Although the name Steven Spielberg now evokes thoughts of summer blockbusters and nine-figure box office receipts, the director first started to make a name for himself in television while under contract with Universal several decades ago. His first film was Duel, based on the short story by Richard Matheson and produced as a television movie for ABC in 1971. Its enormous success played a significant role in propellng Spielberg towards the stardom he enjoys today. Duel is an economical, stripped-down film, starring Dennis Weaver as David Mann. The salesman is pressed for time as he races towards a meeting he can't afford to miss. He winds up stuck behind a rusty, mammoth truck that plods along at a glacial pace while belching streams of smoke into the air. David zips past him, barely giving the other driver a second thought as he continues onward. Suddenly, the truck roars from behind, soaring past David's shiny red 1970 Plymouth Valiant and resuming its sluggish speed. Thus begins the cat-and-mouse game that continues for the entire length of the film. No matter what measures David takes to avoid him, the truck with its barely-glimpsed driver lies in wait. At first, his goal seems to be to merely unsettle David, to inconvience him for his perhaps not-entirely-polite behavior on the road. His assaults grow exponentially more dangerous, and soon David is fearing for his life with no one and nowhere to turn for help.
What's truly remarkable about Duel -- much moreso than merely the name of the director that flashes during the opening credits -- is how it's able to accomplish so much with so little. There are no robust characters or subplots to drive the movie or pad out its length. Although there are a couple of brief detours along the way, it boils down to just a car, a truck, and a barren stretch of California highway. There's nothing particularly remarkable about David Mann, a regular working schlub suffering through the same sorts of marital tiffs and work-related headaches as untold millions of other men. That's what makes him such a perfect protagonist: an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Although masterful photography and skilled editing play a substantial role as well, much of the tension and suspense comes from the fact that Mann is so easy to relate to...that he's trapped in a greatly escalated version of a scenario many of us have been in at one time or another. Some younger, jaded filmgoers have a tendency to dismiss movies over a certain age, believing that what may have gotten a rise out of an audience decades ago must be dated and woefully ineffective today. I'd point them towards Duel, which continues to hold up incredibly well and outclasses every one of the movies I've seen over the years that have blatantly lifted from it. It's so successful in establishing that thick air of tension that Duel manages to sustain it even when the menacing truck can't be seen or heard. That, coupled with the escalating aggression that pushes the paranoid David towards the breaking point, makes Duel so taut and suspenseful that it's equal parts compelling and uncomfortable. This is without the use of megaton explosion, witty one-liners, computer-generated imagery, gunfire, or buckets of blood. Duel is stripped-down, straightforward, and incredibly effective.
Duel originally aired on ABC sporting a 74 minute runtime, and additional footage was shot to bring the film to feature-length for theatrical exhibition overseas. The lengthier 90 minute version is what's provided on this release, including an extended title sequence, a scene with the truck plowing David's car towards a speeding train, and footage of David calling his wife on the road. None of this additional material seems superfluous or dulls any of the suspense throughout.
Duel has been a hotly-desired commodity on DVD for years now, with numerous scheduled release dates tossed around and a handful of leaked copies selling at an enormous markup. Although there doesn't appear to be any substantive differences between this release and the DVDs that started floating around this time last year, the sheer quality of the final product is still worth the wait. This DVD includes a beautifully-remastered full-frame image, an impressive pair of six-channel remixes along with the original monaural audio, and a great collection of interviews with Steven Spielberg and Richard Matheson.
Video: Duel was filmed for television over thirty years ago, and this DVD preserves the movie's original 1.33:1 framing. Clearly quite a bit a lot of time and effort were invested in remastering the film, and the end result looks incredible. The image is razor-sharp, boasting an impressive amount of detail and dimensionality. The movie's approach limits the variety of the palette, but the dingy brown surroundings, the worn blacktop, and the azure sky all appear to be represented accurately. There aren't any flecks or nicks throughout, and even what little film grain is present tends to be non-obtrusive. No authoring concerns such as edge haloing or artifacting are present either. Some of the shots inside the diner didn't seem to quite match the quality of the rest of the film, but the difference is slight and barely worth noting. I'm thoroughly impressed by how wonderful this 32-year-old TV movie looks on DVD, and I hope it's an indication of what to expect from future television releases Universal mines from their archives.
Audio: There are several different soundtracks available, beginning with the original monaural track, encoded at bitrate of 192Kbps. Universal has also provided a pair of remixes in Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kbps) and DTS. The movie sounds nearly as good as it looks, and the core premise of the movie takes advantage of the six discrete channels it has on-hand. Directionality is considerably above average, with very localized sound effects and numerous pans from speaker to speaker. Aside from the title sequence, these effects sound smooth and natural, not saddled down by the forced, artificial quality of lesser remixes. There's a low-frequency rumble throughout as these cars barrel towards one another, culminating in a climax that threatened to rattle my house down to a shattered foundation. Dialogue comes through reasonably well, if a bit flat and more obviously dated than other elements of the mix. Even disregarding the technical aspects of this multichannel remix, the sound design in Duel is a significant part of the movie's appeal, from the sounds of creaking metal to its unconventional score. Very well done.
Subtitles have been provided in English, French, and Spanish, though there are no closed captions.
Supplements: Although Steven Spielberg has an aversion to recording audio commentaries, an interview of the quality of the thirty-five minute "A Conversation with Director Steven Spielberg" is more than capable of taking its place. Every facet of the process, from hearing about the original novella from his assistant to the movie's enormous success on television, is covered in detail. Among the numerous topics are his fight to have the movie shot on location, creating the illusion of speed by shooting with certain lenses and angles, trying as an unproven filmmaker to earn the respect of an established crew, and the detailed planning that made it possible to shoot a movie in such an incomprehensibly short period of time. It's also interesting to hear what an indelible impact Duel had on his career and how he incorporated elements from the movie into a number of his later projects. What I've rattled off is just a fraction of what's covered in this engrossing, informative documentary, which is essential viewing for anyone buying or renting this DVD.
Spielberg returns again for the first of two nine-minute featurettes. "Steven Spielberg and the Small Screen" includes more comments from the director, who talks about his early days in the film industry and what he tried to bring to his television work as a starving director with big-screen ambition. Clips from episodes of Universal series like Night Gallery, Owen Marshall, Columbo, The Psychiatrist, The Name of the Game, and Marcus Welby, M.D. are interspersed throughout. Since footage from Duel is included as well, I'm curious if Universal is planning to repurpose this featurette on a future release of some sort. Hmmm... "Richard Matheson: The Writing of Duel" features the story's author speaking about how the germ of an idea came to him on the day of John F. Kennedy's assassination, driving around a lonely stretch of California highway for inspiration, adapting the material for a feature-length television movie, and noting the flourishes Spielberg added.
A small image gallery cycles through a series of production stills and promotional artwork. The gallery doesn't appear to be properly flagged for widescreen displays, leaving the images vertically stretched. The second and final page of extras offer a fairly lousy minute-long full-frame trailer, a set of cast/crew biographies, and brief production notes. The DVD features a set of static 16x9 menus and an even twenty chapter stops.
Conclusion: Some viewers are likely to be drawn towards Duel because of its status as the debut feature from one of Hollywood's most popular and influential filmmakers, and the movie can certainly be appreciated as a landmark in that respect. Still, Duel is a film deserving of praise on its own merits, regardless of the current marquee value of its then-unknown director. Even more than three decades after its original broadcast, Duel remains a tense, suspenseful, well-crafted film. Its release on DVD makes a purchase even more compelling, given the impressive quality of the presentation, an assortment of excellent supplemental material, and an exceedingly reasonable price tag. Highly Recommended.