The Epic Duel That Started it All: Reliving Steven Spielberg's First Ten Years (1971-1982)
Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. His films are often praised for their technical prowess and emotional resonance. But before he made the iconic films Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he made his mark with the 1971 television movie Duel.
This movie was Spielberg’s first feature-length project and it set the tone for his career and his films to come. Let’s take a look back at Duel and explore how it shaped Spielberg’s career.
Duel is a 1971 made-for-TV movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Dennis Weaver. The movie follows a traveling salesman, Mann, as he is pursued by a mysterious relentless truck driver, whose identity remains unknown for most of the movie. It was based on a short story by Richard Matheson and was produced for ABC’s Movie of the Week. The movie was an instant success and it catapulted Spielberg into the public eye.
Before Duel, Spielberg had only directed a few short films. He was determined to make it in Hollywood and he had been struggling to find his footing after being touted as a wunderkind and was stuck in television. In 1971, he was hired to direct Duel and it became his first feature-length project. It was an ambitious project for a new director, but Spielberg was up for the challenge.
Spielberg had a vision for Duel and he was able to bring it to life. He was able to capture the tension and suspense of the story with his tight direction and attention to detail. Duel was well-received by audiences and critics alike and it made Spielberg an overnight sensation.
Dennis Weaver travels across the vast Californian dessert, who although nice enough, is not assertive enough. This is shown early on with an awkward telephone conversation with his wife regarding a serious situation that happened before he left on his journey (which is brilliantly shot in a laundrette). Mann is a good-natured person (the definition of everyman!) who is just trying to make it to his meeting. He is a sympathetic character and the audience is able to feel his fear and frustration when he is being chased by the truck driver.
A common theme in Spielberg's early films including Duel and Jaws had the underdog being pursued by an unstoppable force. Both have a main protagonist as a man unsure of himself and yet manages to rise to the occasion.
Spielberg himself said that Duel is how he felt as a child in the school yard. He projects himself as Mann and the truck represents the school bully and his own insecurities are shown on screen.
Both Mann and the truck driver are compelling and they are the core of the movie. They are opposites in every way and their conflict drives the story forward.
Mann is pitted against the truck driver, who is relentless and unstoppable and Mann is powerless against him. This battle between the protagonist and nature is a recurring theme throughout Spielberg’s films and it is a theme that is explored in style in Duel.
The movie also explores themes of paranoia and isolation. Mann is in a constant state of fear, as he is never sure if the truck driver is still pursuing him. This is shown most clearly in a scene which takes place at a dinner and he is convinced (wrongly) he has found his pursuer. Isolated from the world, he is the only one who knows of the truck driver’s existence and vendetta.
The cinematography of Duel is one of its greatest strengths. Spielberg has a natural gift and seemingly knows how the perfect shot should be made. He uses a variety of camera angles and shots to bring the tension and suspense of the movie to life. He uses dynamic camera movements to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. using wide-angle shots to emphasize the vastness and isolation of the desert.
The editing of Duel is also noteworthy. Spielberg uses quick cuts to create a sense of urgency and suspense. The use of slow-motion shots at the end of the movie to emphasize the resolution of the conflict is fantastic. The cinematography of the movie is masterful and it helps to create a sense of stress and the anxiety of the main character, this is a huge factor as it is shown rather than spoken.
The effect of removing a lot of the dialogue (Spielberg said he cut at least 50%) is that it creates a sense of urgency and fear. The silent start of the movie gets us primed, the main character doesn't say a word until at least five minutes into the film. It's this impact and the use of camera work that you can tell you're in the hands of a master of film, even at such a young age.
Despite being a thrilling action movie, Duel is also a social commentary. Mann, who is pitted against a faceless and relentless force. He is determined to survive and he is able to overcome his fear and take control of his destiny.
The truck driver is a symbol of unchecked technology and of man’s inability to control it. This is a recurring theme in Spielberg’s films.
The studio originally wanted to reshoot the ending with a spectacular fireball and pyrotechnics display, Spielberg kindly declined that offer and said it was part of his artistic vision to see the truck die slowly off the cliff in an agonizing way and the oil dripping from the steering wheel obviously represents the last drop of blood from the films villain, who gets the demise he deserves.
The TV movie was such a success that it was extended to 90 minutes and released at the cinema. It had profound impact on Spielberg’s career. It was his first feature-length project and it put him on the map. It was well-received by audiences and critics alike. The success gave Spielberg the confidence he needed to take on bigger projects. After Duel, Spielberg went on to make Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These iconic films cemented Spielberg’s reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Strangely it's an often forgotten piece in Spielberg's back catalogue despite it being one of his best. It has been copied in countless films, television shows, and video games. It has also been parodied in a variety of ways.
The movie has also been cited as a major influence on filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright. Tarantino has cited Duel as one of his favourite Spielberg films and Wright has said that the movie inspired him to make Baby Driver.
Duel was the movie that started it all for Steven Spielberg. It was his first feature-length project and it set the tone for his career and his films to come. If you haven’t seen Duel, it is definitely worth watching. You won’t be disappointed!