Whilst not wishing to imply that Steven Spielberg’s career has been downhill since his debut feature, it is very possible that he peaked with his first film, Duel, which he made aged only 24.
Duel is an archetypal, classic B-movie, originally made for TV and released theatrically shortly after. Like most B-movies, it has a simple premise. A man, David Mann (Dennis Weaver), has to make a long journey home, through the Californian outback. But he finds himself inexplicably followed and taunted by a threatening truck with an anonymous driver. You question how long this simple premise can be made to last; how long before it appears too repetitive. But it is not something you question for long.
Initially, he shrugs it off as nothing, somebody larking about on the road. After a few minutes it has stopped being a joke, and has become a nuisance. Then it’s no longer a nuisance – his life could be in danger. And this fear continues to build throughout the opening section of the film.
This early paranoia climaxes midway in the film in a superb diner sequence. He is sat inside, convinced the truck driver is in the diner with him. We hear his chaotic and paranoid thought process. Mentally, he questions everyone around him. He becomes paranoid about his own paranoia. The soundtrack – which is largely non-existent save for truck foghorns, car radios and engines – builds, with Psycho-esque sharp, frantic strings. The temperature in the room rises; sweat builds on his brow.
This is a perfect of example of Spielberg demonstrating what is possible on a budget of £450,000. Of his future work, it is closest in comparison to Jaws (1975). Both are great examples of B-movies at their finest – cheap, forcing the director to think with ingenuity to create the thrills. There is no need for an excessive number of explosions to ‘entertain’ the audience. It is actually the lack of traditional action tropes of car crashes and collisions that create the tension. Maybe our man is just paranoid. Has he been imagining the whole thing? Is it an elaborate practical joke? It is these thoughts that create the entertainment.
Meanwhile, throughout, the wasteland setting is deeply unsettling and haunting. It is repetitive and endless, heightening his apparent isolation. (I dare say this sense of repetition may well be due to filming on the same stretch of road for budgetary reasons.)
In the end though, the message of the film is clear: if a petrol station attendant tells you that your car needs a new radiator hose, GET IT.