- Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career by Steven Awalt
Steven Awalt's detailed and thorough study of Duel, which decisively launched Spielberg's career, not only offers a step-by-step description of the film's production and the influence of Spielberg's childhood, but also reveals much about Spielberg as a creative director and cinematic storyteller.
Universal signed the 23-year-old Spielberg to produce four TV films. The first was an adaptation of Richard Matheson's short story called Duel, which Awalt argues was a turning point in Spielberg's career. Along with accolades from Cecil Smith of the LA Times and Tony Scott of the Daily Variety, special praise by British critic Dilys Powell was highly significant to Spielberg's career. According to Awalt, "the destruction of the truck… was just a beginning" (13). It signaled that overnight Spielberg had arrived and revealed himself as "the" up and coming young director. Duel proved a sleeper success at the box office, grossing over 8 million dollars and establishing Spielberg's reputation with international acclaim, winning prizes in France and Italy. In a 1977 interview with Claire Olsen, Spielberg acknowledged, "after Duel everything fell into place and made perfect sense" (see Olsen, Claire, YouTube, Interview 1977).
Duel can be classified in the genre of "monster" action films (272). The film is about the terrified and bullied driver of a small Plymouth Valiant who is chased by a faceless Peterbilt tanker truck driver. A chilling aspect of the film is that the truck driver's face is never seen. Only observed are the truck driver's boots and veined, suntanned arm. The motivation behind the truck driver's act of waiving the protagonist David Mann into the path of an oncoming car is not given. The film displays the interaction of a frail human with a relentless "beast" (13) like force. As described by James Clarke, in Duel, the beast is an anthropomorphized mechanized, eighteen wheel, mammoth, battered truck. The windows of the truck are like monster eyes, and the grill is like a monster's snout-like mouth. The two tanks on the side of the doors are like ears (Clarke, James, Steven Spielberg: PocketEssentials, Vermont: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2001, 20). At the end of the film, when the truck tumbles down a steep cliff, it lets out a "roar," which really was the scream of Gil Man from the 1954 Creature from the Black Lagoon (140). Spielberg remarked that trying to create a sense of fear from a truck was harder to pull off than using the innate fear of a man-eating shark in Jaws (Combs, Richard, Primal Scream, Sight and Sound, 1977).
The hero, a suburban henpecked businessman living in a domestic world who ultimately survives the faceless truck driver's attempt to kill him, is as noted by Clarke, "an average Joe" like Captain Miller, a high school teacher in Saving Private Ryan, Roy Neary, an electrician in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Martin Brody, a policeman in Jaws (Clarke,12). These characters all embody the archetype of the ordinary man who emerges victorious from a life-threatening encounter. Mann bails out of his car, leaping away from the pursuing beast at which point his car plummets over a cliff followed by the truck. [End Page 62] Mann's endurance and perseverance then give way to jubilation.
Awalt, through interviews not only with the creative but also technical crew, makes us aware of Spielberg's cinematographic technique and skill in generating fear and tension through visual and auditory storytelling. He shows the reader that part of the film's brilliance is that regarding narrative and dialogue, "less is more" (137). The almost silent film works magically through technically staged visual and auditory effects. Spielberg emerges as a master of creating point of view, as he orchestrated camera shots with a fish-eye wide angle lens mounted to the top of the truck to make the distance between car and truck...