Spielberg debate: Does Duel deliver a masterclass of pure suspense and terror better than Jaws?

Those of you that know me personally, or have been loyal followers of mine on social media platforms, such as Facebook and most especially Twitter, should know by now that I’m one of Spielberg’s biggest fans. I am not however, the biggest hardcore fan of Jaws; the film that many would argue is Spielberg’s best. That’s definitely not to say that I don’t like Jaws at all; that would make me instant shark food. No, I can easily recognise it for what it is – a classic summer blockbuster and a masterclass of terror, horror and unrelenting fear. That kind of trembling fear you’d get when thinking twice before taking another late night skinny dip at your local beach again!

Being a massive film buff from such an early age, I have encountered many Jaws fans along the way, both in real life and on social media. My girlfriend being one such fan and one of the most dedicated I’ve ever known. She has seen the movie several times on the big screen over the years, written plenty of reviews/features on it for her own site (and even the dedicated Jaws fan-site, ‘The Daily Jaws’), not to mention confessing her undying love for it on Twitter. The unrequited love for Spielberg’s 1975 breakthrough film by millions the world over is entirely overwhelming and all with good reason. Regardless though, I never fully felt the same love and attention that it’s been garnering for over 40 years now. Nor do I have any favourite character from it or find myself quoting the movie mid conversation with other like-minded film lovers. My childhood imagination was instead immediately captured by the vintage Spielberg movie magic of the 80s featuring the likes of E.T and Raiders. I’d take alien invasions and archaeological artefacts over sharks any day of the week!

But then years ago, when I was still pretty young, I discovered a hidden gem from Spielberg; his first feature made way back in 1971 that was simply titled DUEL, a feature length film that never got released in cinemas simply because it was made for the small screen only. A much younger, amateur Spielberg made this after producing and directing a handful of shorts and TV show episodes that included an episode of Columbo titled ‘Murder By The Book’. Frankly though, I always found Columbo as a show to be such an inconsiderable bore, that I just never bothered to seek it out; I’m guessing it was probably the finest hour of murder mystery television anyway though, as it was made by Spielberg after all!

The biggest similarity that Duel and Jaws share with one another in terms of film aesthetics, is it’s clear shared theme of ‘cat-and-mouse’ thrillers through and through. Both films envisage the protagonist(s) being chased and hunted by a seemingly indestructible monster of epic proportions, placing said protagonist(s) in a race against time, desperately trying to find a way of learning how they can finally defeat this destructive force of evil.

The crucial difference between both of these films, and the thing that sets them apart, are the motives of the story’s antagonist. In Jaws, we know that the Great White shark that is terrorising the small beach resort of Amity Island, is an unstoppable killing machine that will carry on eating the innocent holiday makers unless someone takes a stand and finally puts a stop to it’s human eating spree! But in Duel, there are no explanations or comprehensible reasoning behind why the character of David Munn, played by Dennis Weaver, is endlessly stalked, pursued and terrorised by a concealed driver behind the steering wheel of an old tanker truck, along an empty Californian highway. I know which one I’d find more frightening…

Spielberg is very smart and clever here by using all that he learnt from the art of filmmaking as a serious ‘film student’ by enforcing the coined phrase ‘less is more’; this being the main concept and driving force (no pun intended) of Duel. The driver’s identity is never revealed and we don’t get to know a single thing about him; how his mind works, or why he’s so hell bent on killing poor David. The only thing that Spielberg grants us viewers to be able to witness is the driver’s hand and foot when the camera places itself behind the wheel of the truck through it’s carefully sharp editing and visual trickery.

It may take a three man job to hunt down and destroy a Great White shark than just one guy. In more specific terms, this kind of suicide mission requires three professionals that all have a part to play when doing the job right – a local sheriff who cares about the safety and protection of his small-town community, a marine biologist who’s studied sharks all his life, and a local fisherman/hunter who has definitely spent far too much time out at sea. Indeed, one of the main reasons why this film is so successful is all thanks to the chemistry and male bonding shared between this colourful trio.

But does that make for a really intense, edge-of-your-seat roller-coaster ride like Duel? I think not! We follow just a single character as he quickly descends into growing paranoia and high anxiety; continuously chased by a psychotic truck driver with no real motive. Duel is a film that is unpredictable, the stakes for our leading hero being so ridiculously high, that even you’ll be breaking out in a sweat watching him; just as much as he is in his driver’s seat. You’ll feel unsure if he’ll ever make it out alive from this scary ordeal he finds himself utterly trapped in; he has nowhere to hide or anywhere to escape to from this perilous pursuit, nor can he use a payphone to call the cops or turn to anyone else for help. It’s just him and some big ass, scary looking truck battling it out together until the bitter end.

To summarise, it is the simplicity of Duel that I like the most. The anxiety induced fear where one’s self is trapped inside an insurmountable and claustrophobic situation with seemingly no way out, and for me, there’s no film that does that better.

And that, readers, is why Duel will always reign supreme over Jaws for me any day of the week!


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