David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a non-descript middle-aged traveling salesman on a routine road trip through the California steppe, day-dreaming, listening to talk radio, worrying about a tiff with his wife the night before, when he catches up with a big, smoky, mean-looking truck. He passes it, but it then speeds up and passes him. Thus begins an hour and half of a road-rage “duel” between Mann and truck.
We never see the truck driver’s face, and the truck itself becomes the person. The relentless malice of the truck at times actually punches a bit of funniness into the otherwise Hitchcockian horror/suspense of the story.
The idea would only have been worth a 15 minute short except for the interplay of timeless themes of human personality. This aspect reaches its climax midway through when Mann, pursued by the metal monster, careens off the road at a roadside cafe. The truck roars by, and Mann, bruised and shaken, goes into the cafe to clean up and get a bite to eat. But when he emerges from the bathroom, sits down and looks out the window, the truck is also parked there. Suddenly all the other patrons of the restaurant are suspects. They all seem to be wearing boots similar to the ones he observed the truck driver wearing at an earlier stop. We hear his mind’s voice ruminating nervously about what to do. He imagines walking up to them and making an appeasing apology. One by one the current prime suspect leaves and gets into a different vehicle. Finally he does confront one of the remaining group, but his earlier plan vanishes in a rise of anger that quickly develops into a fistfight, which is broken up by the proprietor who asks him to leave. All this is a nice description of fear and suspicion, which though understandable, leads to unjust accusation and the abandonment in confusion of earlier plans.
The story was written by Richard Matheson who also did a number of Twilight Zone episodes. The same craft shines through here as there. Naming the protagonist “Mann” was perhaps a bit too self-conscious.
This was the film that launched the career of the young Steven Spielberg. The instinctive skill of that director can be seen but without much of the loathsome jewiness that came to characterize that person in his future work. In fact the only portentous indication is his having the Mann character take an oath to our Savior at the 18 minute mark. Presumably, this was part of the footage that was added for the longer European release as I cannot imagine it being included in the original ABC broadcast version.