Duel (1971)
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0
Universal, $19.98

Although it was initially shot as a modest ABC “Movie of the Week” rather than a feature film destined for greatness, Steven Spielberg’s Duel has become one of the legendary debuts in American cinema, a textbook example of what an ambitious and talented young director can do with modest resources. Shot entirely on location in just 13 days, this story of an everyman being pursued by a psychotic trucker gave Spielberg an early chance to exhibit his skill at manipulating an audience’s emotions. Using a constantly mobile camera and unsettling sound design that depended more on atonal screeches and hums than music, Spielberg created a minor classic.

More than 30 years after its initial airing on ABC, Duel still has the power to rattle nerves, thanks to the director’s adept manipulation of point of view. From the eerie opening shot onward, Spielberg uses all of the technical means at his disposal to place the audience in hero David Mann’s shoes, and the Hitchcock-inspired visual design causes the intensity to mount steadily from one scene to the next. At every given moment, Spielberg and his crew seem to know exactly where the camera needs to be for maximum effect, and each shot is perfectly timed by editor Frank Morriss — no small feat when you consider that the filmmakers had just three weeks between principal photography and an airdate on ABC.

Though Spielberg was only in his early 20s when he made the film, he  took advantage of the knowledge and experience of professionals who had been honing their craft for decades.

One such veteran was cinematographer Jack A. Marta, ASC, who photographed hundreds of films and television shows over the course of a career that began just after the silent era ended. Marta was particularly proficient in the Western genre, having shot noteworthy pictures for Allan Dwan, William Witney, and many others; in his hands, Duel becomes a sort of technologically advanced High Noon, a showdown between a man and a truck rather than a man and a gang of cowboys. The remastered transfer on this DVD nicely preserves Marta’s dusty beige color scheme, and the print (unlike the one used on some previous video releases) is free of scratches and errors. The disc also offers a choice of soundtracks (a mono track and remastered 5.1 Dolby and DTS surround tracks), and the surround mix nicely enhances both the sophisticated sound design and composer Billy Goldenberg’s experimental score.

Over the years, Duel has mostly been discussed in terms of its action, but it’s also a fascinating movie conceptually, especially in the context of Spielberg’s career as a whole. Many of the obsessions and motifs that would recur again and again in the director’s work first appeared in Duel. For example, there’s the premise of suburban complacency invaded by a monstrous or alien force, and David Mann is the first of Spielberg’s ambivalent or absent middle-class dads. The movie also exhibits the director’s talent for tapping into the zeitgeist, as he subtly creates an added layer of tension by building in references to hostilities between men and women in the heyday of feminism. The radio talk-show chatter that plays in David’s car, an aside he makes about his marriage, and the unpleasant early phone conversation he has with his wife all create unease in the viewer before the violent truck driver even takes action.

Ultimately, however, it is the action rather than the personal drama or social commentary that resonates with the viewer long after Duel is over. Spielberg discusses the dynamic chase sequences on both a thematic and a technical level in the DVD’s most informative supplement, a half-hour interview simply titled A Conversation With Steven Spielberg. The interview covers Duel from preproduction to release and explores how Spielberg used lenses, meticulously planned camera movements and cutting to continually heighten suspense. Spielberg’s passion and nostalgia for the movie are infectious, and his stories about its making are both entertaining and highly educational for students of both cinematography and editing.

The DVD also features a shorter but essential interview with Spielberg on his early TV work. The interview helps to contextualize Duel within the director’s overall career and presents footage from Spielberg’s Columbo and Night Gallery episodes, among others. Even these brief snippets indicate Spielberg’s early command of his medium, and they make the viewer long for a DVD collection of the director’s television oeuvre. The third featurette on the DVD is an interview with screenwriter Richard Matheson in which he describes the origins of the story and his positive impressions of the film. The disc is rounded out with a routine stills gallery and the international trailer for the film (which, though shot for television in the U.S., was released theatrically overseas).

— Jim Hemphill

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.