Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a remake. Well, not officially, of course. Or even unofficially, for that matter. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no escaping the fact that a very strong similarity exists between the narrative thrust of Jaws and Spielberg’s landmark made-for-TV thriller which initially aired less than four years earlier. Not to say that significant differences do not exists, of course. For one thing, while the shark in Jaws threatens an entire island population, the 18-wheeler at the center of Duel is apparently being operated by a driver intent on terrorizing only the character played by Dennis Weaver.
Both movies can essentially be boiled down to a thrilling story of a single-minded pursuit of human beings by a nemesis seemingly absent any understandable motive. Sure, sharks kill to eat, but the shark in Jaws seems to have a higher purpose for his murder spree. As for the anonymous and relatively unseen driver of the 18-wheeler, one of the elements that makes Duel such a gripping thriller is the refreshing decision by the filmmaker to refrain from offering even the slightest clue as to the motivation behind either his sadistic actions or the reason for targeting just one person.
What really ties Duel to Spielberg’s summer classic hat redefined the entire concept of the blockbuster is how the shark manages to perfectly link with the truck driver as a creature of seemingly pure evil capable of instilling the greatest possible fear in the average human being. A few elements are necessary to allow this truly astounding accomplishment to be pulled off. First, of course, is the willingness to deny a rational explanation to the motives of Spielberg’s truck driver. That eternal questioning of motivation is essential in allowing Jaws to work toward its status as a classic thriller. The truth is that the shark is not the villain of the movie; that distinction goes to the Mayor and the capitalist economic system he serves. So another element that makes the linking of the shark to that truck driver so astounding is that while the one is clearly the villain of his story, the other is only arguably so at best. So what Spielberg really pulled off in Jaws is creating a creature capable of instilling a primal fear in viewers who isn’t really even the bad guy in his own movie. He’s a shark! Sharks don’t have higher purposes for killing; that purpose is endowed upon them by viewers. If the mind-blowing brilliance behind why Jaws remains a classic while other films telling essentially the exact same story have become lost in your memories isn’t becoming clear by now, it probably never will.
Keep in mind that the trucker in Duel is never fully seen; only quick and anonymous shots of an elbow here and a pair of boots there. Likewise, the shark in Jaws is never fully seen until the film is more than half over. Just as he did with the truly terrifying spectacle of an 18-wheeler being used as a menacing weapon of destruction, the key to the power of Jaws likes in the manner in which Spielberg transforms the shark into predatory creature seemingly on a mission to destroy that defies any rational explanation. In fact, the shark’s mission is utterly understandable; the animal is hungry. The driver in Duel actually is a predatory creature without explanation. One can never know for certain such things, but all evidence points toward a strong argument that without being informed by the experience of making Duel and the decision to refrain from giving the action an explanation through too much information about a character, Jaws might very well have turned out to be far less distinctive and powerful in retelling of the earlier movie’s story about people being stalked by a predator for seemingly no logical reason.