Welcome to the first episode of Series Spielberg, the first series on Film Sentinel where we will go through a renowned director’s entire catalogue, and provide analysis. Our first director series for Film Sentinel is focusing on arguably the most recognizable figure in modern filmmaking, the king of the blockbuster himself: Steven Spielberg. The first official episode of Series Spielberg is going to revisit and examine Spielberg’s first real feature, the made-for-television film Duel, which pits one traveling businessman in a compact car against one deadly Peterbilt truck.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Before becoming one of Hollywood’s most powerful filmmakers, Steven Spielberg was just a skinny kid trying to prove himself. After gaining recognition for the short film Amblin’, Universal vice president Sidney Sheinberg offered Steven a seven-year directing contract. As he was in his early 20s, Steven was the youngest-ever to be offered a contract of its kind. Though his aspirations were to go into commercial filmmaking, Steven was willing to put in some time building some credibility from within the creatively undesirable landscape of the small screen.
From inside this context, Spielberg managed to imbue an artistic imprint on works such as the Eyes segment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and he was able to raise the perceptive production values of the first episode of Columbo, but his first big break in which he was able to flex his filmmaking muscles was when he was offered the job of directing the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week Duel. It was based on a short story that was penned by Richard Matheson and was originally published in Playboy, who also wrote the screenplay for the television treatment.
Duel features Dennis Weaver as David Mann, a salesman on a trip through the Mojave Desert in a Plymouth Valiant. On his way there, he finds himself pursued and harassed by a large tanker truck driven by an evident psychopath with a vendetta, who, along the route, attempts to run him off the road, wave him into oncoming traffic, push him into a passing train, and even mow David down while he is on foot. After many attempts at evading him, David ultimately defeats the truck by leading it up a mountain, and sending it over a cliff in a spectacular wreckage.
The film is an expert example of a lean-and-mean suspense thriller, as Spielberg demonstrates an influence of Hitchcock to keep the audience on tender hooks for as long as possible. More than this, the premise is broadly relatable, as anyone who has been behind the wheel can think of a time some jerk gave them grief out on the highway. Duel is also impressive from a production standpoint, as Steven managed to churn out a film of superb production values given the constraints of that era of television and a very narrow window for principal photography.
Early in the film, we hear a caller on David’s radio who is looking for advice regarding the U.S. Census. You see, this man is a stay-at-home husband, but he’s concerned about whether he should mark himself as “head-of-household.” This introduces the idea of insecure masculinity, as when David calls his wife we find she is verbally aggressive toward him as she accosts him for not confronting a friend for supposedly making a pass on her. This powerfully and effectively sets the stage for David’s psychology in the film as he is challenged by the unhinged truck driver.
As David endeavors to escape the Peterbilt, his agency and self-reliance are tested in a number of situations, such as in one in particular where David stops in a diner and believes the trucker is inside with him. He manages to push himself to confront a likely suspect, but his intuition is brought into question when he corners the wrong man. Later, he is flagged down by a broken down school bus, and as he is reluctantly talked into giving it a push, his car gets stuck as school children mock him, and he suddenly spots the truck looming ahead of him under a bridge.
It’s moments like these in Matheson’s script that heighten our sympathy for David, as well Weaver’s excellent acting work. Steven heavily lobbied for Weaver’s casting in the film, having been a fan of his work in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Steven admired Weaver’s expression of a panic-stricken man, and saw him as a perfect choice for Duel. Steven was right, as Weaver wins over the audience as a not-so-necessarily-macho man who is threatened for his life, and who eventually prevails against his daunting opponent in a classic display of survivalism.
Duel represented a defining opportunity for Spielberg to prove that, despite his young age, he had the chops for real directing. Though it was a movie for television, he was committed to selling the action to the audience, and he demanded that the entirety of the film be shot on the road and not in a studio set with phony process rolling outside the car windows. This would become a major theme with Steven as a filmmaker, a ruthless dedication to shooting on location, to the consternation of production companies, as this approach would soon bite him on Jaws.
Though he went over shooting schedule, the results benefit the end product enormously, as the film is filled with creative cinematography and realistic chase scenes. Duel features shots such as bumper POV shots for the opening titles, and inventive camerawork of the vehicles filmed low to the ground. Cliff walls are used behind the cars to simulate speed. The truck’s demise is filled with detail to give it a slow and painful death, with immense restraint by refraining from an explosion. And dangerous stunts such as the phone booth scene are relentlessly thrilling.
But it all begs the question, what is the meaning behind the film? As Steven would argue, he originally envisioned Duel as a simple a cat-and-mouse thriller with no other subtext, and he would later interpret it as an indictment against the mechanization of society. European critics saw it differently, as one read the film as about class warfare in America (more on that later). When viewed as a piece of Richard Matheson’s larger work, it can be viewed as his ongoing theme of underdogs prevailing against bullies. This critic likes to stick with the latter reading.
The film originally aired on November 13, 1971, and was a success with a Nielsen rating of 20.9. Steven would later film additional scenes to give the film a fuller run time for international distribution, and it would be released theatrically. The scene where the truck tries to push David into the train is an example of added footage, content that is far from superfluous. As his professional debut, Duel represents an excellent snapshot of Steven as a filmmaker then, and who he would become: partial to the spectacle, but adherent to the characters and the art as well.
Next Tuesday we will be examining Spielberg’s first film produced for theatrical distribution: The Sugarland Express. If you’d like to watch it, it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, on Hulu with subscription, and for rental from your various online servicers. I’ll see you next week.