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After it was aired, the filmmaker’s career and notoriety dramatically shifted a gear so that he was very soon the director in everyone else’s rear-view mirror.
When he directed the television movie in the summer of 1971, the 24-year-old Spielberg was already a TV veteran. He had directed screen legend Joan Crawford in the anthology Night Gallery (1969), the first regular full episode of legendary detective show Columbo (1971), medical and legal dramas in the form of Marcus Welby MD, The Psychiatrist, Owen Marshall – Counselor at Law (1971), and an early foray into science-fiction with The Name of the Game (1971).
With 1971 clearly having more TV momentum for Spielberg than a menacing truck on the dusty Sierra Highway, it was the film about just that that saw the fledgling filmmaker slip the confines of television for the big screen trajectory with which he was about to change both cinema and culture forever.
‘At 11:32 a.m., Mann passed the truck. He was heading west, en route to San Francisco,’ begins famed writer Richard Matheson (Jaws 3-D, Somewhere in Time, I Am Legend) in his April 1971 Playboy short story also titled ‘Duel’. So quick was its impact that Spielberg was soon lobbying Universal Television to make a feature adaptation for that all important schedule slot, the ABC Movie of the Week.
Telling the story of travelling businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) falling foul of a vindictive Peterbilt 281 truck and its faceless driver (in reality, veteran car stuntman Carey Loftin who later drove for Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo and Stephen King’s Christine), Duel is an almost dialogue-free tale of terror, unsettling locals, and panicked resourcefulness.
Marked by a feverish performance by Dennis Weaver battling his own nerves as much as the truck, Duel is a brilliant overture to the visual dialogue of Spielberg — how his building cuts, velocity of adventure and snapshot frames will soon become the filmic grammar that defines the director.
He later uses the same locals from Duel as vital people dressing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). And the sounds of the pained truck finally reaching its fiery end are audibly weaved into the dead shark’s operatic descent in Jaws.
Both Spielberg’s first big features — Duel and Universal Pictures’ subsequent The Sugarland Express (1974) — are about cars and journeys, the layered chatter of locals and radios, carefully observed Americana and the passing ephemera of people.
Duel is also one of the first films that sees the director explore the tropes that defined his top titles to come — namely the absent father about to have an all-encompassing obsession, the life-beaten mother cracking on, and the kids playing with sci-fi toy merch.
Mann’s work-busy dad frantically phoning home to keep a peace as events unfurl into obsessions around him is easily Clovis in The Sugarland Express (1974), Chief Brody in Jaws (1975), Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Steven Freeling in Poltergeist (1982).
And it was often our parents that got the Spielberg kids of the 1980s into Duel. Parents would tell their children of the VHS generation raised on E.T The Extra Terrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark that Duel was the one they needed to see.
The 74-minute-long TV movie (or ‘TVM’ in the listing mags back in the day) was later expanded by Spielberg into a 90-minute feature film for an October 1972 theatrical release in the UK and Europe. It then became a notoriously popular TV staple, often shown in Britain in midnight Friday slots on the commercial channels for all the kids staying up late who knew Dennis Weaver from the 1980s re-runs of 1960s TV hit, Gentle Ben.
Cinematically, The Sugarland Express (1974) is the moment when Spielberg first got noticed. Jaws is the moment when he was first heard. However, Duel is when he first started talking.
Watch a trailer for Duel
Billy Goldenberg’s camera work alone prepares Spielberg for the furrowed brows, concerned head twists and reportage pace of Jaws. And does so without much talking at all. With its canary yellow titles, canary yellow road markings acting as a constant, scant dialogue and those arid, dusty California roadside highways, Duel reminds of Spielberg’s lyrical hitchhiking short Amblin’ (1968).
The hand-held cinematography is often at a sitting height or lower. The editing which allows the audience to see the danger before Weaver does is as good as anything in Jaws, and maintains that vital sense of momentum and impetus.
The blackened truck co-star is a gnarled, corroded behemoth, pre-dating the rust-belt terrors of the homestead in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), that unseen jeopardy of Jaws (1975) and the faceless peril of Michael Myers in Halloween (1978).
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The varied number plates across the truck’s bumper as ominous past victories soon become horror film language for ‘this has happened before already,’ and it is unnervingly unsure whether eccentric locals are friend or foe.
This tailgate of the unexpected represents a curious moment in the history of American cinema. Duel’s cinematographer Jack A. Marta and stuntman Carey Loftin represented the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s that Steven Spielberg was about to drive off the road forever more.
Locals in cowboy hats lining the diner feel like deliberate hangovers from a different era of Americana that was shifting in the 1960s and 1970s. Duel operates as a western with Weaver on his trusty red steed very much as a fish out of an urban water, not fully part of the 1960s youth culture, and remembering his own wartime experiences.
In a 1971 box-office world of ailing Hammer Horrors and hammy haunted house flicks, Duel quietly overtakes the genre and plays is own small part in redirecting it down a quite different highway. It certainly helps herald the imminent reclaiming of mainstream cinema by bearded student hipsters about to rewrite the rules and standards of popular culture.
Just as Alfred Hitchcock had altered the everyday perceptions of having a shower with Psycho (1960), Steven Spielberg achieved three defining pop-culture crossovers that entered the human psyche in the 1970s.
The third was watching the night skies in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The second was altering people’s perceptions of the sea and beaches in 1975's Jaws.
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And the first was clocking a menacing truck in your rear-view mirror when driving down the highway in Duel.
Five decades on, none of these tropes have changed. For anyone of a film mind who has driven the Pacific Coast Highway across California and had a heavy truck dominate their wing mirror, half a century later Duel’s power has still not taken its foot off the gas.
Watch a trailer for Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, in cinemas this Christmas