Steven Spielberg’s "Duel" is widely regarded and promoted as the wunderkind’s directorial debut, though that is not entirely true. He directed a series of TV episodes before and "Duel" was his first feature-length film that he directed. After countless years of delays and reschedules "Duel" is now finally making its DVD debut as a Collector’s Edition from Universal Home Entertainment and we decided to give it a good look.
On a business trip that takes him through the Californian desert, David Mann (Dennis Weaver) at one point passes a big rig truck on the remote highway. The truck driver doesn’t seem to like that and from that moment on Mann is under constant assault from the truck. At one time the truck is blocking the way making it impossible for Mann to pass it after a brief stop for gas, the next time the truck comes flying at Mann from behind, bumping into him, forcing Mann to go 90 miles per hour along the winding canyon roads, putting his life into danger. Gradually things get completely out of control and Mann has only one way out of this nightmare. Fighting back!
"Duel" is a very minimalistic film and that’s what makes it so effective. The truck becomes a sinister weapon that is always looming, always threatening and always ready break Mann’s spirit and crush his body and car. Despite the straight-forward premise the film’s 90-minutes are loaded with suspense and gripping action. Spielberg masterfully manages to pace the movie and to make sure a 90-minute car chase is not becoming boring for a single second. As the truck driver is becoming more aggressive, so does Spielberg’s use of the camera using increasingly dynamic shots that enhance the atmosphere of tension and menace with every inch of film until in the end, the truck is truly the epitome of evil.
Universal Home Entertainment is presenting "Duel," a production made for television, in its original fullframe aspect ratio. The transfer is clean and practically without blemishes. The transfer’s level of detail is very high, also, revealing many intricate details of the production and brings to screen every single grain of sand, as well as every translucent cloud of smoke from the truck’s exhaust. Despite the stark settings in the glaring sun of the Californian desert, the picture is free of edge-enhancement, giving it a very film-like and natural look. The compression has also been handled very careful to make sure all detail of the image remain intact without the introduction of compression artifacts.
Audio is presented as a remastered 5.1 channel Dolby Digital track, which is complemented by the original mono track. The surround track is balanced and has a good frequency response with good dynamic range. Surround usage is sparse but effective when engaged. No sibilance or distortion is audible in the track.
In a 35-minute interview featurette Steven Spielberg discusses how he made "Duel" and how the production came together. Since the director is an outspoken opponent of commentary tracks it is great to see he at least decided to talk about the experience of making the movie in quite some length in this featurette. He covers many aspects of the production, reflecting on how things came together and how it launched his career as one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors.
A second featurette covers Spielberg’s roots in the TV. The director once again reminisces about the films he did for TV, such as the Columbo episode "Murder By The Book" or his work on "Marcus Welby, M.D." "Night Gallery" and others.
Richard Matheson talks about his screenplay for "Duel." He remembers how he had the idea for the film itself, based on an event from his own experience, how he put it together and tried to unsuccessfully sell it to television studios. It was only after the story was published as a novellte in Playboy that Universal became interested and turned his story into the TV movie.
The DVD also contains a photo gallery with publicity and behind-the-screenshots, as well as a gallery of posters. The release is rounded out by the movie’s trailer and some production notes and biographies of the principal cast and crew members.
"Duel" seems very simplistic at first and the story doesn’t seem to be all that exciting, let away carry your attention for 90 minutes, but in the capable hands of a 23-year old Steven Spielberg, it turns into a tale of psychological warfare with incredible tension and wonderfully ominous images in the glaring sunlight. It was the movie that set the stage for the director’s career and already shows his adeptness at turning seemingly simple events into remarkably effective movie moments. One thing I have to say, though, is that the cover of the DVD is just bad beyond comprehension. Not sure how that could have slipped past Spielberg…