Spielberg’s movies are like life itself: they’ve started the process of degradation almost since their inception. This is why we ended up with Indiana Jones, E.T., Catch me of You Can, Jaws or Jurassic Park. And some of these are considered true milestones in the history of cinema, even though most of them are simply addressed to children. But this tendency towards infantile cinematography might only be explained through a sort of Michael Jackson complex, a condition which he’s been trying to treat at the audience’s expense by directing what he calls “movies”.
Yet this condition only began to manifest itself after his 1971 Duel, which was actually his first feature film. This film is as austere as none of his following films could ever be. A common man who’s trying to save his job by meeting his boss, who is due to leave the next morning, gets more than he bargains for. On his way, on the American highways he comes across a huge old-fashioned 1930s truck whose driver starts messing around with him. Basically, the entire film consists of this duel on the road, which is rather one-sided, as the truck constantly tries to kill him.
Now the gist of the film is that the truck’s driver’s face is never seen. The camera’s perspective is often the protagonist’s perspective, and we are able to see directly how he struggles to gaze at his opponent, either by overtaking him, or by looking into the rear mirrors. His face remains obscured because the angles are never the right ones, or when they are the dark windshield stands in the way.
On IMDB, the film’s short introduction says: A business commuter is pursued and terrorized by a malevolent driver of a massive tractor-trailer. But what we’re faced here is a sense of non-human entity, we start to perceive the truck as simply driverless. Even the director himself seems to emphasize this, by placing the camera towards the truck, instead of trying to bring the criminal’s identity to light. So the duel simply becomes a fight between a human being and a truck, which leaves us with a very strong, daunting feeling.
Not even at the end of the movie, which I am not going to give away, do we find out the reason behind this criminal attempt. But this is exactly as it should be. Both the identity or the reason would only make the film one of those Spielberg’s “milestones” that reveals everything and leaves no stones unturned, which is actually very unaesthetic all in all. Duel is by far the most interesting film ever directed by Spielberg, and this might be put down to the fact that, at the beginning of his career, he had to make a point, he had to prove himself and others that he can actually do it. The sole problem was that for him this was only a phase which he needed to overcome for some reason. To overcome it so that he could go uncompromisingly commercial.
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