By the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, TV had overtaken movies as America’s number one entertainment for good, so it is fitting that the number one moviemaker of that period got his start on the little screen. Steven Spielberg was a TV junkie who’d made his name directing episodes of “Marcus Welby, M.D.”, “Columbo”, and most famously, “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery” when he was still barely old enough to drink. In 1971, he got his first break into feature-length movie making, though Duel was consigned to his usual living room-based medium. Spielberg’s ABC movie-of-the-week adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story, however, revealed a big screen talent. This brutally minimalistic showdown between a suburban schlub and a literal monster truck was filmed with all the consideration and imagination of a major motion picture. That may not sound like a big deal in the day of “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones”, but it was completely revolutionary in an age when TV movies were low-budget, disposable filler between episodes of “The Brady Bunch” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”. In fact, Duel was so high quality that it earned a critically smashing feature run in Europe. Spielberg’s career as a TV director was coming to an end.
Duel is not generally mentioned among Spielberg’s signature films, but based on this above brief history, I’m sure you’ll understand its significance. If you need any further convincing, check out Steven Awalt’s excellent new book Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career. Awalt gets deep into this film’s creation, from the inspiration for and publication of Matheson’s story to the film’s eventual American theatrical run in 1983 in the wake of Spielberg’s domination of cinemas with E.T. The history is complete, amusing (the “casting” of the automobiles is documented here, as is the Incredible Hulk’s theft of Duel footage), critical (though mostly of Awalt’s fellow Duel theorists), and often just as thrilling as the film it details. The author relates Matheson’s near-death experience that inspired his tale and Spielberg’s boyhood short movie about a head-on collision between model trains with a master storyteller’s grasp of suspense. He also really emphasizes the importance of master storyteller Richard Matheson in this history. Because Duel is so significant a milestone in Spielberg’s career, Matheson’s major role in its creation is often minimized. Not so in this book, which also contains that writer’s complete teleplay for his and Spielberg’s film. So this book functions as both an informative—and very entertaining—resource for students of Spielberg and a nice tribute to the recently deceased Richard Matheson.
Get Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career on Amazon.com here: