Back in the late '60s, a twentysomething upstart called Steven Spielberg was lensman for hire on TV staples like Columbo and Marcus Welby MD. When a prospective Movie Of The Week script flopped onto his desk, the Beard-to-be blagged his first shot at a feature.
It took him an astonishing 12 ("or maybe 13") days to make Duel, avoiding cheapo process shots by shooting everything outdoors with a real guy driving a real car. ("It had to be red, to stand out against the earthy desert roads.") The result is a lean and swaggering high-concept horror, with Dennis Weaver as the white-collar Everyman who cruises out of the urban LA comfort-zone into dusty, desolate badlands. His routine business trip turns nasty when he's menaced by a filthy great juggernaut, which looms up too close behind, almost forces a head-on collision and finally tries to run him off the treacherous cliff-side road. Weaver - - chosen by Spielberg for his manic turn as the hotel manager in Orson Welles's Touch Of Evil - - skilfully and believably cranks his character from mild frustration to frenzied panic. The voice-over despair may have dated a little, but Spielberg keeps us right in the car with him every skid of the way. We tingle at every blind curve, wince at every near-miss rear-ender and twitch at every clammy glance in the rear-view mirror, making us wonder what the hell we would do in a similar situation.
But the real star is the truck: a scorched, greasy-brown behemoth, thundering along like a bloodthirsty predator, engine roaring, horn howling. It's the first great modern movie monster and even more sinister for being seemingly self-reliant. Apart from a boot and a chubby arm, there's no sign of any driver - - and Spielberg shows surprising maturity by refusing to humanise the situation and conjure some cackling redneck out of the exhaust mist. Keeping the beast hidden for as long as possible was a trick he learned from Hitchcock, and one which he would go on to use again with the shark in Jaws and the T-rex in Jurassic Park. Don't expect any technical wonders: it's an old, made-for-TV film and the transfer is a little fuzzy. But Duel is the first ripple in the '70s new wave of raw and influential classics and a keen illustration of how effective film-making is more about good ideas and smart execution than bulging budgets.
Sport & Auto
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