Any serious fan of Steven Spielberg's work should take a look at "Duel", a TV movie that he made for Universal back in 1971 that was so well-received by critics that it was considered to be the best TV movie ever when it first aired. "Duel" is important because its success enabled Spielberg to direct "The Sugarland Express" as well as "Jaws". "Duel" is also important because it is the prototype for basically every movie in Spielberg's oeuvre. In "Duel", a "lost little boy" seeks safety from being attacked by a monster, and Spielberg's career has been devoted to "lost little boys" involved in chases/quests.
While driving north out of Los Angeles into the California desert on a business trip, David Mann (Dennis Weaver) encounters a rusting, smoke-belching oil truck that looks more like a monster than a vehicle. (In fact, in the real world, the truck might not even be allowed to go on the road given its awful condition.) At first, Mann and the truck's driver engage in silly tailgating and grandstanding. However, their highway combat increases in violence and intensity, with the never-seen truck driver often almost killing Mann. Mann initially tries to shrug off the duel as a nightmare or as a bad day gone worse. Ultimately, he finds himself in a very direct existential struggle for his life.
Spielberg develops Mann's character and background in spare strokes that nevertheless heighten audience awareness of his attacked-from-all-sides predicament. Mann's business trip is meant to secure a lucrative business account that will help his financial condition. During one of his rest stops, Mann talks to his wife on the phone. He tries to apologize for something that happened the night before, but she doesn't accept his apology. Mann's inability to help a school bus get back in motion again can be read as his failings as a father as well as his failings as an adult (i.e. he's still a boy rather than a man). All of these add up to an emasculation of someone who's meant to be an Everyman (emphasis on man created by the character's last name) of sorts.
The emasculated Mann is, of course, the "lost little boy". The primary chase involves the truck driver trying to kill Mann, though Mann finds his own chase/quest when he tries to discover the truck driver's identity as well as to find respite from a grueling death match. The story layers the different chases/quests so that the stakes get higher and higher as the story progresses.
Spielberg as the director gets a lot of credit for the movie's success. However, as you learn in one of the DVD's bonuses, Spielberg wasn't the only one who contributed to the excitement. Frank Morriss, the editor, pieced together a sequence using footage from various parts of the movie in order to prolong a tense highway chase. The viewer shares Mann's anxiety as his car barely inches up a mountain with an overheated radiator threatening to shut down the engine completely.
The camerawork and the editing are very sophisticated for a TV movie, even when compared to programs that we see on TV in the 2000s. For example, there is an elaborate tracking shot that takes viewers from the back of Mann's vehicle forwards along the sides of Mann's red car and the ugly menacing truck to the front of the truck's monstrous grill. There are several nice framings that isolate Mann from the people that he meets during his road trip. Several jump cuts towards Dennis Weaver's face emphasize his feeling of terror, reducing the need for him to overact.
Spielberg was very excited about the opportunity to cast Dennis Weaver as David Mann. The director remembered the actor's performance in Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil", and Weaver had become one of the best TV actors of his day. Weaver is very good in a role that is limited by the story's lack of scope. There's a palpable sense of Mann's fear, anger, and frustration thanks to Weaver's controlled, effective emoting.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Universal exported its TV movies to movie theatres outside of the U.S. Therefore, Spielberg had the opportunity to expand "Duel" for its theatrical release, adding scenes involving the truck pushing Mann's car towards a passing train. This theatrical version of the movie is what we get on DVD, though it is presented in 1.33:1 rather than 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 because the moviemakers' shot composition was originally meant for TV exhibition anyway.
The 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors) video transfer is amazing for a thirty-plus-years-old source. The print looks sharp, clean, clear, and smooth. The only "problem" is that the colors look a bit faded or "old". Otherwise, there's nothing really wrong with the image.
Though aggressive and filled with directionality effects, the Dolby Digital 5.1 English track is limited by the movie's subject matter. There are only so many interesting sounds available in the California desert. Still, this is a surprising re-engineering of the movie's original mono mix. Dialogue and voiceovers are always clear no matter how busy the soundtrack gets. Music is used rarely, but it never sounds wobbly the way that so much music in so many old movies do.
There's a DTS 5.1 English track (understandable since Spielberg was one of the people involved in the creation of DTS). For history's sake, there is also a DD 2.0 mono English track that gives viewers the choice of watching the movie with its original mono mix. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles support the audio.
"Duel" is a "slight" movie, but the extras on the "Duel" DVD are very much worth your time and repeat viewings. Not only are the extras on this DVD excellent, they also prove why well-created featurettes are better than even the best audio commentaries. You see, with a featurette or a documentary, an interviewee can discuss things at length without worrying about keeping up with what is happening in a movie. Also, the viewing experience itself is not disrupted by a person yakking and yakking and yakking...
In "Steven Spielberg on Making 'Duel'", the director talks honestly, frankly, and candidly about what "Duel" meant to him, especially in terms of how it gave his career a successful launching pad. Spielberg talks about early difficulties, early heartbreaks, and early desperation. He talks about how his personal maturation influenced the way his movies' formation. He also talks about how French critics' esoteric responses to "Duel" and "The Sugarland Express" shaped the way that he makes movies. My Chapman University graduate program mentor, Dr. Warren Buckland, is writing a book about Spielberg's movies that calls for closer ties between cinema production and cinema studies programs. Spielberg himself would probably approve of such an idea.
"Steven Spielberg and the Small Screen" looks at Spielberg's very early professional career as a studio contractee at Universal. At one point in time, even Spielberg was told what he could or could not do. Anyway, he directed episodes of several TV shows, including "Night Gallery" and "Columbo".
In "Richard Matheson: The Writing of 'Duel'", the author of "Duel" the short story and the writer of "Duel" the screenplay talks about the genesis of his story as well as the good times that he had adapting his work into a movie. There's a stills gallery of photos and posters. You also get a theatrical trailer, production notes (text pages), and cast and crew biographies and filmographies (text pages).
An insert, also included with copies of "The Sugarland Express", advertises the sale of both "Duel" and "The Sugarland Express". What kills me is that Universal could've advertised both movies on one side of the insert and provided chapter listings for the movie on the other side of the insert.
Ultimately, "Duel" tells a story that is too slight for the movie to amount to much. Think about how much resonance the final car chase in "The Bourne Supremacy" has because you learn about the movie's characters, geopolitical maneuvering, etc. That car chase lasts for no longer than six minutes but is more interesting than all of "Duel" because you have an intellectual and an emotional investment in "The Bourne Supremacy" as opposed to simply gawking at a demolition derby with "Duel". However, the storytelling and the moviemaking of "Duel" are at exceptional levels. There's no denying that the tension never subsides until the very end of the movie. Many kudos to Spielberg and his team.