I’m not a big Spielberg guy. He has a couple of movies I really love, a few I think are really over rated, and a whole heap I’ve never bothered watching and probably never will. But as ambivalent as I am, there’s no denying the amazing impact he’s had on film making over more than four decades. There’s a reason why he has possibly the most famous behind the camera name in Hollywood. And you can see the beginnings of that future notoriety in his first move, Duel.
Shaken, he stops at a roadhouse. Showing the kind of dead horse flogging subtlety Spielberg will go on to exhibit throughout his career, Weaver calls his wide and it’s revealed he let another dude cross a few lines with her at a party the previous night and decided to ignore it to avoid conflict. I wonder if that will serve as any sort of motivation to his actions when he gets back on the road and the truck reappears? Upping the anti of torment until Weaver knows this has gone further than just intimidation and his life is actually in serious danger.
Made for TV with a tiny budget, Spielberg makes Duel a much better movie than it has any right to be. Four years before he’d invent the entire concept of the blockbuster movie with Jaws, it’s great to see what a truly great film maker he is. A solid 90% of this movie is the car, the truck, the road and nothing else. Apart from the odd awkward voiceover from Weaver, there’s hardly any dialogue and the most we ever see of the truck driver is his arm out the window once or twice.
In true B movie style, the entire movie is a build up to one big climax that probably represents most of the meager budget, but that doesn’t stop Spielberg from finding ways to ramp up the tension and suspense all the way through. Especially through the practical stunt driving.
It was 1971, so there were no computers to fake anything. And Spielberg uses a lot of long, wide shots, so you can see how fast these vehicles are going, and how close they are to each other at these insane speeds. It’s hard to give a shit about stunts and action sequences when you know it’s basically just a cartoon made by a computer. With Duel, the reality of everything happening on screen makes it that much more intense.
Watching Duel gave me a lot more respect for Spielberg. Not in a way that makes me want finally to get around to watching things like War of the Worlds or The Terminal. But in a way that makes me really wish he’d make something small and simple again.