Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” (1971) (2023)

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By 1971, the young Steven Spielberg had made significant headway as a television director. His eye started to wander into theatrical feature territory, but he was uncertain how he’d get there. Until a better opportunity would arise, the best he could do was approach each TV gig with the same kind of attention to detail that he would lavish on a work of cinema. Ironically enough, Spielberg’s first foray in theatrical exhibition wasn’t so much a calculated move as it was stumbling headlong into it.

After his successful foray into feature running times with his “MURDER BY THE BOOK” episode of COLUMBO earlier that year, Spielberg’s assistant brought him a short story written by I AM LEGEND author Richard Matheson about a man stalked on a desert highway by a trucker stricken by a serious case of road rage. The young director was immediately enamored with the simplistic, yet almost Hitchcock-ian story conceit. Using the rough cut of his COLUMBO episode as proof of his ability, he acquired the rights to the story and set it up at ABC as a Movie of The Week.

Spielberg’s adaptation, DUEL, is ferocious in its simplicity. A mild-mannered salesman named David Mann (stage and screen veteran Dennis Weaver) is driving through the California desert en route to an unspecified “appointment”. He encounters a monstrous truck lumbering slowly ahead of him, so he drives around to pass the behemoth. Unfortunately, this incites a murderous rampage of terror as the truck stalks David’s car across the vast expanse of desert. Literally driving for his life, David soon realizes the only way to rid himself of the menace is to confront it head-on.

Dennis Weaver gets the majority of screen-time to himself, as his co-star is the faceless hulk of a truck looming ever closer in his rearview mirror. To this end, Weaver ably holds our attention and interest like one would endeavor to do in a one-man stage show. His transformation from mild-mannered pushover, to terrified impotent, and finally to cunning fighter is compelling to watch.

The truck itself, however, is just as much a leading character as David is. It becomes a primal force of nature, belching black smoke into the sky and bearing down in David’s rearview mirror like some vengeful beast. Spielberg brilliantly never shows the actual truck driver at the helm, thus giving the truck itself a malevolent sentience.

A lot has been written in recent times about “the decline of men”. In a nutshell, the phenomenon is described as men relinquishing their “traditional” status as heads of households, breadwinners, masters of the universe, etc. Analysts like to argue that distractions such as video games and pornography have lulled men into a state of submissive complacency, in addition to abdication from parental and social responsibilities. Now, I personally think a lot of that talk is bullshit, but the greater conversation does have a lot of valid points. Watching DUEL, I noticed several corollaries that lead me to believe this isn’t a recent conversation at all.

One of the major themes running through DUEL is this concept of emasculation. David Mann (the last name isn’t coincidental) is initially depicted as something of an ineffectual pushover. The truck that chases after him is a symbol of a primal masculinity, roaring like hellfire as it mercilessly hunts down its prey. Those are the obvious signs, but Spielberg cleverly peppers in several other subtle moments that reinforce the theme. For instance, the film begins with audio from David’s radio: a man calls into a local radio show and expresses his paranoia over his neighbors getting a hold of his tax return and finding out that he has filed his family’s taxes with his wife designated as the head of the household.

Yet another instance finds David entering a roadside diner to gather himself together and eat some lunch, only to find that the trucker that’s been terrorizing him is in there too. Spielberg blocks the action so that David is sitting alone in the corner of the diner, a section that’s been painted entirely with pink. The image of a grown man relegated to “the pink corner” is understandably emasculating, made even more so by the curious glances he receives from the line of grizzled truckers eating at the bar.

David’s internal monologue, rendered as a breathless voiceover, also reinforces the story’s challenge of his masculinity. He describes his ordeal as being “suddenly back in the jungle”, with the stakes being reverted to a primal state of life or death.He is the hunted, and he has to become the hunter if he is to survive.

While DUEL was intended for television exhibition (the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is a dead giveaway), Spielberg strives for a grandly cinematic approach in his collaboration with cinematographer Jack A. Marta. The 35mm film image looks as sun-baked as its desert setting, with saturated orange, red and brown tones burnt into the high-contrast frame. The camerawork evokes the relentless juggernaut pursuing David by using a restless mix of cranes, rack-zooms, and car-mounted POV shots that speed along the cracked two-lane blacktop. Since this is the first professional work where Spielberg is truly calling the shots in terms of style, he indulges in a variety of nouvelle vague techniques that make DUEL one of the most visually stylized films he’s ever made.

In creating the film’s score, Spielberg turned to composer Billy Goldenberg, who had scored early television works for the director like ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY: “EYES” (1969) and COLUMBO: “MURDER BY THE BOOK” (1971).Goldenberg creates a driving, discordant score that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock film. Furthermore, Spielberg uses a variety of bland, generic muzak for the in-radio music. By using source music that’s devoid of any personality, Spielberg reinforces the tamed, neutered aspect of David’s personality, as well as the film’s theme of masculinity on the wane.

Spielberg once said that he watches DUEL about twice a year so he won’t forget how he made it. He was only given ten days to shoot—a tall order when you are a relatively inexperienced director and want to shoot everything on location. He had to fight to shoot the film in the way he wanted. In those days, television simply wasn’t given the same kind of care and consideration that cinema enjoyed. Most directors would have shot the majority of DUEL on soundstages using chintzy rear projection techniques, but Spielberg wasn’t like most directors. He barnstormed through the shoot so fast, that it’s actually something of a miracle that it turned out this good.

Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” (1971) (1)

DUEL is consistently rated as one of the best television films ever made. We all know the stigma that comes with the Movie Of The Week format, so the fact that Spielberg worked so hard to transcend it as a testament to his love for the craft. When it aired, it scored some of the biggest ratings ever—even by today’s standards. In Europe, it was released theatrically in cinemas after Spielberg shot a few extra sequences to pad out the running time. Its association with the cinematic medium has become so entrenched over time that it is commonly thought of as Spielberg’s first feature film.

DUEL comes off as understandably dated now, but the action is still as pulse-pounding as the day it came out. Its success showed that Spielberg was capable of making a killer film, and that his days in television were numbered. Indeed, the road ahead was paved with the promise of greater things.

DUEL is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.

Credits:

Producer: George Eckstein

Written by: Richard Matheson

Director of Photography: Jack A. Marta

Production Designer: Robert E. Smith

Editor: Frank Morriss

Composer: Billy Goldenberg

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