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Steven Spielberg's rapid rise as a modern directing phenomenon is well documented, and his early television career at Universal Pictures is remarkable for several notable projects he helmed. Spielberg's start was inauspicious his late-1960s application for film school at the University of Southern California was turned down. While attending his second choice, California State University at Long Beach, the 21-year old Spielberg landed an unpaid internship in the editing department of Universal. As a side project, he wrote and directed a short film, Amblin' (1968), which caught the attention of Sidney Sheinberg, the vice-president of TV production at the studio. Spielberg became the youngest person to sign a directing contract with a major studio, and found himself at the age of 22 directing Hollywood legend Joan Crawford in a segment of the pilot movie for Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1969). Despite going on to direct high-profile episodes of such series as Columbo, Marcus Welby, M. D. and The Name of the Game, Spielberg was anxious to move out of television and on to theatrical features. While casting about for bigger properties, the young director made a tense, economical thriller called Duel (1971), which was relegated to TV screens (at least in America), but nevertheless brought Spielberg more attention than any other director working in the medium at the time. Duel first aired on ABC on November 13, 1971, and has since been revived many times on both the small and big screen, and has become one of the most highly-regarded of all made-for-TV films.
The story of Duel was brilliantly simple and lent itself to a highly visual treatment: On a winding California highway, businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is driving at a safe speed and passes a large gas tanker truck. Moments later, seemingly unprovoked, the truck is dangerously tailgating Mann. The unseen truck driver first taunts Mann, and eventually tries to run him off the road. Mann is forced to engage in a battle of wits with the truck driver to save his own life and sanity. The teleplay and original short story were penned by veteran fantasy/ horror writer Richard Matheson, inspired by an actual incident in 1963 in which the writer was terrorized on a Los Angeles freeway by a trucker.
When Spielberg was signed to a seven-year contract at Universal Pictures, he was given the same perks as other contractees, including an office on the studio lot and a secretary. It was his secretary who brought the Matheson story to his attention it appeared in the April, 1971 issue of Playboy magazine. Spielberg thought the property was strong enough to pitch to the studio brass as a theatrical feature; some thought was given to the idea and reportedly Gregory Peck was offered the script. In the end, though, Spielberg's mentor Sheinberg assigned Duel to George Eckstein to produce as a TV movie with a budget of $425,000 and a sprightly 16-day shooting schedule. To star in the all-important role of road rage victim David Mann, Universal looked no further than the star of their ongoing TV detective series McCloud (19701977), Dennis Weaver.
In his autobiography All the World's a Stage, Weaver wrote that the offer to star in Duel came during a hiatus on production of his TV series, and that his agent recommended he sign on before even reading the script. "About two weeks later," Weaver wrote, "the studio called me back and said, 'Would you mind working with a young director we have under contract here who we feel is a real comer? He has a lot of enthusiasm, intense energy, he's willing to take risks, and has a very vivid, if not wild, imagination.' I said, 'I'm not used to working with that kind of director sure, let's go for it.'" Weaver said that he developed an immediate trust in the young director's suggestions, but added, "...many people have asked me if I knew that he was going to take his place among the great directors our industry has produced. My answer...of course not! He was only twenty-three years old! I knew he would have a long career, that he was going to work and probably make some noteworthy films. But did I know that he was going to have the impact on the film industry that he has...? Of course not...if I had known...I would have adopted him!"
In his book The Films of Steven Spielberg, Douglas Brode describes the approach the director took with his 16-day schedule in filming Duel. Spielberg broke down each scene of Matheson's script: "methodically, he blocked out the entire film on IBM cards... Each card contained the gist of the scene, the angle he would take on it, and how many camera setups he needed." The director posted the cards, covering the entire film, on a bulletin board in his hotel room during the shoot, and "rather than opening the script to the day's page, he would instead take down several cards. They constituted the day's work, and when each scene was finished, he would tear the card up and throw it away, knowing every night, by glancing at the bulletin board, how much was left to complete." Spielberg also had the entire film storyboarded prior to production. This sort of extensive pre-planning became a customary practice with the director. He would later allow himself to indulge in on-the-set changes and deviations from the plan, but on the days when no added inspiration struck, he always had the safety net of the pre-planning.
It was the industry practice in the 1970s that movies for television ran in a 90-minute time slot. This meant that, minus commercials, the actual running time of Duel was 74 minutes. Universal routinely had their directors shoot extra footage for theatrical release overseas, so the footage that went unaired in the United States brought the running time of Duel to an acceptable 88 minutes. While it was not out of the ordinary to release some TV movies theatrically in foreign markets, the European reception to Duel proved to be extraordinary. Already a highly visual film, the foreign release cut out much of the protagonist's voiceover narrative, resulting in an even more visceral experience. The movie won the Grand Prix Award at the Festival de Cinema Fantastique in February, 1973, and Spielberg won top director honors at the Taormina Film Festival in Rome in July of that year. Critics fell over themselves comparing the film to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and in analyzing the picture as allegory, both humanistic and political. As Brode noted, "After the screening in Rome, four highly politicized critics stormed out of the press conference when Spielberg refused to bow to their insistence that the only way to understand Duel was as a Communist-inspired portrait of the blue-collar class (the man in the truck) striking back against the white-collar class (the man in the car) that had oppressed them."
Interestingly, Duel was not the only notable TV movie that Richard Matheson wrote in the 1971-72 season. In January of 1972, ABC aired The Night Stalker (1972), a modern take on vampirism which starred Darren McGavin as a reluctant vampire hunter named Kolchak. The movie was a ratings sensation and spawned more TV movies and a series. As for Spielberg, he was handed two more TV movies to helm, but the eventual international reception of Duel guaranteed that he would finally get his chance to direct a theatrical feature, so Universal gave the go ahead for his production of The Sugarland Express (1974), starring Goldie Hawn. Universal eventually gave Duel a brief theatrical run in the States, following up on the enormous success they had with Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Released on April 22, 1983, the MPAA gave the film a PG rating. At that time, Janet Maslin of the New York Times reviewed the film, writing that "it works as well on the wide screen as it did on the small one. Even without benefit of hindsight, Duel looks like the work of an unusually talented young director."
Producer: George Eckstein
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Richard Matheson (screenplay based on his short story)
Cinematography: Jack A. Marta
Art Direction: Robert S. Smith
Music: Billy Goldenberg
Film Editing: Frank Morriss
Cast: Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Eddie Firestone (Cafe Owner), Gene Dynarski (Man in Cafe), Tim Herbert (Gas Station Attendant), Charles Seel (Old Man), Alexander Lockwood (Old Man in Car), Amy Douglass (Old Woman in Car), Shirley O'Hara (Waitress), Lucille Benson (Lady at Snakerama), Cary Loftin (The Truck Driver), Dale Van Sickle (Car Driver)
By John M. Miller