With Steve Spielberg speaking to children, and inner-children, everywhere in theaters this weekend, let us look back at his earliest days, doing something just a wee bit different.
Cinematically speaking, the halcyon days of the 1970s are in many ways unrecognizable from the current decade. But disposition of the films and quality aside, one of the more tactile, tactical ways that the nuts and bolts of filmmaking was different – something almost never mentioned in the popular sphere – is that the discreet world of television cinema was, if not quite up with the big boy leagues of silver screen darlings, a rather respected, and in some cases stylistically radical, little cottage industry for aspiring craftspersons and savants alike. The progeny of the omnivorous TV-movie-of-the-week stylings of ‘60s cultural icons like Playhouse 90, this television movie industry was, well, more or less a playhouse for workaday journeymen talents to direct sharp if straightforward, crafty but not really cunning films for hire. I mean, hell, Robert Altman did it, and if he didn’t use it as a stepping stone to emerge as the greatest American director of the whole 1970s, then I don’t know what else could make the early days of TV cinema more respectable.
With Duel, a 1971 television film with the commercial success of many real-deal motion pictures, a young talent by the name of Steven Spielberg certainly carved out a cranny of cinema-land for himself, even if he wasn’t really on top of the world until a decade later. For Duel, this reduced ambition is actually for the best; the lack of showiness on display in Duel – with the director not yet so confident in his skills that he felt he could get away with anything, often slackening his effect – is liberating. However basic it is, Duel is also the platonic ideal of itself, exactly the sort of bare-bones in-and-out short-tempered film that would appeal to a talent with a nearly psychotic, omnipotent gift for technical craft and not much of an auteurist interest in challenging cinema. In this case, having directed some gangbusters episodes of Columbo and Rod Serling’s The Night Gallery as a cash-in to prove his worth behind the camera, Duel was Spielberg’s ticket to the big time, a ticket that Duel shreds to bits.
Shreds in a good way, of course. Adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story (the writer and director likely bonding through their mutual Rod Serling experience), this flesh-eating stripped-to-the-bone piston of a film is just the right chokepoint between serpentine slow-simmering gumbo and proto-punk, post-Wages of Fear kill ‘em all indiscretion. In Matheson-like fashion, we have a scenario more than a story, which is ideal for this sort of formal showcase: David Mann (Dennis Weaver), resident milquetoast suburbanite on a business trip, is terrorized by an unseen malevolent wraith in a rusted-out truck of a body.
With Spielberg’s direction disrupting the status quo and tracking us neatly from mild disturbance to deep-throat dialectical with the devil, Duel is a plunge into desperation and the terror of the unknown (it’s impossible to imagine the film sharing its effect if the trucker was corporealized in flesh). The nature of life as a box tentatively teetering on the precipice of animal instinct is, you know, not interesting anymore in an abstract, conceptual sense, but Spielberg embodies the theme viciously and visually with shots that just stab you in the gut with their simultaneous visualization of the open road as a torrid affair with unending nothingness and as a constantly closing iron maiden around your body.
If Spielberg has a partner in crime, it’s Frank Morris’ strangulating editing, hazardously suggesting dislocated space by manipulating itself between extraordinarily brutalizing wide shots and pulverizing close-ups that just refuse to let us, the audience, be. Admittedly, the film is sans any particularly poetic gestures, but that sort of adventurousness would probably distract from Spielberg’s trampling camera anyway, and shots like the opening image are just beguiling in their murderous simplicity. Opening the film with complete blackness enveloping the frame, a hood-mounted camera eventually pulls us back, allowing us to recede into the comforting awareness of recognizable suburban iconography as we see an everyday “garage”. Although recognizing this space as a garage thaws out our fear temporarily, it also teases out the irony that the initially colorless emptiness turns out to be a beacon of domesticity. As the garage recedes into the background, the safety of everyday recognition is denied in favor of the wide-open terror of the open road, the garage now a distant void.
The emotional trajectory in this shot is clear: uncertain terror, a passing wave of relief, self-reflection at having felt frightened at what was simply a garage, realization at how the camera plays with and subverts expectations about how we are supposed to react emotionally to certain images, and finally the creeping cloud of terror again. It’s simple – it is what many a talented film school student would do if they were asked to visualize “domesticity as simultaneous question mark and safety ritual” – but it’s undeniably effective.
Without the sort of choppy, over-confident, mumbling machismo masquerading as a censure-of-machismo that infected Sam Peckinpah’s same-year Straw Dogs, Duel is basic as a blessing rather than a curse. Again, there’s precious little going on here that Spielberg wouldn’t advance soon after, and it’s all standard horror cinema 101 – slivers of the truck visible around the edges of frame like an uncanny predator, a catlike caterwaul invading the soundtrack like Tourneur’s Cat People – but it is impossible to imagine a superior version of this relatively personality-free film without fundamentally changing its identity. Even that lack of personality is a sort of embodiment of the implacable void of the pursuing truck, all rust-bucket impersonality and everyday Americana, as if the trucker’s spirit has grabbed the film itself by the throat. If Duel’s most notable utilization is as a glimpse of future films to come from its director, well, it’s a startling omen to say the least.