Even crash-test dummies and road kill are joining in to cheer this long awaited release. Judge Dennis Prince requests you fasten your safety belts for this rousing review.
A business commuter has no idea what awaits him just around the bend.
As inauspicious as it may have seemed at the time, this made-for-TV suspense film has become one of the most well-regarded small-screen thrillers ever. Yes, this was the first official motion picture from Steven Spielberg (yes, that Steven Spielberg, but you probably already knew that). More importantly, this is the DVD for which millions of Spielberg and suspense fans have been waiting, and after having endured a six-year taunting, they'll find this new Duel: Collector's Edition doesn't disappoint.
"Well it's about time, Charley!"
Facts of the Case
David Mann (Dennis Weaver, Touch of Evil, McCloud) is a beleaguered L.A. urbanite. For him, every day seems to be yet another test of his ability, his resolve, and even his manhood. Pressured by an overbearing boss and an undercutting wife, Mann toils in his day-to-day efforts to maintain his unsure footing, both in business and society. While he clings precariously to a fragile calm, making yet another tedious commute, his unsteady world abruptly upends itself when he encounters a psychotic truck driver wielding a most deadly weapon—a mammoth, oily, smoke-belching tanker truck.
Agonizing over the prospect of arriving late for his business meeting, Mann hastily passes the slow-moving tanker on a lonely stretch of highway outside the city limits, unaware that he has just initiated a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse. Immediately, the tanker is on Mann's bumper, swaying, swerving, and seemingly cursing the commuter with every blast of the truck's air horn. Mann's irritation soon turns to incredulity as the trucker baits him into a near head-on collision with another motorist. With the unexpected and unthinkable unfolding before him, Mann is gripped by disbelief; realizing he's engaged in a deadly face off with an unknown foe possessed with a maniacal impulse for murder.
Duel is a film that is fully captivating as it drops us into perhaps one of modern life's most frightening situations. Unlike recent tales of road rage—motorists lashing out at one another with verbal assaults, offensive gestures, and the brandishing of firearms—this film is unsettling because, frankly, the trucker's motivation is a mystery. The viewer experiences the events from Mann's perspective, and shares in his mounting feelings of unease and dread; the situation is all the more disconcerting because, in addition to the fact that there seems to be no reason for the trucker's extreme actions, Mann (and, therefore, the viewer) is left slack-jawed asking the most disconcerting of questions, "Why me?" This is the core of the fear factor at work here: there appears to be no reason for Mann to be singled out and targeted by the trucker. Through his apparent and chilling precision, this appears to be just another round of a deadly game the trucker has likely played many times before (as evidenced by the numerous out-of-state license plates the driver displays like notches on a gun stock).
Duel holds up quite well today, a full 32 years since its original release, largely because there's little in it to betray its 1970s roots. Sure, Mann's sunglasses are a bit quirky by today's styles, and the red Plymouth Valiant he drives is more than outmoded, but everything else is quite generic and plausible for the present day. What makes the picture the most chilling by today's standards, though, is the fact that poor Mr. Mann can't scoop up his cell phone and quickly dial 911; there were no cell phones in 1972. For the modern viewer, this significantly compounds the feeling of hopelessness: realizing this unwary motorist is truly alone in this unwanted situation.
In the final analysis, Duel becomes an exercise in self-examination for each of us: "What would I do in this situation?" It's pretty unsettling stuff.
The random victim here, David Mann, is perfectly portrayed by the well-known Dennis Weaver. Widely recognized for his role as TV's McCloud, a staple of NBC's "Sunday Mystery Movie," as well as his role as Tom Wedloe in TV's Gentle Ben, Weaver seems to step effortlessly into the skin of a less-than-capable character, that of a henpecked, socially impotent businessman. He's adept at communicating the feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, and internal turmoil a man confronted by the shame of his own avowed lack of masculinity must have. With little dialogue but concise body language, Weaver convincingly presents the anguish of what you might call the middle-class-medium-build-middle-aged-white-man's worst nightmare. His is a performance you won't likely forget.
