Why Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” Still Holds Up 50 Years Later

When people look back on Steven Spielberg’s prolific and acclaimed career, most will cite Jaws as his first “official” film.  And while that’s the movie that birthed the Hollywood blockbuster and made him a household name, it was technically not the first feature length film he ever made.

Four years prior, he directed a TV Movie that was so well received, it wound up getting a theatrical release in Europe.  1971’s Duel may have had a tiny budget, and may have only been shot over the course of 2 weeks, but it remains a genuinely tense thriller that’s just as exciting and suspenseful 50 years later!

Not Your Typical TV Movie
Duel is made all the more impressive when you consider that it was Spielberg’s first feature length movie.  Up until then, he directed TV shows such as  until then, he had directed episodes of Columbo, Night Gallery, and The Psychiatrist, mostly working on the Universal backlot.

At the time, TV shows were mostly shot in medium 2 shots or close ups to accommodate for the smaller screen upon which people were watching.  Spielberg quickly set himself apart by shooting TV episodes with much more wide shots, giving it a cinematic feel.

Duel 1
It was cinematic thinking behind the color of the main character’s car. They wanted it to be red so it would stand out against the desert background.

This is very much on display in Duel.  With a budget of only $450,000 and premiered as an ABC Movie of the Week, but it contains just as much high octane action as one of the earlier Fast and Furious movies (before they jumped the proverbial shark).

Using his limited budget, Spielberg treats his audience to exciting car chases, lost of practical stunts, and a very intense “Car POV” where the camera is racing alongside the speeding car and truck.  The truck itself is a menacing villain that looms tall over everything it crashes into as well.

So many of these “Movies of the Week” felt like dialogue heavy stage plays that were simply recorded.  And while there’s nothing wrong with that subgenre at all, it was a huge pleasant surprise for audiences in 1971 when they tuned into this movie and got something that rivaled the best action movies coming out of Hollywood at the time.

Duel 1 2
The phone booth scene is particularly well choreographed.

Effective Simplicity
On paper, watching an entire movie about one guy in one car running from one truck isn’t that exciting.  But due to its unrelenting tension, the movie uses its simplicity to its advantage.  It has a singular focus that draws its audience in, and keeps them on the edge of their seats.

Even now, 50 years later, it holds up better than many movies from its era.  It’s not bogged down with dated technology.  Sure there’s a payphone used a few times, but its remote desert highway setting is still something that’s around today.

And the idea of a psychopath chasing us is a universal fear that transcends all cultures, and time periods.  It makes it easy for a modern audience to watch this 50 year old movie and still feel the oozing tension and suspense throughout.  Because the movie doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks or dated effects, it made itself timeless from the very minute it was released.

Frightening Relatability
While directed by Spielberg, the script was written by famed horror author Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”, “Hell House”), and was even based on his own short story.  Matheson reportedly got the idea following an incident where a truck was tailgating him much too close for comfort.

We’ve all heard real life horror stories of road rage incidents that turn into tragic murders, all because some unstable driver lost their cool and went way too far.  How often do we tell ourselves to watch who we beep at on the road for fear that you never know who’s a maniac and who’s not.

Despite its age, this is a story that could very easily be retold today with minimal changes to update the new time setting.  Sure the main character would be able to call the police with his cell phone in the car, but given how remote the desert highway was, it’s likely that it would take a while before anyone reached them.

In a move that Spielberg would mimic with Jaws, Duel thrives in its scares by demonstrating that less is more.  The less we saw of the shark, the more frightened we were of it.  And the fact that we never actually see the driver of the truck allows us to project our own idea of who is behind the wheel and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Duel 3
The only clue about the truck driver’s identity is his collection of license plates, which Spielberg suggested might be from previous victims he ran off the road to their deaths.

Duel made quite the impression with audiences 1971, and for the past 50 years, it’s been doing the same for anyone who watches it for the first time.  It’s well-shot, well-acted, and relentless in its heart-pounding suspense.  And the only thing more impressive than the movie itself, is just it’s just as unsettling and intriguing now on its 50th anniversary!

What do you think of Duel?  Let us know in the comments!

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