Duel (1971) – Review by Andrea Carnevali

Duel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

A business commuter is pursued and terrorized by the malevolent driver of a massive tractor-trailer. Available to buy online.

Throughout the summer I’ll be showing five early films by Spielberg (from Sugarland Express to Empire of the Sun) at my film club at The Chiswick Cinema.

Unfortunately we couldn’t get the rights to show Duel (his very first feature length, though one made originally for TV), so I decided to watch it on my own, just to refresh my memory and get into the right mood for the “Summer of Spielberg”, as the cinema has named the season.

Even then, in 1971, at the young age of 24, Spielberg was showing a deep understanding of what cinema can do, and his mastery of building scenes and tension was truly astonishing.

He was so confident about the power of his visuals that he actually cut 50% of the dialogue from the script while making this film (he said he would have cut more if the studio had allowed him to).

The original story by Richard Matheson had appeared on Playboy (of all places):

“It was one of the few times I ever picked up Playboy without looking at the pictures,” Spielberg would later say.

He took this simple, streamlined premise (a truck stalking a driver), and turned it into a nail-biting murderous game of cat and mouse, using every trick in the film-maker guide-book to maximum effect.

His camera shots are always surprising and give a scope and a feel that hardly had ever seen back then on TV: great vistas, tight close-up, handheld camera, crane shots, tracking shots, low angles, high angles, 360-degree pans and the list goes on. In fact there are hardly two shots alike in the entire film.

Spielberg’s technical virtuosity goes beyond just the placing of the camera. The editing is sharp and clear, the use of sound is constantly inventive and the music, at times so reminiscent of Bernard Hermann (not the only Hitchcockian influence here, by the way) also finds ways to be experimental too.

All these elements converge to make even the most boring and uncharismatic man on the planet (in this case Dennis Weaver) seem exciting. That’s not to say that Dennis Weaver is miscast, or bad, actually quite the opposite: he manages to play both the average, boring man and his descent to madness in a thoroughly convincing way.

As a film geek, I couldn’t help noticing some of Spielberg’s trademarks, already visible here: the unseen murderous truck driver, just like the unseen shark in Jaws (or the unseen baddies in ET), the man from a broken family, like in Close Encounter (in fact a recurrent theme in Spielberg’s films); the big close-ups of the hero’s eyes, later seen in Raiders…  And the list goes on.

On paper, this might not be the most compelling story ever written, but in the way it’s visualised in the film is really second to none.

Duel was so well received when shown on ABC, as a 60 minutes “film of the week”, that Spielberg was given the budget to film some extra scenes in order to beef up the overall duration and release the film internationally on the big screen.

And with that, one of cinema’s greatest was “born”.

His next film, Sugarland Express, would make the most of his road-movie experience. and for that one, Spielberg went even bigger… but that’s story for another time.

The Blu-ray of Duel contains some pretty juicy interviews and documentaries too, all which made the experience of watching this even more exciting. Highly recommended.

You can also buy the film online for a mere £5.99 or rent it for about £3.

In the meantime get some your tickets for Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters of the third Kind, ET and Empie of the Sun.

Book tickets – Chiswick Cinema Film Club

Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick, and a co-creator of the Chiswick In Film festival.

See all Andrea’s film reviews here: Film reviews by Andrea Carnevali

Chiswick In Film festival: Chiswick In Film festival 2023

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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