And it would be unthinkable to overlook composer Billy Goldenberg's score here, which is appropriately jarring and frantic, non-melodic, unpredictable, and aptly suited to enhance the edgy tone of the film. Some might dismiss it as an irrelevant accomplishment and not worthy of much mention; yet listen closely and see if you hear themes and arrangements that would seem to reappear in later film scores like that of Jerry Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes or Fred Karlin's Westworld. The fact is the score here is an achievement to be noted, and unquestionably succeeds in propelling us deeper into David Mann's distress.
It's safe to say that Duel is the unimpeachable evidence of young Steven Spielberg's precocious filmmaking skills. Ambitious almost to a fault, 24-year-old Spielberg sidestepped all protocol (call it the naïveté of youth, if you will) when he contacted the film's producer, George Eckstein, and brazenly asked to direct the film. Further, after being given a preliminary nod but presented with guidelines for photographing the picture, Spielberg shot back that he would shoot the picture his way—on location (thumbing his nose at the prescribed "process shot" approach). Through a bit of wrangling, he got his way. Armed with just $375,000 and an impossible 10-day shooting schedule, the kid delivered. Wise and resourceful beyond his years, the upstart filmmaker positioned multiple cameras along the desolate two-lane highway in Mint Canyon, northeast of Los Angeles. With an eye for efficiency, Spielberg was able to capture five simultaneous "drive-by" shots with every pass of the embattled Valiant pursued by the marauding truck; the director essentially mocking the ridiculously stingy production schedule while still capturing a variety of evocative and effective shots.
Beyond his ability to meet the severe challenges posed by a low-budget, fast-track feature (it was due to air on national television just three weeks following the completion of filming), Spielberg also displayed an incredible "knack" for filmmaking, showing an enviable fluency in the language of film. Duel is usually described as a "minimalist" film (it has a relatively flat story arc and relies on just 50-or-so lines of dialogue), so Spielberg should be recognized for his innate ability to visualize and materialize a striking piece of work despite the trim nature of the elements at his disposal. Mind you, there's nothing minimal about Richard Matheson's original short story, or his adapted teleplay that fuels the edge-of-your-seat action here; Spielberg rightly acknowledges the impeccable construction of Matheson's script. By chance or by fate, Duel simply worked. (Remarkably, this sort of lightning in a bottle would strike a second time when the maturing movie-maker came across Peter Benchley's fish tale of a novel…)
Duel served as a breakthrough picture on another level, due to the credibility it bestowed upon the often maligned "made-for-TV" stable of films. I recognize there's little use trying to argue the creative merits of much of the tele-film dreck that has flickered on the tube (the sort that would feature the likes of Bert Convy, Connie Stevens, or Desi Arnaz, Jr.); in these, there is no merit. However, on November 13, 1971, Duel shattered that bias by delivering a genuinely gripping small-screen experience that was hailed at the time by Daily Variety as "Expertly crafted…film buffs will rightfully be studying and referring to it for some time…" And so we are. While the bulk of network-sponsored TV films have a less-than-distinguished history, Duel paved the way for other terrific films, some of which served as able series pilots (The Night Stalker immediately comes to mind).
Turning our attention to this long-awaited DVD, Universal Home Video delivers a fine-tuned product. The transfer, presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, truly looks terrific. Considering the original source material here is more than three decades old, there was obviously a significant amount of care taken in remastering the picture here. The image is sharp, stable, and reveals incredible detail. Color rendering is excellent and faithful, never appearing dull or washed out (despite a production design that's largely enveloped in dusty browns and dingy grays). Credit is due to the disc authoring team with respect to the compression here; it introduces no visible artifacts. A top-notch job all the way.
