DUEL (1971) Directed by Steven Spielberg; Starring Dennis Weaver
Here’s another flick that had somehow flown under my radar for awhile. I’ve always been aware of Duel as a fan of both Spielberg, and writer Richard Matheson. I’ve been a fan of Matheson’s since I first read I Am Legend back in my early twenties, and am aware of his output as both a film, and television writer (my personal favorite being the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”). I’ve been a fan of Spielberg’s work since I can remember, growing up with all of his iconic late-Seventies, early-Eighties work. So, I can’t honestly say what took me so long to finally watch Duel.
From the opening scene, a POV of a car driving, Spielberg shows us glimpses of the masterful storyteller he would eventually become. Taking us from the comfort of suburbia, to the outskirts of the isolated, highway roads, he is building tension and dread from the beginning.
This tension never let’s up. He plays this battle between man, and machine, masterfully, letting the camera tell us the story. Whether it’s the shaky cam used to show our main character’s fear as a crazed truck driver barrels after him, or the steady frame of the truck on a crash course with the smaller vehicle. Spielberg only gives us moments to breathe, and we know that this will not end until someone is dead. The fact that he maintains this throughout the film is something that most filmmakers can’t sustain.
My only gripe is the with the narration from our main character, David Mann played by Dennis Weaver, as I felt that Weaver showed us the fear, and disdain on his face. There was no need for an inner monologue, as both actor and director were able to show what Mann was feeling, and thinking, without having to say it. But by no means does this take away from the film.
The fact that this originally aired as an ABC TV Movie of the Week is even more mind-boggling. Spielberg was working with a minimal TV budget, and managed to elevate even that medium, at a time when TV was generally looked down upon by most feature film-makers.
Also, as a fan of cinematography, this is beautiful work. I forget that at the time, everything was shot on film, and this doesn’t look like a TV production but like a seasoned pro doing the best work possible. It makes sense that in the years to come Spielberg would bring us JAWS, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
So, if you are a fan of the man’s work, this is definitely something you need to get up off your butt and give a peep. It’s so worth it.