Spiel on Spielberg: DUEL (1971)

By Darin Skaggs

                Steven Spielberg is one of the most beloved American filmmakers. He is known for touching melodrama, a look at humanity’s flawed history and inventive and dark scenes. If he is criticized for anything it is being too heartwarming and not cynical enough, which is really not that bad a complaint. For me Spielberg is a director I have never been able to figure out through his filmography. He has always come off as “nice guy” and really nothing more. So because of that I will go through his entire catalog and try and dissect one of my favorite directors and find out who he is.

Even though it started as a TV movie, I will start my look into the career of Steven Spielberg with Duel. That is because at one point it did get a theatrical release, because it was just so well made. The movie begins with a man (Dennis Weaver) backing out of his driveway and driving a good distance for a meeting. On the way to his destination he passes a semi-truck on the highway that then passes him back. After a few more encounters the man realizes that he is under attack from the truck driver and is in danger for his life. Spielberg made plenty of short films and was credited director on several episodes of television including the pilot episode of Colombo. All of these probably got him this ABC TV movie of week director job. This movie is clearly the launching point to his whole career, hinting at the filmmaker’s later work and how he learned many of his tricks of the trade.

The script was written by Richard Matheson, who first published his short story in an issue of Playboy. There are many clever ways the trucker tries to seriously harm our protagonist. Even though the screenplay is by someone else you can see a lot of influence on his later Indiana Jones series. The famous character escapes a boulder, cuts a rope bridge in half and falls off a cliff with a tank. When watching those you ask yourself “What predicament will our hero find himself in next?” And in Duel you find yourself asking the same. Both vehicles are caught in a 90 mile plus car chase, the truck tries to push our hero onto a moving train, ect. Matheson or Spielberg decides to never show the face of the truck driver, which gives off a sense that the truck itself is a monster after our hero. The truck even looks like it has a face ready to swallow up our lead. It is clear from his later work like Jaws and Jurassic Park, and even here that Spielberg has a passion for old monster movies.

Before this I have wondered how much of a movie fan Spielberg was, or if he just wanted to make movies instead. From this first film in his long catalog it was clear that he has a bit of passion for monster movies, but also there is a lot of Hitchcock influence oozing from this movie. We know what the truck looks like, it is an unique looking tanker. Throughout the film we see when our hero thinks he is in the clear, the semi has caught up or snuck up behind him like Norma Bates attacking Marian Crane in the shower in Psycho  or the dozens of birds perching themselves on the jungle gym in The Birds. There is a whole scene in a small town diner where our hero tries to find the attacker. It is filled with Hitchcockian like paranoia. At one point in a moment of terror, the score is remnant of the screeching score from the infamous shower scene from Psycho. A lot of these moves are straight from the Hitchcock playbook. At some points it is too close to rip off and less of an influence. Also a few shots are a bit too clever, but other than that there is really nothing worth complaining about.

Unlike the expectations for most TV movies, this one is incredibly well made. The cinematography is creative in an early filmmaker sort of way. Even though Matheson wrote the script this proves that Spielberg was always good with someone else’s screenplay. He knows how to get their words from the page, to the screen. The opening credits are fun, all through the cars point of view as the radio changes from station to station. The acting is pretty good, some clunky ones here and there, but the lead performance by Weaver is great. It is clear that Spielberg took this job seriously, tries innovative camera shots, and gets decent to great performances from his actors. It shows dedication that is clear with every one of his projects after this.

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