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50 years of 'Duel': Steven Spielberg's early highway thriller

'Duel' - Steven Spielberg

Palpable tension and scenes of thrilling drama are two sensations familiar to the filmography of Steven Spielberg, from his well-known feats of filmmaking including Jaws, Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark among many more. Made 50 years ago, however, long before his success in 1980s cinema, Duel is too often missed from his list of classics, showcasing a story so quintessentially Spielberg that it radiates with his very passion for dynamic filmmaking. 

Originally airing as a television film as part of the ABC Movie of the Week, Duel received enough critical and commercial acclaim that it was picked up for international distribution in 1971 and has since become a petrol-doused cult classic. Adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story originally published in Playboy magazine, the film’s plot is ingeniously simple, following a business commuter who is pursued and terrorised by the sinister driver of a big rig. 

Helmed by an unseen evil driver, the script from Richard Matheson explicitly states that the film’s villain is never seen aside from his boots and arms that were used to convey the rig’s acceleration of erratic steering. Observing that this ‘fear of the unknown’ is what makes Duel such a success, Spielberg would replicate this aspect in his classic shark film, Jaws, just four years later. 

Often it is what’s heard, suggested and alluded to, rather than physically seen, that injects the lasting feeling of terror. Duel ingeniously heightens its tension using clever cinematography, terrific performances and a creeping soundtrack, making the viewer’s mind scramble as they try to decipher what could possibly be driving the villains desire for rage. At its heart, Duel is a simple film, and purposefully so, with limited dialogue and restricted complications, showing more likeness to the silent films of old than the later Hollywood blockbusters of Spielberg. 

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As the director told Empire whilst in conversation with Edgar Wright, “I cut about fifty per cent of the dialogue out of the script. It told me that this was going to be my first silent movie. I was a huge fan of the silent era”. Dennis Weaver, playing the scared protagonist David Mann truly has little to say, with the director preferring to capture his raw fear and confusion to excellent effect. As Spielberg further explains, “It’s a primal road rage story. You’re watching a lightweight go up against a heavyweight champion. Like David and Goliath, at first you put your money on the giant and it turns out that David starts to turn the tables. I had also thought of it as a Biblical parable”. 

Steven Speilberg’s Duel may be one of the director’s most rudimental film efforts, though it contains all the hallmarks of his later career, illustrating the director’s deft ability to steadily heighten tension, even when key narrative details may yet still be unknown. As if we ourselves possess the sweaty palms that cling to the evading car’s steering wheel, Spielberg sticks the audience on a terrifying highway of seemingly existential, and maybe even apocalyptic danger. Talk about a pioneering filmmaker, there are very few films that make driving down a highway in broad daylight seem quite so eerie.