Duel – 50th Anniversary Edition, 1971.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Tim Herbert and Carey Loftin.
A travelling businessman is pursued across the Californian desert by a huge tanker seemingly hell bent on killing him.
By the time Steven Spielberg made Duel in 1971 he had already directed several episodes of popular television shows – indeed, it was his ‘Murder by the Book’ episode of Columbo that helped bag him his debut feature – and you can tell from the outset that the young filmmaker was going to be someone to watch. Whereas Spielberg had no intention of directing television when he was in college it was making TV shows like Columbo, Night Gallery and The Name of the Game after Universal offered him a contract that gave him the experience he needed, and because of that Duel feels very much like it was made by a seasoned thriller director.
But that was 50 years ago, hence the ‘50th Anniversary Edition’ tagged onto the title of this disc, and you could say that since then Steven Spielberg has done quite well, having influenced at least two generations of directors and becoming one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of all time, winning awards, creating franchises and generally being a part of most people’s childhoods. What is nice about that is that Spielberg acknowledges Duel as the beginning of his movie career and still speaks fondly of it, as detailed in the interview in the special features, also noting that he paid tribute to it in some of his future movies, namely by recreating a scene in 1941, using the same old married couple that feature here again in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and using the same sound effects again in Jaws; he even admits it was a bit of a self-congratulatory pat on the back but when your first movie is as strong as this one then where’s the harm?
And speaking of Jaws, whilst watching Duel you can see the seeds of some of his ideas from the notoriously difficult shoot he had with the classic shark thriller. Indeed, Jaws is basically Duel redone with a shark instead of a truck (alright, maybe there is a bit more to it but the basics are all there) stalking businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver, who was personally chosen by Spielberg) across the Californian desert. Mann is driving to a meeting but gets stuck behind a huge tanker going at a slow and steady speed and so he overtakes, causing the tanker driver to begin pursuing him and trying to run him off the road.
Simple as that really and Spielberg keeps it fairly tight throughout and only shows what he needs to show, which is also what he did with Jaws a few years later, but Duel differs in that it is one man against a seemingly unstoppable force – the truck appears to be the antagonist because Spielberg never shows us the driver, and also chose a truck that looks like it has a face thanks to its lights/windows positioning – and not three men with character arcs. Although it was originally filmed as a TV movie for an American release, internationally Duel was released theatrically and so Spielberg had to put more scenes in to fill out the running time, and 90 minutes is quite enough for what is essentially a chase movie. Any more than that and the movie could have risked losing momentum as the repetitiveness of the truck catching up with David, David escaping and then the truck coming at him again was done just enough to keep it suspenseful and one more go-around would have been one too many. Dennis Weaver gives it all he’s got as an ordinary guy pushed to near-breaking point, although the inner monologue voiceover he provides feels a little weak in places. It is there to provide the audience with something whilst he is driving – because he wouldn’t talk to himself whilst swinging the car around those roads at that speed – but the levels of action and tension are such that in a couple of places it isn’t really needed.
For its 50th anniversary Duel has been given a nice polish and tidy up, the picture looking flawless and the bright sunshine and blue skies of the desert setting looking especially vibrant, and David Mann’s red Plymouth Valiant popping out of the browns and blues of its surrounding is particularly striking, which was Spielberg’s intent all along. The audio is also quite snappy, with the sudden roars of vehicle engines proving to be particularly effective in creating a few jump scares. Extras come in the form of the aforementioned interview with Steven Spielberg about the making of the movie, a featurette about Spielberg’s TV work and an interview with writer Richard Matheson about the original short story. As a bonus you also get a double-sided poster featuring excellent new artwork by graphic artist Graham Humphreys that will look brilliant up on your wall.
Given Steven Spielberg’s huge body of work it is easy to forget just how thrilling and exciting Duel is and how much of the filmmaker’s formative adventurous style is already in place. Even though the director himself admits he couldn’t make a movie like this nowadays – especially in the conditions that he did 50 years ago, i.e. no time, limited budget and youthful arrogance/naivety in abundance – it is more than worthy of sitting alongside the Spielberg-directed movies that followed it over the following two decades, even holding up better than some of them, so if you’re looking to upgrade an old format, or have yet to see it, then this sparkling new Blu-ray edition is an essential purchase.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★