Originally a made-for-TV thriller, Steven Spielberg’s feature-length film debut was so good it was later released in theatres. Ryan Pollard takes a look at this early Spielberg masterpiece…
Steven Spielberg is arguably one of the most influential, revolutionary and successful filmmakers in the entire world, and one of the few directors, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, whose name alone has box office weight. He is renowned for making many successful movies throughout his career and perhaps best known for films that have a historical backbone to them, like the epic Saving Private Ryan, the harrowing Schindler’s List and the recent Lincoln, for which Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar for Best Actor.
However, Spielberg is at his best when making popcorn entertainment, like the excellent Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the soaring excitement of the first and third Indiana Jones movies, and E.T., which he cites as his most personal movie. For me, A.I. is Spielberg’s most underrated masterpiece. Before then, he had helped change the face of mainstream American cinema in 1975 with the monster-movie hit Jaws. However, before he made that timeless classic, Spielberg claimed that initially he didn’t want to make it, as he believed that making another monster movie would damage his filmmaking career. But the producers managed to convince him otherwise, believing that making Jaws would open the floodgates to any film project Spielberg desired. Of course, Spielberg accepted and the rest is history.
For years, many audiences have misinterpreted Duel as a film about the lonely ethos of driving, a film where we explore the existentialism of driving in the manner of The Driver or Vanishing Point, but Duel is strictly not about that. In fact, as Spielberg himself has said, Duel is really a monster movie that just happens to have cars and trucks in it. If you analyse Duel very closely, you can see that it cleverly follows the conventions of the classic monster movie in which an innocent civilian (Dennis Weaver’s David Mann) is struggling to stay alive in the face of constant assaults by a giant monster (in this case, a seemingly unstoppable truck), and you do get a sense all the way through that this huge truck is a bloodthirsty threat that simply will not stop its torment. Plus, if you listen very closely in the climax of the film, the truck gives off the sound of Godzilla. In the end, Duel is a monster movie with driving in it, as opposed to a film about driving.
That whole concept of something or someone you cannot understand wanting to hunt you down and kill you with no logical reasoning or purpose had been echoed in later films. For example, if you look at Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher, you can see a somewhat similar premise with a young man trying to escape the clutches of Rutger Hauer’s murderous and stalking hitchhiker. Yet, Spielberg’s Duel is matchless in comparison as he doesn’t feel the need to set it all at night (which is the stereotypical environment for these kind of movies) or rely on the standard jump scares to create fear and tension. Instead, he just uses what is already there on screen, making the quiet and empty roads almost endless and inescapable, and juxtaposing the powerful growling, bellow of the pursuing truck’s powerful and yet monstrous engine with the weak, stalling car engine of Mann’s Plymouth. Again, this all relates back to Duel’s true definition as a proper monster movie.
At the centre of the film, we get a quiet and very nuanced performance from Dennis Weaver as the tormented everyman. He is pretty much in every single frame of the film, and the camera never leaves his face. In every close-up, we can clearly see the torment and fear that he’s going through, and that is evident through his eyes which become juxtaposed with his inner monologue.
Duel is the perfect example of a proper monster movie that leaves you tense, gripped and excited all the way, with excellent cinematography by Jack A. Marta, a nuanced performance from Dennis Weaver, and a superbly constrained script by Richard Matheson. But most of all, we get to experience the true beginnings of a filmmaking legend whose name will forever be carved into the pantheon of cinema history. His name is Steven Spielberg.
Written by Ryan Pollard
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Richard Matheson
Starring: Dennis Weaver
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