Steven Spielberg Director's Collection - Duel - Blu-ray Review

'Is this Spielberg asking what it means to be a "real" man, before embarking on a career which regularly attempts to answer that very question?'

Arguably a director who has spent much of his career making films centred around male characters and perspectives - from Indiana Jones to Abraham Lincoln, with Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping around somewhere in between - Steven Spielberg's feature debut Duel in many ways is where this trend began. And yet, the director's first film can potentially be interpreted as regularly questioning the whole idea of masculinity. Is this Spielberg asking what it means to be a "real" man, before embarking on a career which regularly attempts to answer that very question?

It's surely an interpretation with which Duel's main character David Mann (Dennis Weaver) would be in agreement. David is introduced to us as a man who avoids confrontation: the early scenes of the film see him unwilling to promise his wife (Jacqueline Scott) he will leave a meeting on time, as well as discuss an earlier, unseen incident in which he failed to defend her honour at a party. Spielberg also uses diegetic sound very smartly during the first act, having David's car radio during an early scene play a presenter and caller discussing the idea of whether a man should be "humiliated" by his wife being the main breadwinner of the family. It's a subtly laid foundation which makes the main focus of Duel all the more fascinating.

As David's altercations with a huge tanker truck escalate from mild annoyances to what seem more and more like savage attempts on his life, we see the character run the gamut of emotions as his dislike of confrontation - and his manhood - are tested. Initially celebrating small victories such as managing to thwart the attempts of its unseen driver (the most we ever glimpse is his cowboy-booted feet at a petrol station) to stop him from passing, David is quickly driven to extreme paranoia and even mental instability by the truck's seemingly unstoppable onslaught. Weaver's strong performance throughout makes David's transformation both authentic and compelling; the actor plays a major part in Duel's success spending a large amount of time as the only person on screen, often with long dialogue-free stretches.

Putting the film's psychological and metaphorical interpretations aside, Duel is fundamentally a monster story. Bringing monsters to the screen is another talent Spielberg has often made his name on, be they giant sharks or prehistoric beasts. The monster here may take vehicular form, but Spielberg skilfully transforms the hulking tanker from the chosen weapon of a roadhog into a menacing and memorable behemoth with an undeniable personality of its own through his expert choice of camera angles and cinematography. Many of Spielberg's successes as a director in Duel clearly reverberate through to his later monster-based works.

There are elements here which are less successful, however, which also now feeling a little dated. Spielberg's intermittent usage of voiceover from Weaver to show David's inner monologue feels blunt and somewhat amateurish when compared to the director's skill evident elsewhere. There are also a couple of seqences which slow things down a bit too much; David's stopover at Chuck's Diner in particular goes on somewhat longer than needed, slowing the film considerably. The film's climax, whilst undoubtedly exciting and providing arguably the best car chase of the many excellent examples Duel has to offer, feels a little too morally dubious to be considered truly satisfying from a narrative point of view.

As far as directorial debuts go, however, Spielberg's Duel must be considered one of the strongest out there. The director continually demonstrates his skill as a master storyteller, transforming what is in essence a remarkably simple narrative into an undeniably tense and thrilling experience through his expert crafting of sound and images, in particular his clever use of diegetic sound, inventive mirror shots and striking close ups. With a small budget and a story the direct opposite of epic, Spielberg creates something consistently entertaining and engaging. He may now be a director who regularly chooses to surround himself with grand tales and technical wizardry, but Duel is all the proof needed that, in fact, Spielberg doesn't need any of it to spin a good yarn.

The Steven Spielberg Director's Collection is available from Monday 13th October 2014.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.


  1. Interested to read the ideas around exploring 'manhood'. Kermode has often argued in the past few years that Jaws the novel, and to a lesser extent the film, are not about a shark at all but actually about adultery and impending divorce, which would back up the ideas here and elsewhere in his work. At the very least it might explain what attracted Spielberg to the Jaws story, even if those ideas didn't fully make it to the film (I think there's a subplot involving the police chief's wife in the novel, which never really makes it to screen in the film).

    1. It's a reading which jumped out at me much more this time than the the first time I watched Duel. If you go entirely down the allegorical route, the whole thing could be seen as an metaphor for David becoming a "real" man rather than the neurotic coward he somewhat comes across as at the start. Take into account the early '70s context, and the fact that writer Richard Matheson based the screenplay on his own short story originally published in Playboy, and all of a sudden it seems a very likely secondary meaning from both writer and director.

      Not heard that about Jaws before, but it's certainly an interesting idea. I've never read the novel - I really should as I've heard it's great. From the "monster" story perspective, I remember reading once during my degree that Jaws fits into the archetypal narrative even more than Duel: monster (shark) terrorises community; community turns to a hero, often an outsider (Brody); hero steps up and defeats monster. I find Spielberg is almost always at his best when telling a simple story, because it means he can just get on with telling it really really well.