On November 13th 1971, millions across North America tuned in to episode seventeen of the third season of ABC’s Movie of the Week, unaware they were also witnessing the start of one of the defining directing careers of modern times. The film was Duel, the first standalone feature of one Steven Spielberg, then a young television director but on the back of this astonishing debut, he would soon find himself making some of the most enduring and best-loved films of a generation.
Fifty years on, Duel is more than Spielberg’s first directing job, it is a perilously-paced, taught and terrifying actioner that has flawlessly stood the test of time. A big hit in its native land, the film earned so much attention from overseas that it was optioned for theatrical release. Looking at the film, it’s easy to see why so many different audiences responded to it so well.
Though a more modest production, it has cinematic sensibilities beyond its station but through the resourcefulness and skill of those behind the camera, executes them all expertly. First and foremost it is pure action cinema, with a story geared for action and spectacle: salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) finding himself, on a road trip, pursued by an enormous Peterbilt truck, one that seems determined to get him off the road – for good.
Duel was based on a short story by the late, great Richard Matheson which was first brought to the attention of the 22-year-old Spielberg by his assistant, Nona Tyson. Not long after reading the story he learned it was to be made as part of Movie of the Week, adapted by Matheson, and he immediately lobbied for the directing job. After seeing Spielberg’s recently-finished pilot of Columbo, producer George Eckstein hired him to direct.
It turned out to be the perfect meeting of director and material. Even at a young age, Spielberg understood what needed to be done for this film to fulfil its potential. That began with his insistence that Duel be shot on location, in rural California, knowing the use of authentic locations would heighten the sense of realism. He was right: seeing everything take place in living locations gives the film an earthy and graphic feel which heightens the stakes while lessening the more outlandish aspects. It’s a big part of Duel’s visual storytelling.
Another is Weaver’s performance as David Mann, the only named character in the film. He does not play him as a tough and ready-for-anything action hero who normally front films like this. His not-so-subtle name an indication of his more relatable instinct when faced with this situation: it is not to beat or outdo this truck and its driver, but merely to survive. He is simply a man pushed beyond his limits and doing all he can to escape unscathed and is far more interesting for it.
The truck, meanwhile, despite being just that is a frightening, menacing villain. Aside from an arm hanging outside the window and booted feet under the cab, the driver is never seen and his reasons for targeting Mann are never explained. It’s more about the vehicle than the one behind the wheel, and a truck can not be reasoned with. Other little touches – the ‘Flammable’ sign on its livery, the grime that covers it, the license plates from multiple states implying other victims – gives it more character and malevolence beyond just wanting to run down Mann.
The action is not just confined to the road. One notable sequence sees Mann stop off at the roadside Chuck’s Café, where novel use is made of the production’s simpler camera set-up. To mimic his fragile state, Spielberg shakes the camera as it follows him around, years before such shot became the norm. He then spikes the tension when Mann sees the truck parked outside – the implication being the driver could be one of the café patrons. This leaves him with a pivotal decision of whether or not to confront the potential suspects.
Though Spielberg says the film was made with no intended double meaning or symbolism, various aspects and themes have been read into Duel from different perspectives over the years: man-versus-machine, conglomerates against individuals, of different ideas on male identity. Though these were not intentional, the concept and imagery of the two battling vehicles of very different proportions is so universal it can leave itself to open all these different interpretations.
After its first showing in America, European distributors offered to pick up Duel to be shown in cinemas, for which new scenes were shot in order to boost the running time. Perceptive viewers would be able to identify which scenes were shot after the fact (Weaver’s hair and the truck are both different) and this is the version available on DVD today, but both cuts are equally enthralling.
As for Spielberg, he continued his flair for car chases in his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express, of which The Hollywood Reporter commented “a major new director is on the horizon.” How right they were. When Spielberg was offered Jaws by Universal (Incidentally, after first choice director Dick Richards was fired for not knowing the difference between a shark and a whale), he recalled the similar themes between that and Duel and accepted. Of course Jaws went on to change cinema and take its director from a career that has since gone from strength to strength.
It all started with Duel, a film that is far more than just a directorial debut. Of all the films Spielberg has made over his illustrious career, it is one that remains the most rock solid after the passage of time. It can rank among the best action films today and his best work.