Anyone who's ever watched more than one episode of a late night talk show has probably heard some Hollywood talent assuring an audience that has to applaud either way that "I always wanted to be a star" and backing up said assertion by subjecting us to the usual tales of appearing in school plays, church recitals and all the other methods of desperately attracting attention to oneself without much in the way of talent. Perhaps that speaks to some fundamental truth of stardom and its relation to actual acting, but that's a discussion for some other time. The truth is, sometimes you can tell what a child will become in adulthood based on the passion of youth, and few tykes pointed so resolutely, so inevitably, toward a career in the cinema as Steven Spielberg.
In 1958, at the tender age of 11, he made his first film for a Boy Scout merit badge, a story I endured ad nauseam as a young pup forced to participate in that ridiculous organization and its empty indoctrination of flag-waving patriotism -- never mind those godawful Hitler Youth costumes, the way their made-up flags carried the same significance as the American one or how the Scout salute is actually the Polish army salute. (The scoutmasters always neglected to mention that Spielberg eventually stopped supporting the organization over their discriminatory policies, but I'm getting seriously off-topic here). Throughout his teens, he made 8mm adventure films with his friends, rigging homemade effects in an attempt to explore his infatuation with his father's service in World War II.
When he was 16, Spielberg made his first feature film, Firelight, for a mere $500. Not only that, the damn thing ran nearly two and a half hours. As if some sort of cosmic proof of his destiny, Spielberg managed to get it shown in a theater near his mother's house in Phoenix, where, despite charging the 500 attendees a dollar, managed to return $501, thus earning his first film a profit.
After heading off to college at California State University, Long Beach after he failed to gain acceptance into USC's film school, Spielberg took Firelight around L.A. in an attempt to get work. Sadly, he gave the reels to a producer whose company soon went bankrupt, and he never saw the film again, thus preventing curious fans the chance to see if what the director could do as a kid; surviving clips and testimony suggest that he already knew his way around a tracking shot and his familiar motif of divorce, informed by Spielberg's lingering trauma over his parent's own (but more, oh so much more, on that later as we really move into his career). Of course, you can't keep a dedicated artist down, and Spielberg managed to get himself a job directing a short film, Amblin', and a deal with Universal that made him the youngest director to sign a long-term contract with a major studio.
Universal let him cut his teeth on television programs before signing him to direct four TV movies, which brings us, at long last, to Duel. The first of the four features, Duel performed so well that Universal added 15 minutes to the 74-minute production and screened it theatrically, thus making Duel Spielberg's official directorial debut. I come to Duel having seen only one other "murderous truck" film in my time, Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive, a hilariously bad attempt at translating the author's own material that seemed to place more effort into securing AC/DC for the soundtrack than any other aspect of its production. To prevent myself from watching Spielberg's debut, an intriguing moment in film history even if you hate the man -- if you do, then the idea of him making his mark with a film meant for television sneaking its way into theaters to make more money likely feeds into your view of him as much as its clear parallels with his first megahit Jaws will interest the director's followers -- is of course ludicrous, but, in my defense, you probably haven't seen Maximum Overdrive.
But Duel is indeed an impressive picture, the work of an artist who did not debut at the top of his craft but nevertheless displayed a firm grasp of filmmaking techniques and the importance of pacing. Its opening montage, of POV shots of a car speeding down the highway before morphing into objective tracking shots as the vehicle reaches the countryside, reveal a keen ability to introduce the main character, David Mann (Dennis Weaver), through actions, specifically involving his car. The identification of the character through his car -- giving us our first glimpse of the protagonist via the rear view mirror (his face) and the radio (hands adjusting the knob) -- serves as a foundation for a feature-length cat-and-mouse between Mann's Plymouth Valiant and a mysterious, obscenely filthy Peterbilt 281 tanker.
We never see the driver of the big rig, nothing more than a pair of boots walking past the undercarriage or an arm that signals for a pass. If I took the time to compare the film -- however distractingly -- to Maximum Overdrive, I must also mention another Stephen King creation, Christine. Like the titular demon car of King's novella, the truck is vaguely anthropomorphic, its headlights positioned on a long hood in such a way that it seems to have a face. It bears down on poor David with menace, at first toying with the man before gently escalating into a murderous chase interspersed with moments of quiet paranoia that allow us to catch our breath.
The other obvious comparison, of course, is with Jaws. The grimy truck, covered from hood to tire in muck, looks as if a dinosaur just climbed from a tar pit to hunt down its prey, and it even makes a sort of dino roar at the end (the same sound used for the shark's death "moan"). We never see the driver, and the truck itself exhibits the same ability to disappear as soon as it strikes that ol' Bruce pulled off, without the benefit of an ocean in which to hide. There's no logical method to explain its ability to pop out of view in the vast nothingness of the desert, and nothing in the way of a vague supernatural foundation à la John Carpenter, but young Spielberg pulls it off with gusto.
It's fascinating to watch his process this early. We know Spielberg primarily as a stylistic classicist, which makes the verité aspect of a number of hand-held shots all the more jarring (it popped up again in Saving Private Ryan and perhaps elsewhere, but I'm used to getting my Spielberg through cranes and dollies). He tosses in minor allusions to divorce with the opening audio -- a prank call on the radio involving the DJ posing as a henpecked husband calling the Census Bureau essentially to vent that he's not the head of his own household and that he wants freedom -- and of a brief phone call between David and his wife near the beginning where the two argue over the typical nonsense that always escalates because of how meaningless it is until it becomes an issue. His quick pacing manages to sustain interest for its 90 minutes, even when David spends time in diners or gas stations shrinking away from the world as he desperately attempts to collect himself. He gives us numerous long shots of the truck that reveal its size, yet for some reason I reacted every time he pulled the camera back far enough to capture the tanker in all its terrible glory.
Having not seen the original television cut, I would wager that most of the added footage consists of the diner scene, which I could have sworn built to a head before it finally did, and pieces of chases here and there. Yet the film never wears out its welcome; for all its simplicity -- I suspect with mounting dread that screenwriter Richard Mattheson (the sci-fi author who penned such works as I Am Legend) named his protagonist Mann to punnily comment on the framing of the story as a conflict between man(n) and machine -- Duel is a hell of a ride, and while it doesn't immediately point to a future involving Holocaust and slavery dramas, the seeds for his status as the king of mass entertainment are sown in this low-budget crowd-pleaser.