Combustible Celluloid
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With: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell
Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 90
Date: 10/11/1971

Duel (1971)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Truck Everlasting

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg made their feature debuts at roughly the same age. Both finished products are extremely impressive and promised both boy geniuses long and fruitful careers (even if only one of them actually got his). But unlike Welles, Spielberg wasn't aware that he was making a big-screen theatrical debut.

Welles' Citizen Kane was specifically tailored to be a monster of a debut, while Spielberg's Duel was merely a run-of-the-mill TV movie of the week. But the young director put everything he had into the sparse script, by the great Richard Matheson, and turned it into a first masterpiece.

Broadcast in 1971 at 73 minutes, the film was quickly fleshed out to a full 90 minutes and released theatrically in Europe. Its United States debut came in 1983.

Dennis Weaver -- who, coincidentally, had worked with Welles in Touch of Evil -- stars as a traveling salesman driving alone on America's dusty open road. A filthy 40-ton truck comes up behind him and he waves it by. The truck lags in front of him and he passes it. From then on, it's a battle of car vs. truck, civilized man vs. untamed plains. The truck chases him, follows him, tries to run him down, waits for him, etc. All the while we never see a trace of its driver. It's just a giant, rusty, chugging, deadly steel monster.

Screenwriter Matheson had worked on TV's "The Twilight Zone" and wrote several scripts for Roger Corman, who always stressed that film was a visual medium and to cut out all unnecessary dialogue. Matheson did just that (with the possible exception of a few nervous voiceovers). Spielberg runs with it, pulling every conceivable shot and angle out of his bag of tricks. We get shots of Weaver's car filling the frame, the truck lurking at the edges of the frame, reflections, images through dusty windshields, everything all the way down to tumbleweeds bouncing across the playing field.

Not even Hitchcock could have shot or paced Duel any better. Spielberg understands precisely where to insert his silences and pauses, and when to make them restful or tense. He knows how to pour it on for the exciting chase scenes. And, unlike most of his later films, he knows how and when to end the thing.

In one truly great scene, Weaver's character stops at a roadside diner after nearly losing his life and trying to get away at top speed. He goes into the bathroom to splash some water in his face and ponder the situation. We get a breather. But when he goes back out into the dining room, he spots the truck in the parking lot; the driver is somewhere in the room, but who is it?

Even the director himself could not help drawing a connection to Welles. In one scene, he has Weaver repeat his famous line from Touch of Evil, "You've got another think coming!"

DVD Details: I love this movie, especially now that Universal has released it in a superb Special Edition DVD. Once again, Spielberg has failed to provide a running commentary track, but he does submit to a video interview about his humble beginnings in television. He pays tribute to the people who helped him back when he was an inexperienced pup and explains how he went about his first few assignments (which included an early "Columbo" episode and an episode of "Night Gallery" starring Joan Crawford). Writer Matheson appears in an interview as well. The disc also comes with a photo gallery, a trailer, production notes and cast and filmmaker bios.

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