I have always considered myself lucky to have been born at the right time to have experienced the movies of Steven Spielberg. For my generation, we are lucky tenants of the last third of the 20th century. For us, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas provided our cinematic nutrition.
Lucas can be glorified and vilified sometimes in the same breath, but I will not doubt the enormous influence he’s had the this great artform. But while Lucas turned inward and used his talents at improving the technical side of the movies, Steven Spielberg took a different path. He made movies in every genre, some good, some bad.
We grew up on his adventures which were childlike in form and function, but strangely more mature and thoughtful then someone else might have made them. Steven Spielberg inspired my generation to watch movies in a whole new way, as the kinds of adventures he grew up watching or wanted to.
Throughout the month of April, right here on this on this site (and at my blog), I present “A Study in Spielberg”, a day to day look at his films from the first to the last (by bizarre coincidence, I find that he’s directed exactly 30 films). I hope you’ll join me in looking inside the work of this great director. Today we start where he started, with the road thriller called Duel.
If I say that I feel a deep connection to Spielberg’s work, I’m not exaggerating. His first feature premiered on ABC television, on November 13, 1971, exactly one day before I was born. This means nothing beyond the fact that I feel lucky that I’ve been following his work all my life, and it is interesting that his films came to the public just at the moment that I came into the world.
After working in television for a number of years, directing episodes of “Night Gallery”, “Marcus Welby”, and the very first episode of “Columbo”, Spielberg got the chance to direct his first feature, and it wasn’t some snoozer drama, it was an action movie that was right up his alley.
Duel was a hard-nosed, unsympathetic chase picture, a road adventure centered on tired salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) who is driving across the California desert to an appointment when he has an unfortunate encounter with a mysterious truck driver who’s annoying driving habits are at first irritating, but quickly turn dangerous.
Across the western plains, Mann tries and tries to out-drive, outmaneuver and outsmart the hulking Peterbilt truck, but at almost every turn he is outsmarted. Trying to turn into the mountains does nothing to deter his opponent. Neither does pulling into a restaurant to wait it out. All the while the truck waits around every turn.
How this simple story resolves itself is not surprising, but what is surprising is how well Spielberg ramps up the tension. By never showing the truck driver, we the viewer psychologically begin to feel that Mann isn’t being menaced by the driver but by the truck itself. Like the shark in Jaws, there’s a crafty quality about it. While it does nothing outside of the plain of reality, we feel its presence as it bears down on Mann’s tiny Plymouth Valiant.
You can see Duel in a lot of Spielberg’s later work. The truck is a reminder of the shark in Jaws. The chase itself is representative of the Indiana Jones pictures. The every-man quality of the Dennis Weaver character is evocative of the characters that were to come such as the three men in Jaws; Roy Neary in Close Encounters; Indiana Jones and just about every character that Tom Hanks has played. There’s nothing superhuman about David Mann, he’s just an ordinary guy that we can relate to.
Spielberg’s best films always have two realities – one in the center and one on the outer edges. The story in the center is the chase between man and machine. The story at the outer edges is a commentary on the times. This was 1971, a moment in American history just off of a decade of protest, violence, assassinations and war. At this moment, in this particular year, The Vietnam War was still burning, The Manson Family went to prison and the American public had become jaded about the promise of their beloved country. Even television was upended that year with the cynicism of “All in the Family.”
What Duel represents is the jaded vision of another great institution: the American highway. Here were all the fear and paranoia of the times wrapped up in a 75 minute story of a failed salesman who couldn’t get behind the wheel and drive across the country without being menaced by a psychopath. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Duel announced an important new voice. At a time when the movies themselves were growing darker and more cynical, Duel was the alarm bell that a great director was on the horizon.