Spielberg’s Inspired Debut: Duel

Steven Spielberg is now among the highest of legends, one who is personally responsible for birthing the idea of a summer blockbuster, at least from a creative point of view; he has built this reputation through his keen ability to understand the masses, he doesn’t pick out the intricacies and the fetishes of a specific individual like most filmmakers would. Spielberg has followed suit of the stylings of another cinematic legend, Alfred Hitchcock, as he also understood the mindset of his viewers, knowing exactly what strings that needed to be pulled at specific instances that would accumulate into a satisfying experience. Spielberg was inspired by him, but not dependant; over the course of his career he has built a specific stamp that would mark the atmosphere of his directed films, and in some cases the films that he produces. Much like Hitchcock, over the years many have been raised by his works and like him have taken influence but ensuring that they sustain individuality in the process, a prime example would be Robert Zemeckis.

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Duel marked as Spielberg’s first film, a heavily inspired Hitchcock motif of an innocent and regular man, David Mann, who finds himself into a problem through almost no fault of his own, aggressively stalked and hunted by a truck driver that all began with an overtake by David, which I presume insulted the trucker. The film takes on a stripped down approach that reminds me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where actual character development lingers so far underneath the surface that to invest in it, one would have to actively search for it. Though buried deep, the film manages to hold its own ground through its ability to create tension and fright, amplified in its ability to eliminate the driver within the heavy vehicle, despite his known presence, the truck itself becomes a subject of evil that never hesitates or show an ounce of mercy.

I feel, however, the film has slightly suffered its impact to captivate me since the director has provided a far more rich upgrade of a similar story, Jaws; injecting empathetic and fascinating characters through their distinct personalities and often hilarious clashes. Duel gains and maintains its power within the first hour and by its final 30 minutes loses much of its steam through repetitiveness in its assaults; the same could be same for the Shark if Spielberg didn’t provide stimulating character elements floating in between. Duel at least instils an idea of the male ego’s desperation for possession of the road and their vehicle; somehow it defines them and in some cases cares deeply on their conditions, unable to see past the veneer and expose it for what it simply is, a tool for transportation.

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If there was something Duel was able to provide that I wasn’t able to anticipate, it would be its inner-monologue that runs through the protagonist’s mind; conveying an intense sense of paranoia over the idea that he could strike at any moment. It was in the scene within a diner that we see this character at his most vulnerable, staring intently and immediately accusing through the minimal evidence he has accumulated. The scene is a necessary brake from the action, but executed with such purpose and flourish that I cannot help but admire it.

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Duel achieves because of its simplicity and accessibility, one could switch off their brains and literally sink themselves into the overwhelming danger that surrounds David Mann. The film is a wonderful testament of Spielberg’s fuelled passion and admiration for cinema’s fundamentals at a young stage of what would become a prolific and admired career.

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