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

A monstrous truck pursues a motorist in the film-maker’s seat-edge 1971 feature-length debut that hinted at greatness to come

It takes less than a minute of watching 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 as much, because the opening shots alone, a POV from a camera attached to the front bumper of a red Plymouth Valiant, have an unsettling visceral jolt to them, despite the mundane action of the car pulling out of a suburban driveway and heading on its way. The bumper’s-eye-view would be a major component of Walter Hill’s superb 1978 thriller The Driver. Spielberg beat it by seven years.

There are some important asterisks here. Duel was not Spielberg’s first time behind the camera by any means. He’d been unusually precocious as a child and young adult, enough to draw the attention of Universal Pictures, which commissioned the short Amblin’ from him in 1968, when he was only 22, and signed him to a seven-year directing contract on the strength of it. By the time he got to make Duel, Spielberg was already a seasoned TV director, though the fact that Duel is understood as his first feature at all is 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 additional time and money to expand it into a 90-minute feature.

Now 50 years and countless awards, accolades and box-office dollars later, Duel feels like the proto-Jaws, an early statement of principles on how to build suspense and terror through patience, simplified action and delayed gratification. If you want to “play the audience like a violin”, as Alfred Hitchcock once phrased it to François Truffaut, you can’t be slashing away at the strings all the time. As an exercise – and it is scarcely (if elegantly) more than that – Duel is proof positive that a truck menacing a car on the California highway is all the story necessary for a film to exist. Provided it has the right director, of course.

Not a word of dialogue is uttered for several minutes, other than the weather, traffic and sports news spilling out of the Plymouth’s speakers as the driver heads toward an unknown destination. Spielberg doesn’t even introduce the driver until absolutely necessary, and he does it first through a shot of the man’s sunglass-shielded eyes as he looks into the rearview mirror – something he will have to do more often than usual as the film unfolds. Until that point, Spielberg sticks with that bumper POV, which has the effect of enhancing the feeling of speed and danger while the car moves first through a neighborhood, then on to city streets, then on to the congested freeway outside Pasadena, and finally to the two-lane blacktop headed north down the Sierra Highway.

We learn later that the driver’s name is David Mann, though it’s not necessary. We also hear his thoughts from time to time, though they’re not necessary, either. All that’s important is that he’s stuck behind a gas truck that’s as black as the clouds spewing out of the exhaust pipe like an Industrial Age smokestack. There’s no guessing why the truck driver chose David to torment on this day – we see his cowboy boots but his face is a secret for the longest time – but he’s feeling homicidal, and a little sadistic, too. There’s no more psychology to him than there is to the great white who terrorizes the beaches of Amity Island. He’s just a killer.

Adapted from the short story by Richard Matheson, who also scripted, Duel sketches in a little bit of domestic tension in David’s backstory, just enough to give him a reason to defend himself. In a brief phone call with his wife, David apologizes for his behavior the previous evening, when he failed to intervene at a party where another man was acting with sexual aggression toward her. The scene is like a shake-and-bake Straw Dogs: his masculinity has been diminished and he’s about to get involved in a life-or-death battle to reclaim it.

Spielberg ramps up the action slowly. At first, David breezes past the truck as any normal driver would on a two-lane road, thinking nothing of it. The truck then passes him aggressively, at a very high speed, horn blaring … only to slow down again. The pattern repeats itself. What seems annoying and inexplicable to David at first becomes actively menacing as he makes various attempts to outrace this surprisingly nimble machine or slip away to various pitstops or hiding spots along the side of the road. Every time, the truck awaits.

Capitalizing on a time when California road movies were en vogue, especially ones with muscle cars racing for pink slips, Spielberg shows an early mastery of space, always making the audience keenly aware of where these fast-moving vehicles are in relation to each other while volleying between up-close car mounts and shots of the arid hills, cliffs and mountains. Duel is as close as films get to a feature-length car chase, which would court tedium if Spielberg didn’t mix up a vast repertoire of dazzling shots and Matheson didn’t add a fresh new wrinkle to the showdown. There’s a minimalist purity to the film, with Spielberg still acting like the star graduate of film school, finally getting a chance to play with all the tools in the box.

And finally, there’s that land-shark of a truck, which Spielberg anthropomorphizes into such a monster that it’s a surprise to learn that anyone is driving it at all. Duel doesn’t have the luxury (or technical necessity) of keeping the truck out of sight like the shark in Jaws, but the two have a lot in common, including the “doll’s eyes” darkness that make them seem like they are staring into the abyss. David is left with the dawning realization that he’s up against an implacable evil that can’t be negotiated with, only destroyed. If Robert Shaw were around, the truck would be worthy of a monologue, too.


Scott Tobias

The GuardianTramp

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