive against overwhelming odds.

Modern audiences may find Duel to be paced a little slowly, and at times it’s all too evident that Spielberg padded the length to make the studio happy. Still, it’s worth watching, if only to see a California that no longer exists, a car that can’t zip effortlessly to triple digits with all seats heated to boiling and six coordinated ECUs in perfect electro-mechanical harmony, and a man who finally redeems himself through a combination of intelligence, bravery, and desperation.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • DC Bruce DC Bruce on Sep 23, 2011

    First off, gas was cheap in 1971. Gas prices skyrocketed in 1973 with the Arab oil embargo creating some shortages and a lot of panic. Gas prices tripled in a matter of months. Secondly, "de-smogging" 1971-vintage engines involved little more than having positive crankcase ventilation. These engines ran well and were comparatively powerful. Disaster struck by 1976 or so, when de-smogged engines of the same displacement produced anywwhere from 1/2 to 2/3s the output of their earlier versions. The gross HP rating of the 225 slant six was, if memory serves, 155 hp, as compared to, say 140 hp of the 230 cu. in six that GM put in its cars (my dad owned one). Unlike the GM 6, the slant six was relatively free breathing (the intake manifold had individual runners from the carburetor mounting base) and so had a strong top end. I doubt that either engine could push a car to triple digits, given the "flying brick" aerodynamics of that era's cars. But I can say from personal experience that the GM six could easily push a full-sized Chevy to 85 mph, and I'm sure the Chrysler engine could do at least as well . . . which is plenty fast enough to outrun any semi of the era (which were generally less powerful than today's big rigs). That said, invoking the "willing suspension of disbelief" (which might have been easier to do in 1971 than today), it was a good film. Now, if you move things up about 9 years, and you make the car one of that era's diesels (Benz 240D or 300D, Volvo diesel, Olds diesel, Audi 5000 diesel, VW Rabbit diesel), now willing suspension of disbelief required. Some of those cars wouldn't even do 70.

    • Geeber Geeber on Sep 23, 2011

      The bad years were 1972-74, when the smog controls really strangled the engines, hurting both fuel economy and performance. The catalytic converters adopted by virtually everyone for the 1975 model year helped greatly, but by then axle ratios and engine tuning were being chosen for maximum fuel economy as opposed to maximum performance, thanks to the Arab Oil Embargo.

  • Moparman426W Moparman426W on Sep 25, 2011

    Horsepower ratings for pre-smog slant sixes were 115 for the 170 cid version, which was last offered in the 69 model year. 125 horses for the 69-72 198 cid, 100 for the 72-74 model, it was discontinued for 75. For the 225 it was 145 through 71, 110 for 72 and 105 from 73-75. The 250 ford was also rated at 145 before 1972. for the 72 model year it was rated at 95 horses, in 73 it had 2 different ratings, 98 for 49 states and 95 for california models. for 73 the ratings were 92 and 88, and by 75 the ratings dropped to 72 and 70! Chevy's pre smog 250 6 popper was also rated at 145, and dropped to 100 by 73. Having owned a number of 225 equipped A bodies I know from personal experience that they will easily cruise at around 105-110, but it takes a minute or two to reach those speeds. The slant 6 had a far superior intake manifold compared to the other 6 holers. The slanted design allowed for a manifold with long, individual runners, which makes for excellent air/fuel distribution for each cylinder. The crude log manifold used on all other sixes was atrocious. There was simply no comparison. Chrysler invented tuned induction with the slant 6 and the cross ram engines. The leaning tower of power also had a header style exhaust manifold. The exhaust manifolds on the other sixes were as bad as the intakes. I thought the part about the valiant being mechanically fragile was especially humorous. A body, slant 6 fragile? This guy must have spent those years living in a cave.

    • Jack Baruth Jack Baruth on Sep 25, 2011

      I'm not implying that *I* think the Valiant is fragile. I'm pointing out that the Valiant in the movie seems to be awfully fragile.

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