It’s fairly common to hear new filmmakers throw around the phrase “calling card”. A calling card movie represents your style as a filmmaker so you can shop yourself around to studios. It’s become less common now that everyone and their dog has a demo reel, but you still hear about them, just usually not in a nice way. I mean, fair enough; we’re talking film as resume rather than expression, but why can’t a calling card make an entertaining movie? Proof of concept: Duel, Spielberg’s first feature.
For those who haven’t heard of it, Duel follows your average, working class, American husband David (played unfortunately by Dennis Weaver) as he travels across the desert for business. When he cuts off the wrong truck, his little red car becomes the target of a merciless game. Chased across the desert by an unseen assailant in a hulking eighteen wheeler, David is pushed past the limit of his non-confrontational human nature to the ferocity of a cornered animal.
Duel in itself is a proof of concept. You don’t need a magnifying glass to see the similarities between it and Jaws. The hunted becoming the hunters, the use of characterization through sound, even the editing and framing that kept the monsters mostly hidden are all links between the two. Spielberg was even afraid when working on Jaws that he’d end up being known as the “truck and shark director” because of those clear connections. Luckily, it wasn’t enough to make him jump ship. Though he made one other film between the two, he was signed on for Jaws after the success of Duel, and Duel was a success. Many refer to it as the greatest television film ever made, which to be honest doesn’t say a whole lot. No, the success of Duel is all Spielberg’s. So, let’s talk about why.
Duel is not a fantastic movie: the chases get repetitive and always last a little too long, Weaver over-acts the whole thing, and the odd attempts at humour seem strange and out of place. But let’s think for a second about the circumstances of its conception. In the early-70s, it was hard to get a film made period, let alone one that people would actually watch. So when given the opportunity to make a feature, even if it was just a TV movie, Spielberg saw it was his chance to show he could make something more.
If not the most impressive in its quality, Duel is still awe-inspiring in its ambition. Spielberg created a big screen movie on a small screen budget and in the process experimented with the things that would eventually make Jaws a blockbuster. The strange jokes in Duel became Jaws’ endearing humour. The less-is-more mentality behind the trucker became the work around for the mechanically unfortunate “Bruce” (the name of the animatronic shark). Even the dinosaur-like roar of the truck in the climax was retooled for the death throes of Jaws himself. Jaws may have invented the blockbuster, but it was given a test run in Duel. So much of Spielberg’s career through the next three decades can be found in this film, and although it’s rough around the edges, it is quintessentially Steven.