I’d only imagine this was where Steven Spielberg was working on a certain technique he was set to establish when he made Jaws, which is arguably his most famous work to date. Originally a television film, Duel serves as Steven Spielberg’s debut film and it’s hard to believe that this film was originally conceived for such a medium at the time because the set pieces put at play are far more impressive than theatrical releases that carry bigger budgets. But Spielberg’s work from Duel has only set up more for whom we have come to recognize as one of the most bankable filmmakers working today, it sets up only a more exciting future by establishing a growing learner – one who would only use what he has been picking up in order to form something all the more intriguing. But this sort of craft is especially rare for made-for-television films, which is all the more impressive about Duel.
The premise of Duel is a fairly simple one: we watch David Mann as he is trying to make his way back home via a long drive, but soon a tanker truck whose driver we never see starts hunting him down. From the sort of premise it carries it would be easy to see why it would have started out as a television film although the brilliance present in Duel had eventually found its way onto the big screen and set up a future for one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. The simplicity of the premise is one of the key factors to Duel‘s brilliance, but under the eyes of Steven Spielberg it would be easy to expect only so much more arising from core concept in order to exert something greater. Though his later years haven’t matched the glory he lived within at one point, he has still remained a fascinating voice but to see where he started is to watch a learning filmmaker only show progress and it is wonderful.
Among many things that we can recognize that Spielberg has managed to perfect to a much more believable plausibility in Jaws comes what he sets up in Duel. There’s no motivation behind the attacks, but there’s an image of the situation at hand that only gives the atmosphere Spielberg works with a heightened sense of tension. With a fairly straightforward plot structure comes an intense feeling of being present on the spot, but at the same time what Duel provides is what would have proven itself useful upon Spielberg’s rise to make a name for himself. In Duel he finds himself experimenting with mankind’s own fear, an entity that they do not know, and looking upon how heavily he plays upon it in here is brilliant. We never see the driver, nor do we ever know a motivation, but to know them suddenly removes the sense of tension coming at play.
Together with the simplistic plotting and confined atmosphere, the set pieces that Spielberg puts into play are fantastic. Considering the fact that Duel had originated as a television film, it’s all the more impressive when one notes how there are still a number of theatrical releases that can’t even come up to this level of mastery. While not always believable, there’s something even more wonderful coming out from how one considers the fact that all it relies upon is a clear sense of visual storytelling as made clear by the editing style and a lack of exposition or score as it keeps going. Spielberg keeps everything straightforward just as the story would suggest it should be right on the spot, although the emotional response is one that varies magnificently especially within the paranoia present because of how little we know aside from the truck chasing our lead inside of this lethal cat-and-mouse game.
Dennis Weaver’s performance is another factor that is limited in this aspect, but given what Steven Spielberg is set to work with it only highlights what made Duel work so successfully. Before Steven Spielberg had allowed himself a larger scale, the fact that he still drives out upon an emotional reach just from a focus upon facial reactions as shown from Weaver in here is incredible. Like the audience, he is never sure about what is happening around him, because he’s the one being chased down by this trucker for reasons that we never know. It helps that the script is a fairly limited one on his own end, given an absence of dialogue for most of the film, but the paranoia and fear can be felt from his own actions and what Spielberg works wonders with is how he manages to get in touch with a character’s mindset by having it alongside a similar ground towards the audience’s.
This is a made-for-television film but it’s far more impressive in terms of scale than certain theatrical releases (although it eventually had made its way to theaters). But noting the fact that this is indeed Steven Spielberg’s debut film, he’s still quite evidently a learning filmmaker and Duel isn’t without the occasional misstep. Nevertheless, the gut feeling from watching Duel is just a sense of paranoia like the protagonist, because there’s no clarity about the situation that he has gotten himself entangled within. He’s an innocent man wanting to return home, but sometimes the unexpected has to come and hit upon oneself and it only drives a fearful reaction. And the best part about Duel is the fact it doesn’t need more. It was only a stepping stone for Steven Spielberg before he had eventually made a name for himself with Jaws, only perfecting what would have made said film even more successful.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Richard Matheson, from his story
Produced by George Eckstein
Starring Dennis Weaver
Release Year: 1971
Running Time: 89 minutes