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Owen’s Oldies: ‘Duel’


David Abe / THE GATEPOST

By Owen Glancy

Asst. Arts & Features Editor 


For many people all over the world, the word “film” is synonymous with the name Steven Spielberg. As the highest grossing director of all time, Spielberg has created some of the most iconic movies ever made. From “Jaws” to “Indiana Jones” to “Jurassic Park,” it is undeniable that Spielberg is one of the most recognizable directors in cinema history. 


Despite his status, many people actually aren’t entirely aware of Spielberg’s early works, specifically his films released before his big break with “Jaws” in 1975. 


He actually began on television, directing segments of the anthology show “Night Gallery” back in 1969. Actress Joan Crawford saw Spielberg’s potential and let him continue working on television. 


This would lead to his first ever feature-length film, “Duel.”


Unlike everything else I’ve discussed in this column, “Duel” was not initially released in theaters and was created for a TV audience. With a small TV budget and an amateur director behind the wheel, nobody expected much of the film as it aired as a part of the ABC Movie of the Week series in 1971. 


The film was a big hit. 


The unexpected success of “Duel” led Universal to bring the film to theaters in a limited run with a few extra scenes. This added audience helped the film become a cult classic, as well as mark the real starting point of Spielberg’s career. 


But how does the film hold up? Does it deserve the cult status it has gained? 


“Duel” still holds up as undoubtedly the most suspenseful and thrilling film in Spielberg’s massive filmography. The film follows David Mann, a businessman driving throughout the California countryside when he passes a man driving a rusty tanker truck. This enrages the truck driver, who dedicates the rest of the film to attempting to kill David. 


While not as scary or memorable as something like “Jurassic Park,” this level of realistic pettiness that comes from the unknown truck driver’s road rage is the reason why this film works so well. We never see his face, only getting confirmation that this unknown driver is a male from one of the workers at a diner our protagonist stops at. 


As someone who drives for work, this was a scary movie to get through. The truck driver’s determination to kill this guy is insane, going as far as to nearly crash into a school bus and destroy a lady’s entire business. All of this was done because someone passed him on the road. It’s that unexplainable rage that makes the conflict at the center of this film feel so tense and realistic. 


Spielberg was clearly still in his infancy as a filmmaker when he directed this, but his ambition is clear. He’s already using camera angles and techniques typically only seen by more experienced filmmakers in his first feature film. 


Much of it is sloppy, but that passion and early understanding of film as a medium shines through and makes this extremely interesting to watch, especially for those studying cinema. 


This is one of those films where I forget shouting at the characters in the movie doesn’t actually do anything, I just get so invested. The tension is without a doubt its biggest strength. Whenever the truck isn’t on screen, there’s always the lingering thought in the back of the viewer's head - “When is the truck going to show up again?” It’s that little element of suspense that makes the film so incredibly engaging. 


Spielberg, a director renowned for his family friendly blockbusters mixed in with some more adult dramas still has not made a film like “Duel.” It goes against so many of his typical tropes and traits that I’m convinced that anyone, even people who aren’t fans of Spielberg’s usual works, can enjoy this. 


Because of its cult status, “Duel” isn’t talked about much outside of film circles. This can be due to the fact that it was originally made for TV, and that many people don’t want to explore Spielberg’s filmography before “Jaws.” However, it’s without a doubt the most accessible film discussed in this column so far. Made in the U.S., it doesn’t require reading subtitles and the plot isn’t as strange or seemingly mundane as some of the other movies in this column. 


With that in mind, I wholeheartedly recommend “Duel” as essential viewing to anyone who wants to explore the filmography of one of the medium's most iconic directors! The film can be bought or rented on services like Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

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