The audio is likewise impressive, sporting three aural options. For the purists out there, the film's original mono track is here in a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix . (In my opinion, it's always a good move to include the original sound mix.) The real treat, though, is the newly-mixed DTS 5.1 track, which practically runs you down and rolls you over. This is an incredibly well-managed track that lets you feel the rumble and roar of the tanker every time it bears down on or overtakes the struggling Plymouth. There's a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on board, too, but the DTS track offers a much fuller experience, and will make you jump at every blast of the air horn. Again, more terrific work by the production team here to deliver a near-perfect new track. (But read ahead to find out about a near-fatal flaw.)
When it comes to extras, this disc barrels ahead at full speed with a tanker full of bonus features. Given that Steven Spielberg reportedly looks down his nose at commentary tracks, we're fortunate to find "Steven Spielberg on Making Duel," a very generous 35-minute chat with the director in which he covers practically all aspects of the film. Truthfully, thanks to tight editing, we probably get as much (if not more) information here than we would in a full-length commentary. That's followed by "Steven Spielberg and the Small Screen," in which, during the same sitting, the erstwhile wunderkind details his early work in television prior to taking the driver's seat in Duel. Then, in appropriate recognition of the story itself, there's a short interview with Richard Matheson, "The Writing of Duel," where the writer offers his thoughts and recollections of the terrorizing tale. (Incidentally, each of these interviews was conducted in 2001, to coincide with the disc's aborted 2002 release.) You'll also find the European theatrical trailer, a photo gallery, and production and cast notes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Clearly I'm offering a glowing tribute to this very fine disc, but this doesn't mean that all is well. While I won't dwell on it, there is still the mystery of why it took so long for this disc to finally see the light of day. Originally, it was announced as an upcoming title in a 1998 Universal press release. An actual street date, however, wasn't offered for several years; eventually, May, 2002 was announced. At that time, disc specifications and keep-case artwork was revealed, but Universal unceremoniously yanked the title from their May release schedule without explanation. Again, the studio announced an August, 2003 availability only to renege once more just two weeks prior to the release date. (Many discs were sent to retailers—those that weren't returned to the studio found their way onto eBay at hefty prices.) The end of this winding road to a release was finally reached on August 17, 2004. Just another road game? Who knows?
With respect to the film itself, there are many who take pride in highlighting the several goofs and gaffes on display. These are likely the same folks who strain their eyes at all films, trying to pick out unintentional reflections or drooping boom mikes, so they can jump and pointedly accuse, "Aha! You goofed!" What a life, huh? Sure, there are several continuity slip-ups, recycled settings, and even a clear view of the young director who—you guessed it—appears in a phone booth reflection. Really, these flubs are minor and don't derail the mounting tension at all.
On this particular disc, though, there is an offense for which there is no exoneration. While many squabbles over this film can be dismissed as inconsequential, and the delay to DVD can be, somewhat grudgingly, excused, there is no excuse, no explanation, for the remix mishap that resulted in the much-vaunted "dinosaur roar" being lost in the two 5.1 tracks. While these remixes perform so much better than expected for the most of the film, the tanker's dying roars that we've come to love (the same repeated at the climax of Jaws) are missing. You'll find them in their original glory on the mono track (again, thank goodness for the inclusion of the original mix) but it's really quite disappointing that the sound engineers overlooked this glaring error. A sidebar discussion: see if you agree that the roar is the same that belonged to "Spot," the dragon under the stairs from The Munsters.
Despite the few shortcomings mentioned here (and the roaring omission), this new disc from Universal was certainly worth the wait. It's good to see that not only did Universal do a generally stellar job here, but that the film itself still delivers genuine terror so many years later. By and large, the film is suitable for family viewing, but may give rise to some back-seat coaching the next time you're on the roadways with others in tow. This picture has a high replay value, and as it's priced below $20, it's a definite "buy."
The infractions raised here are minor when compared to the greater good this release achieves. This court finds the filmmakers and the studio not guilty. Please drive safely.
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Scales of Justice
• Steven Spielberg on Making Duel
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