Duel at 50: Steven Spielberg’s debut remains a ferocious thriller | Steven Spielberg

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echIt takes less than a minute to watch a duel, Steven Spielberg’s feature-length debut, to realize you’re in the hands of a master director. And it takes even less time than that to suspect so many, because the opening shot alone, a POV of a camera attached to the front bumper of a red Plymouth Valiant, has a soothing visceral jerk for them, despite the daily action of Get car out of a suburban driveway and get on the road. The Bumper-A-View would be an important part of Walter Hill’s super thriller The Driver from 1978. Spielberg beat it by seven years.

There are some important asterisks here. Duel was by no means Spielberg’s first time behind the camera. He was unusually precocious as a child and young adult, enough to draw the attention of Universal Pictures, which set up Amblin ‘Short by him in 1968, when he was only 22, and signed him to a seven-year directing contract. the strength of it. By the time he made Duel, Spielberg was already an experienced television director, although the fact that Duel was even understood as his first feature was a testament to his generational talent. It started as a 77-minute programmer for ABC’s Movie of the Week and proved such a sensation that he was given extra time and money to expand it into a 90-minute feature.

Now 50 years into a myriad of awards, accolades and box office dollars later, Duel feels like the Proto-Jaws, an early explanation of principles about how to build tension and terror through patience, simplified action and delayed contentment. If you want the audience to “play like a gypsy,” as Alfred Hitchcock once put it to François Truffaut, you can not cut the pages all the time. As an exercise – and it is hardly (if elegantly) more than that – duel is proof positive that a truck that threatens a car on the California freeway is all the story necessary for a movie to exist. Provided it has the right director, of course.

No word of dialogue is expressed for a few minutes, other than the weather, traffic and sports news coming out of the Plymouth speakers as the driver goes to an unknown destination. Spielberg does not even introduce the driver until absolutely necessary, and he does so first through a shot of the man’s sunglasses-protected eyes as he looks in the rearview mirror – something he has to do more often than otherwise in the film evolving. Up to this point, the Spielberg keeps up with the bumper POV, which has the effect of improving the feeling of speed and danger, while the car first moves through a neighborhood, then onto the city roads, then onto the congested motorway outside Pasadena, and finally for the two-lane blacktop straight north down the Sierra Highway.

We learn later that the driver’s name is David Mann, although it is not necessary. We sometimes hear his thoughts, even when they are not necessary. All that matters is that he got stuck behind a gas truck that was as black as the clouds spewing out of the exhaust pipe, like an industrial age smoke stack. There is no guessing why the truck driver chose David to torment him that day – we see his cowboy boots but his face has been a secret for a long time – but he feels homicidal, and also a bit sadistic. There is no psychology more for him than for the great white man who terrorizes the shores of Amity Island. He’s just a killer.

Adapted from the short story by Richard Matheson, who also scripted, duel sketches and a bit of house tension in David’s back story, just enough to give him a reason to defend himself. In a brief phone conversation with his wife, David apologizes for his behavior the night before, when he did not intervene at a party where another man acted with sexual aggression against her. The scene is like a Shake-and-Bake Straw Dogs: his manhood is diminished and he is engaged in a life-or-death battle to get it back.

The character David Mann is pursued by a sadistic truck driver.
The character David Mann is pursued by a sadistic truck driver. Photo: Universal Television / Allstar

Spielberg ramped up the action slowly. At first, David breezes along the truck like any normal driver on a two-lane road, thinking nothing of it. The truck then passes him aggressively, at very high speed, horn blowing … only to brake again. The pattern repeats itself. What seems to David annoying and inexplicable at first is actively threatened as he makes several attempts to outrace this surprisingly fluid machine or slip into various pitstops or understanding places along the road. Each time, the truck waited.

Capitalized on a time when California road movies were in vogue, especially those with muscle cars running for pink slides, Spielberg shows an early master of space, always making the public fully aware of where these fast-moving vehicles are in relation to each other. volleying between up-close car mounts and shots of the arid hills, cliffs and mountains. The duel is as close as movies get to a feature-length car chase, which would have been fun if Spielberg hadn’t mixed up a large repertoire of dazzling shots and Matheson hadn’t added a fresh new trap to the showdown. There is a minimalist purity of the film, with Spielberg, who still acts like the star graduate of the film school, finally getting a chance to play with all the tools in the box.

And finally, there is that land shark of a truck that anthropomorphizes Spielberg into such a monster that it’s a surprise to learn that someone is driving it at all. Duel does not have the luxury (or technical necessity) to keep the truck out of sight like the shark in the jaws, but the two have much in common, including the “doll’s eyes” darkness that they see as they look at the stars . the Abyss. David is left with the dark realization that he is against an unencrypted evil that cannot be negotiated, only destroyed. If Robert Shaw were around, the truck would also be worth a monologue.