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Escapism as Art: Steven Spielberg's 'Duel.'

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn December 28, 2010 at 9:54AM

This post is intended as part of the Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly, which ends today.

This post is intended as part of the Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly, which ends today.

My interest in movies began with a specific interest in those made by Steven Spielberg. As a child, the unique fantasies of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (which I wrote about a few years back), "E.T.," and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" spurred my imagination in ways that nothing around me could. (I'm sure many children of the eighties and nineties can relate.) That became the seed from which my greater interests in cinema grew: Moving images showed me the world in ways that were otherwise inaccessible to me, and what I saw fascinated me.

Ironically, the Spielberg movie that I find most provocative after a decade-plus of combing through his output contains the greatest instance of the director issuing restraint. Unsurprisingly, it's also his first feature-length credit. I refer here to "Duel," Spielberg's 1971 made-for-TV thriller about an innocent man named David (Dennis Weaver) driving down a barren road while avoiding the ominous attacks of an anonymous psychotic truck driver. That's all there is to it, and yet there's so much more.

Watching "Duel" with the eventual legacy of its director in mind, one can easily see how the movie functions as a high concept experiment in film language that predicts Spielberg's eventual development into the world's greatest commercial director. From the credit sequence onward, "Duel" serves as an early indication of Spielberg's commitment to elaborate camera placement and other exemplary instances of craftsmanship. The opening shot, which assumes David's POV as he drives from his house in the suburbs of Los Angeles to an empty desert road, anticipates the subjective perspective employed in everything from "Evil Dead" and "Enter the Void."

As David gradually leaves civilization behind, we witness the erosion of his comfort zone as he sees it: From the neatly arranged boxes on a hillside, to the chaos of the highway, to the anything-goes logic of a dust-covered landscape. David initially feels like he's the master of his own domain and capable of traveling between these wildly different worlds. When the truck driver starts to go after him, he tries to play it cool, nimbly cutting the guy off — and almost running headlong into traffic. Then the power roles shift, and the rules of the game drastically change.

In this sense, "Duel" invokes elements readily visible in other Spielberg movies. David encounters the insurmountable unknown with a mixture of awe and horror, much like the ill-fated adventurers in "Jurassic Park" or the equally daring trio of shark hunters in "Jaws." In each instance, the heroes court danger and encounter destructive forces that operate outside of reason—just like the title threat in "The Birds." (Spielberg may favor happy endings more than Hitchcock, but his better movies work you over a few times before they get there.)

Besides a mutual appreciation for the chaos world, Spielberg has other, more specific affinities with the Master of Suspense. Both filmmakers rely on the precision of editing (which they both consider as the essential key to the filmmaking process) to convey the traps their characters find themselves in. Spielberg rhythmically cuts between close-ups of David's eyes in his rear-view mirror and the black truck pursuing him, forming an implementation of the Kuleshov Effect on par with its feature-length manifestation in "Rear Window" -- and even more involving, since it takes place in constant motion. (Consciously or not, Spielberg paid homage to this device 23 years later in "Jurassic Park.")

Ultimately, "Duel" is a movie about the survival of the fittest that unfolds with strict adherence to classical narrative conventions. Tellingly, it came out the same year as "The Last Picture Show," when the New Hollywood surge briefly suggested a renaissance for experimental narrative cinema on a relatively large scale -- a period that arguably began to fade with the box office domination of "Jaws" four years later.

My growing awareness of Spielberg's mainstream qualities engendered a short-lived disdain for his work, the feeling that he had exchanged talent for showmanship, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Actually, if it took sheer cinematic skill to make the modern Hollywood blockbuster click, Spielberg was the man to do it -- an artist-as-movie-brat with strong awareness of the medium's power over the spectator. But it must be said, for better or worse, that "Duel" displays a sign of things to come. It perfectly lays out the commercial potential of speed (See: "Speed," of course, and more recently "Unstoppable") and captures the profound craft behind escapist entertainment -- in the right hands, anyway.

Watch "Duel" in its entirety here.

This article is related to: Independent Cinema