Duel Review

The Film

Back in the late 90s Road-Rage became a huge media buzz-word, and if they were to be believed it was a new plague, ready to take over the country as we all went crazy behind the wheel, our cars becoming tinder boxes that could ignite our fragile little tempers at any moment. But yet again the sensationalist media were out of touch, as one of cinemas best known names had started his big screen career with a film on that very subject, way back in 1971.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is an average guy, a hard working travelling salesman forced to drive across a blistering desert to get to a meeting he doesn’t want to go to, for fear of losing a big client. His journey is suddenly made rather unpleasant by the arrival of a dirty, smoking truck, going too slow and filling his car with filthy exhaust fumes. Naturally this isn’t they way he wants to spend the rest of what will doubtless be an unpleasant enough journey under the sweltering desert sun, so he does what any motorist would, and overtakes the truck. Unfortunately for David the driver doesn’t seem to be the considerate type, and begins a dangerous game of one-upmanship with him, that involves either going as slowly as possible in front of David, or as closer behind him than anyone would enjoy. Naturally tempers fray, and before you know it things have escalated to the point where David’s little Plymouth Valiant is going to be lucky not to be shredded by the rusting behemoth taking up his whole rear view mirror.


This is the film that made Steven Spielberg a name in the movie business, after spending years shooting occasional TV show episodes, and even a Colombo TV movie, he took a basic script, with dialogue that is sporadic to say the least, and turned it into a tense mini-masterpiece. Despite being such a cinematic landmark though the film has fought a hard battle to make it to DVD, and it’s sadly not a battle yet won.
This disc was never officially released, withdrawn by Universal little more than a week before its release date, but a number of copies sent to online retailers have still emerged. After being originally announced for release in 2002, it was unceremoniously pulled from schedules by Universal without explanation. The most likely reason for this was that the film was going to be presented in widescreen, despite originally being shot in full frame. Duel began life as a TV movie in the US, before playing theatrically in Europe where it was matted to a standard 1.85:1 theatrical ratio. Thankfully this disc restores the film to its original state, a matted version of this image would severely constrain some of the shots, there are many times the frame is filled to bursting, cutting parts of this film out would certainly have a seriously detrimental effect on its composition. But the framing wasn’t the only thing altered, it was also padded out from its original 74 minutes to 90 minutes as it was illegal (Spielberg’s own words) to release a film shorter than that in some European countries. The footage was shot – but allegedly not entirely approved by – Spielberg himself, making a number of noticeable but not hugely significant changes. A longer opening sequence was filmed to accommodate the longer theatrical credits, which still appeared at the start of films back in ’71, along with Mann’s call to his wife from the gas station, and a further attempt by the monstrous truck to kill Mann, by pushing his car under the train that seems to appear rather frequently throughout the film. Ironically the scene involving the telephone call, which was purportedly written by one of the films producers, turns out to be a precursor to the strongest them that has resonated through Spielberg’s movies – that of the absent father. It shows how David Mann works away from home, leaving before his wife awakes, and that they are having some marital problems. Strange that Spielberg was apparently so against the inclusion of this scene, when the majority of his films since have touched on the very same subject.

These scenes, and I’m speculating here, may well be the reason this DVD was withdrawn at the 11th hour, if Spielberg’s preferred cut is indeed the 74 minute version then he may well have not been happy about the disc being released without that cut as well, or even that the 90 minute version was being released at all – an he’s certainly a man with enough clout to get a disc pulled from production.
I’ve always felt that Spielberg has been more comfortable within a smaller frame, possibly due to a childhood making mini-opuses on hand held cameras, and although he spent the majority of his early career shooting in the larger 2.35:1 ratio with the likes of Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind and Jaws, he seemed to settle on the smaller 1.85:1, with Minority Report his only exception in over a decade. Duel highlights his talent for making the most of a more restrictive space, and he often uses it to convey how trapped his lead is, filling the screen with his worried, nervously-sweating face, or shooting up towards the truck, making it look even more imposing as it covers the frame and blocks out the light. It’s impressive to see he had such command of the screen as a new director, and it’s easy to see how he caught attention with this film.
The script was adapted, from his own story, by Richard Matheson, writer of classics such as I Am Legend – filmed as The Omega Man - and The Incredible Shrinking Man, who also provided the original novels for more modern adaptations Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come. It must have been a rather brief read, as lines of spoken dialogue are few and far between. Much of the film consists of Mann alone in his car, hounded by a truck driver who face is unseen, and voice unheard, though Matheson breaks the silences nicely by providing us with Mann’s internal monologue – his increasingly paranoid and scared thoughts often the only voice we hear. The difficulty of conveying the true menace of the film may well have been what consigned the script to a TV movie to begin with, but Spielberg really makes it fly. Thankfully it isn’t simply a 90 minute car chase, as the truck driver toys with Mann he is often left alone, pulling over for food, thinking his ordeal is over, only to be pounced upon as soon as he hits the road again, and unfortunately for him these roads offer few other travellers to assist him in his battle. Personally the only disappointment the film holds, and it is a mild one, is the finale. Spielberg shot it with 7 cameras, but decided only one shot would be used in the final cut, while certainly an impressive shot, the sequence loses momentum when the film should be being most frenetic. Factor in his use of a dinosaur sound effect for a death throw, and the scene starts to feel slightly cheap – a shame since he made the rest of the film look like a much bigger production that it actually was.

Duel is a film that transcended the boundaries of both the genre and the medium it was designed for and became a huge influence on a generation, with modern productions such as Jeepers Creepers and Roadkill still borrowing heavily from a film made before most of its leads had been born. It still works today as a tense thriller, even if the originality of the film has long been diluted, not to mention it being such an important film in the career of a man that has become synonymous with movie-making.

