A monthly look at classic and underrated films
‘Duel’ – Spielberg’s first masterpiece
Steven Spielberg is the most commercially successful director of all time, and is perhaps second only to Alfred Hitchcock in terms of his influence on the ways movies are made.
It’s easy to forget, then, that Spielberg was once just a young kid, pimply and bespectacled, hanging out on the lots of Universal Studios hoping to catch a break.
In his early years, Spielberg directed episodes of TV shows like “Colombo” and “Night Gallery.” These TV episodes were portents of a talented up-and-comer. “Duel” (1971), however, is the work of a director who was already operating on the cusp of genius.
“Duel” is a masterpiece of suspense, and though it’s largely an exercise in style that allows Spielberg to show off his prodigious filmmaking talents, it’s still a brilliant piece of work.
The film’s premise is deceptively simple: a businessman named David Mann (Dennis Weaver) inadvertently offends the driver of a tanker truck while cruising down a mostly-deserted two-lane highway, only to be murderously pursued by the truck for the rest of the film.
The skill of “Duel” is in the simplicity of its premise and the execution of that premise.
The script, from horror author Richard Matheson, was apparently based on a real-life incident that happened to the author while driving home one day.
However, even without this bit of autobiographical detail, the script for “Duel” resonates because nearly anyone who has ever driven on a highway (especially a rural highway) can imagine themselves in Mann’s situation.
Like Spielberg’s masterpiece “Jaws” (1975) the suspense of “Duel” is rooted not in plausibility, but in the exploitation and elucidation of irrational fears.
The way in which Spielberg brings these fears to fruition on the screen lies in his use of cinematography and editing.
“Duel” is breathlessly shot and paced. Quickly-cut montages of squealing tires, straining speedometers, and rural roads careening by dominate the screen.
And during the few scenes when Mann is not being chased by the truck in his car, Spielberg keeps the camera moving. Sometimes the camera adopts Mann’s perspective so that we can see what he sees, while during other times the film is shot like a documentary with the camera following Mann as he walks through a restaurant or a gas station.
The result of this inventive editing and cinematography is a palpable connection between the audience and Mann. The audience is not a passive observer to Mann’s plight, and this is what makes “Duel” so suspenseful.
“Duel” not a perfect film, but it does perfectly demonstrate that long before “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “E.T.” Steven Spielberg was creating breathless and skillful entertainments. We can point to “Duel” and say, “This is where it all started.”
Movie reviewer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com. The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the individual author and not necessarily those of the Collegian.