Friday, September 18, 2015

Duel Review

Steven Spielberg is responsible for some of the best and most iconic movies of our day. It's thanks to him that we have classics like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Jurassic Park, and many others. But even the greatest film directors had to start somewhere. The very first full-length theatrical released film Spielberg directed is Duel (1971) when he was twenty-two years old. It's fascinating to observe Spielberg's earliest work in film to see where he started from and where his skills have taken him.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a mild mannered electronics salesman, is driving cross-country on a two-lane highway when he encounters an old oil tanker driven by an unseen driver who seems to enjoy annoying him with dangerous antics on the road. Unable to escape the demonic big rig, David finds himself in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the monstrous truck. When the pursuit escalates to deadly levels, David must summon his inner warrior and turn the tables on his tormentor.
To be fair, Duel wasn't originally a theatrical release movie. It was a television released movie funded, produced, and distributed by ABC for their ABC Movie of the Week, a weekly television anthology series of made-for-TV movies. Eventually it was released to cinemas in Europe and Australia and had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States. The film's success enabled Spielberg to establish himself as a film director.
Even for a made-for-TV movie, it's pretty good. The paranoia David has about the demonic big rig is reminiscent of the fear and paranoia so beautifully depicted in many of Hitchcock's films. Taking another page from Hitchcock, young Spielberg doesn't completely show us our "monster," thus allowing the audience's imagination to run away with us. The mind fills in the gaps in full detail far better than the movie could. It's fascinating to see how well Spielberg grasped these film making concepts from such a young age.
Spielberg insisted on shooting on location; that is filming on a highway rather than on a soundstage. I appreciate this because nothing looks worse than a car prop on a soundstage with a green screen backdrop; the actor is obviously sitting perfectly, comfortably still while there is lots of movement outside the windows. Taking the small budget into consideration, the camera work was very impressive. The same scenes had to be shot numerous times with the cameras mounted at different locations on the vehicles. The editing was also impressive, since we always get a clear sense of where the car and big rig are in comparison to each other. Since a bulk of the movie is these two vehicles driving adjacent to one another, I'm sure the editing was tricky, but the result was spot on.
A common Spielberg technique is to capture a lot of energy in a shot with a low angle and fast movement. I think it's safe to say he learned this technique while filming Duel. When we first encounter the Big Rig, we see it from  a low angle as the camera moves in one sweeping shot that moves from David in his car to the big rig in front of him while still in motion. We don't see the whole big rig in the shot, which shows us how very large and intimidating this vehicle is. The big rig is, in fact, a scary looking truck, but the way the camera captures it makes it seem all the more threatening. It's fascinating to see how these techniques that Spielberg is known for, were used early in his career.
Since most of the movie is focused on David while he is alone in his car, Duel doesn't lend itself to a lot of dialogue. Nevertheless, David as a character, is well established and we see him develop and grow as the movie progresses. There is a scene when Duel does something that movies should avoid, and that is have a voiceover to express what a character is thinking. Movies are a visual medium and must rely as much as possible upon showing an audience what is happening or what a character is thinking rather than telling us through voiceover or narration. But Duel manages to do this tactfully. Throughout most of the movie we are shown action that elicits our emotional reactions which are then reciprocated through David's expressions, allowing us to know what he is thinking. But on the few occasions we do hear his voiceover thoughts, they are expressing thoughts and concerns that are more complicated than could be expressed with just a facial expression, such as when David talks to himself as he tries to formulate a plan. I feel like the voiceover is a bit of a rookie mistake, but Spielberg was, in fact, a rookie here. The voiceover is used minimally and effectively and the movie relies foremost upon showing us, rather than telling us, what is going on.
Duel is an gripping cat-and-mouse thriller movie. Since it was a made-for-TV movie of the 1970's, it remains safely in the PG range, even with a couple profane words. It's an exciting, well developed story that reminded me of some classic Hitchcock films on some level. It's not as action-packed as I'm sure some modern audience members might expect these days, but it's still a solid film. Duel's rusted, growling tanker truck is an obvious predecessor to the man-eating Great White of Jaws, and it's every bit as terrifying. If you are a fan of film history, I highly recommend seeing Duel just to see Spielberg's earliest work that influenced his later work. Even if you are not a fan of film history , it's still a good movie and is worth seeing. Just for its historical significance, I'd like to get my own copy of this film.

There are a number of great movie directors out there. What are some early titles from iconic directors that are worth seeing to appreciate their artistic development? Comment below and tell me about it!


  1. A common director career path is to make a promising film, then a string of hits, then spend the rest of their career trying to live up to their peak. Like David O. Selznick always trying to out do Gone with the Wind. Is that why Kubrick only make 6 movies? 7 if you count AI.

    1. That's a good point. Just look at how well M. Night Shyamalan started out compared to the last several movies he's done. Not everyone continues to be great.
      Thanks for your input!