The Picture

To say I wasn’t expecting much from this image would be an understatement, shot for TV more than 30 years ago, and elements duplicated for cinema distribution being in the matted ratio, I feared it may prove to difficult to find a suitable source for the transfer. Happily this is not the case, be it down to finding an excellent print, or digital restoration, this is a very clean image presenting hardly a blemish on what was originally shot. It has always had some grain to it, and this is naturally recreated here, but is nothing to worry about and the film has been superbly compressed with not an artefact in sight. In fact a quick look at the disc with DVD Bitrate Viewer shows the main feature to have an average rate of 8.47Mbps, considering the theoretical maximum is little over 10Mbps there is scant room for improvement there. Colour fidelity on the whole is good, along with strong contrast, but the red end of the spectrum does appear slightly drained with Mann’s Plymouth looking slightly orange, but compared to the trailer that accompanies the disc it looks positively glowing. There is some slight shimmer, which appears far more often during long scenic shots rather than close ups, and effects the larger blocks of colour such as skies and expansive deserts, but rarely is it distracting. I doubt we’ll ever see the film looking better than this.


The Sound

Universal have really gone to town with this release as it comes with the original 2.0 mono track, along with a new 5.1 remix encoded in both Dolby Digital and DTS. Purists may well balk at the very idea of up-mixing, and I’ll agree that often such a poor job is done the original track can sound better, but that is certainly not the case here. The added channels breath life into a somewhat flat track, with the film taking place largely on the road there are plenty of opportunities for surround effects, right from the off the film draws you in as we drive with David on his way out of the city, the sounds of the road echoing around the underpasses and tunnels. If that isn’t enough to convince you wait until the truck starts to creep up behind you, suddenly blowing its horn, there are a fair few sonic surprises in store on this track. On top of this the LFE gives a tremendous boost to the snarling truck, as it revs its engine you’ll certainly feel it, again this aspect of the disc performs far better than you’d expect a thirty year old film to. There have been reports of some lip sync issues on the DTS track, but if there are any then it is a player specific issue as I experienced no problems on my Pioneer deck.

The Extras

A Conversation with Steven Spielberg

This documentary, filmed by long term DVD doc producer and Spielberg favourite Laurent Bouzereau, runs for a little over half an hour, and consists solely of Spielberg talking about Duel and his work in that period. Beginning with his start in television (a subject explored in much more depth in the next doc) and explaining how he had to fight for the job on Duel, it reveals many facts about the film I was unaware of, even after I did some research for this review. The shoot was scheduled to be a mere 10 days, even though TV shoots much faster than big screen movies that is still an amazing pace for a film shot entirely on location. Spielberg discusses how reluctant the studio was to let him do it, preferring he stay in the far more controllable studio environment, and the lengths he had to go to in order to stay on schedule – at least until he’d shot enough to be left alone, as the shoot did end up running over. He also talks about the madness of editing a film that had to go on air just three weeks after the shoot finished, how he made some accidental cameos in the film, and how the success affected his career opportunities. It’s clear that he still has a lot of love for the movie, and seems to be having a great time reminiscing about his youth.


Steven Spielberg and the Small Screen

This shorter documentary sees Spielberg talking about all the work he had to put in as an aspiring director to get recognised, and how he turned run of the mill TV episodes into learning experiences and snuck in a few experiments when he could. Despite his initial distaste at the idea of working on the small screen, he obviously warmed to the idea, and describes the Colombo TV movie he directed as the best script he’d read, ever.

Richard Matheson: The Writing of Duel

Matheson talks here about his inspiration for the film, not surprisingly being tailgated by a huge truck, and the trouble he had getting it made. He pitched the idea initially as a movie, but everyone felt that the concept was too thin, so it ended up as a short story - published in Playboy – that was snapped up and Matheson was commissioned to write a script for television. He is obviously happy with what Spielberg did with his work and has a great appreciation of the film.

Photograph and Poster Gallery

Less than a dozen pictures here, looking like promo shots for lobby cards along with a selection of the films theatrical posters from various countries.

Trailer

This trailer, for the theatrical version of the film, is presented in rather battered looking fullscreen with a fair few dirt marks and scratches. The colours look horribly drained, which is sadly more representative of the films TV and VHS presentations over the years than the DVDs colour scheme.

Cast and Filmmakers

Brief filmographies and notes on Weaver, Spielberg, Matheson, and the only three other actors in the movie hat had a decent amount of lines. These are as lacking in detail as they could possibly be, and must have taken at least 5 minutes to put together.

Production Notes

Remember the good old days when brief notes like these came in a booklet along with the chapter listing, it seems like those days are gone as no insert accompanies the disc, leaving you to read this brief glossy description of the history of the film and its makers - hardly worth the time if you’ve watched the documentaries.

Overall

The big question surrounding this release is not “is it any good?” as the answer to that is clear, but “is it worth paying Ebay prices?” I feel the disc is technically as good as you’re ever likely to see, in fact far better than I ever expected it to be, and the extras have been complete since 2001, making it unlikely that Universal suddenly decided they needed to add more. I fear the most likely reason for the films withdrawal is the running time, another edition containing the 74 minute cut seems likely, but the big question is, will it also contain this 90 minute version? If it does, then this disc will become virtually worthless, if not then this may become a highly prized collector’s item. Sadly Universal are keeping tight lipped on the subject, currently giving no reasons for pulling it, no date for a planned release, and no details of any changes that may occur. If you can still find this in a store, on or offline, buy it now and treasure it. If your only recourse is online auction sites, where this disc is already selling for more than £50, you’re taking a gamble, but personally I’d rather be missing the money than missing this film in my collection.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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