Spielberg's "Duel" Remains An Impressive Debut
A career spanning over 40 years, Steven Spielberg has established himself as one of the most successful directors, both financially and critically. After early successes with “Jaws” and “Close Encounters with the Third Kind,” Spielberg compelled audiences and critics alike with his masterful storytelling and memorable characters. Later on, Spielberg would find more success with box office hits such as “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and the “Indiana Jones” franchise in the 1980s. 1994 was a banner year for Spielberg, which saw the release of the summer blockbuster “Jurassic Park” and the career-defining Holocaust epic “Schindler’s List,” the recipient of the Best Picture award at the Academy Awards. In the 2000s, Spielberg would create futuristic films (“A.I.”, “Minority Report”) and feel-good character studies (“Catch Me If You Can” and “The Terminal”). However, it is worth looking at Spielberg’s beginnings.
In the late 1960s, Spielberg got his break in television by directing the pilot episode of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery,” the successor of Serling’s groundbreaking “Twilight Zone” series. In the early 1970s, Spielberg was commissioned by Universal to direct a series of made-for-TV films. The first of which was the adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “Duel,” a suspenseful thriller which would seem like a large task, given the fact that Spielberg was only 25 years old at the time. After 40 years of excellent film making, Spielberg’s feature-length debut is an astounding tale of paranoia and revenge.
Mild-mannered electronics salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is traveling on a desolate California highway and comes behind a slow-moving tanker truck. Upon legitimately passing the truck, the truck decides to to get ahead of Mann and slows him down. Mann eventually passes him again but gets off the interstate to refuel at a gas station. The truck follows into the station with no visibility of the driver.
Upon re-entering the highway, the truck and Mann engage in a back-and-forth cat-and-mouse game of owning the road. On this desolate desert highway, it’s just the two vehicles. The weak compact car versus the menacing semi-trailer. The rusty tanker truck expelling black exhaust fumes is the bully of the open road, constantly intimidating an innocent man minding his own business.
Mann stops at a nearby diner and tries to compose himself. After seeing the truck parked outside, he anxiously tries to figure out who the driver is in the diner while trying to comprehend why he is being targeted. Later on, Mann stops to help a stranded school bus but puzzled that the truck came back and ends up pushing the bus out of a ditch. At a railroad crossing, the truck comes behind Mann’s car and starts pushing it towards the tracks while a freight train is passing by. Upon stopping at a toll booth, Mann tries to contact the police before the truck slams into the booth, with Mann narrowly jumping out of the way.
As much as the truck remains an unstoppable force, its presence reminds me of such subdued villainous figures such as Jason Vorhees (the “Friday the 13th” franchise) and Anton Chigurh (“No Country for Old Men”). In a fit of desperation, Mann decides to take on the truck in a battle of wits. What once was a simple man, the protagonist must overcome an unanticipated evil in an unprovoked stand-off. The fact that the audience does not see the face of the truck driver makes the antagonist much more intimidating. Added to the suspenseful atmospheric feel was the music composed by Bill Goldenberg, which rivals any Hitchcock scene. Dennis Weaver is a one-man show, allowing the audience to put themselves in his shoes, taking on this face-less plague and wonder how they would react. First aired on November 13, 1971 on the ABC network, “Duel” was a much-watched television event that established Spielberg as a bonafide director.
By the early 1970s, the filmmakers of the New Hollywood era were making names of themselves in the cinema. However, Spielberg broke ground with a “movie of the week” debut. Nonetheless, his contemporaries took notice. In the book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” author Peter Biskind devotes a chapter to Spielberg’s emergence in the 1970s.
“Duel” got a lot of notice, and was released as a feature in Europe and Japan. Spielberg became a darling of the French critics. Recalls [Don] Simpson, “The media were saying all these things about this kid who made “Duel,” and then Marty [Scorsese] and Brian [De Palma] would say, ‘Well, what he did wasn’t so extraordinary.’ There was a little bit of envy.”
As a child of the 1980s, my adolescence was spent watching the films of Spielberg. However, it wasn’t until now that I got a chance to watch his impressive debut. Even at a young age, Spielberg was able to create a full-length feature filled with realistic fore-boding distress. It’s no wonder his career flourished after “Duel” as it was a defining moment for one of cinema’s most talented storytellers.