Article By: Dan Clark
Everyone needs to begin somewhere. To become one of the most prolific members of any field it requires hard work, dedication, and a creative mind. The art of film is the perfect example of how challenging it is to be truly great. Based on his career there is little doubt that Steven Spielberg is one of the most elite directors of all time. Even he had to start from the bottom and work his way up. One of the first places he made a name for himself was the made for TV movie Duel. Though originally designed for television Duel was such a success it made limited theater runs in multiple countries including the United States. Revisiting it now years later it is easy to see why. Using a simple concept of a man fighting for survival on the open road against the forces of an ominous tractor-trailer gave Spielberg the perfect recipe to create a rush of high octane of excitement.
Duel in many ways is designed like an updated version of a Twilight Zone episode. The story is very self-contained to this very specific moment in time. Characters receive no backstory as we come to know who they are simply based on their actions in the moment. In the film Dennis Weaver plays David Mann a businessman taking a trip across the highways of California. The trip starts off normal enough as his biggest problem is finding something interesting to listen to on the radio. Things hit a bit of snag when he gets stuck behind a slow moving and grimly looking truck. Mann passes the truck only to have it roar pass him seconds later. Tension continues to build between the two drivers, and before Mann realizes it he is in a fight for his life. With nothing but an open road in front of him, Mann must use his wits and every resource at his disposal to stop this behemoth of motor mayhem.
Having a basic plot allows Spielberg to hone his craft, though he shouldn’t get all the credit. For one Dennis Weaver has a rather tough task. Much of the film is focused on just him and he does what he can to make it work. It certainly isn’t an amazing performance, nevertheless he is serviceable. One area where his performance becomes sketchy is when he has to do voice over. Often the dialogue is less than stellar and the delivery does not help matters. Worst of all it is very rarely needed. Much of the information it is providing one can inference by looking at the evidence in front of them. Perhaps they didn’t believe Weaver’s acting was strong enough to correlate what was occurring inside his mind or felt the audience would get antsy with limited dialogue. Whatever the reason may be it tended to be more of hindrance than a help.
Clearly where this film succeeds is with the directing and editing. Spielberg places his camera in nearly every crevasse, corner, and angle possible to bring you right in the mist of all this turmoil. You always have a sense danger is near as this colossal truck is constantly crashing down on you. Car chases can be tricky to do right. You need to provide the audience a sense of location and an understanding of what is happening in the midst of absolute chaos. Those issues become ever more exacerbated when your movie is pretty much an extended car chase. Spielberg and his editors were up to the task. Comprehension was never an issue. You always have a sense of where everything’s located and how close everything is to complete peril. There we constant cuts keeping you akin to every minute of action. Small tidbits, like the running over a hubcap, clue you in to the location of the two vehicles. Considerable amounts of these chases have little to no score, causing the sounds of the engines to bellow through your ears. Overall the quality of these car chases are quite astounding and hold up extremely well years later.
Mystery is also prevalent throughout. The driver remains a shadowy figure never fully seen by our eyes. He appears as if he is a mere extension of his vehicle and vice versa. An instrument designed to insight fear and paranoia. Having a truck as you main antagonist does seem simplistic and a bit foolish on paper. Creating a personality and presence for that moving immanent object allowed it to feel like a perfectly developed character. Credit also has to go to those who designed the truck as this mingy mess of grime and rust. Billowing black smoke rushed out of its smokestack like hellfire. All this made this simple truck into a force of destruction similar to any horror villain. The easy comparison is to the way Spielberg uses the truck in this is the way he uses the shark in Jaws. Even when both are off screen you feel their menacing presence. Both are without emotion–just two unstoppable forces bent on absolute destruction.
They’ll lull you to a feeling of calm only to prolong the agony moments later. Needless to say fans of Jaws will do themselves a big favor by checking this out. Still, even with everything that works with the film the one glaring issue is the films ending. The concept is seemingly taken to its fullest potential, yet lacks finality. An anticlimactic ending leaves you unfulfilled wishing for more. Even with that issue everything up to that moment makes it a solid directorial debut.
Joe Montana’s career began with a single pass, the greatest novels began with a single world, and the most prestigious paintings began with a single stroke. While Steven Spielberg’s career did not begin with Duel it is largely looked at as his launching point. Right from the start Spielberg shows his flair with the camera and knack for the dramatic. With Duel he designed a tightly crafted piece of entertainment that works on multiple levels. Some rookie mistakes were made, but for any Spielberg fanatic is a definite must watch.