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“Duel” 50th Anniversary (retro article)

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  • “Duel” 50th Anniversary (retro article)

    Jaws On Wheels: Remembering Spielberg’s “Duel” On Its 50th Anniversary

    Originally posted by The Digital Bits/Michael Coate



    By Michael Coate

    Duel showed us that art could be produced on a television budget and on a television schedule. — Gary Gerani, co-author of Fantastic Television

    The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the original broadcast of Duel, the acclaimed television film adapted from Richard Matheson’s short story about a man menaced on the highway by the unseen driver of a truck.

    Duel featured Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke, Gentle Ben) and originally aired as a part of the ABC Movie of the Week in autumn 1971 before being expanded into a theatrical release. Directed by a 24-year-old Steven Spielberg, Duel marked Spielberg’s transition into the production of feature-length motion pictures following two years of directing episodic television.

    The most recent home media release of Duel was in 2014 as a part of the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection on Blu-ray Disc (which includes Duel along with Always, E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and The Sugarland Express) and in 2015 as a standalone Blu-ray.

    For the occasion of Duel’s anniversary, The Bits features a Q&A with film and TV historian Gary Gerani.

    Gary Gerani is the author (with Paul H. Schulman) of Fantastic Television: A Pictorial History of Sci-Fi, The Unusual and the Fantastic from Captain Video to the Star Trek Phenomenon and Beyond (Harmony, 1977). He owns his own publishing company, Fantastic Press, in a partnership with IDW and co-wrote the screenplay for Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead (1988). Gary is also known as the Card King, having written and edited more trading cards than anyone else, including the popular Topps Star Warssets, which Abrams Books has reprinted in book form. Most recently Gary wrote, produced and directed Romantic Mysticism: The Music of Billy Goldenberg, a documentary about the film/TV composer Billy Goldenberg (Spielberg’s Duel, among many others) due to be released/aired in 2022.

    Gary was previously interviewed for this column’s retrospectives on Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He spoke to The Bits again recently about the appeal and legacy of Duel.

    Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Duel ought to be remembered on its 50th anniversary?

    Gary Gerani: Duel should be remembered as a remarkable television experience, elevating small screen creativity to cinematic sophistication.

    The Digital Bits: What was your first impression of the film?

    Gerani: I saw it when it was first broadcast on ABC, and I remember being knocked out by its elemental purity and self-assurance. I was already familiar with Steven Spielberg's TV work, and this was the latest impressive example of it... a real showcase for the director's noteworthy skills.

    The Digital Bits: In what way is Duel significant?

    Gerani: Duel is significant because of its relentlessness and simplicity; unlike most commercial movies, which must cater to well-paid cast members and provide a wide range of traditional entertainment values for ticket-buying audiences, Duel exists for its own sake and is not concerned about earnings or demographics. It is pure cinema, visual and breathless, created economically for a medium that could afford to take chances.

    The Digital Bits: In what way was Steven Spielberg an ideal choice to direct?

    Gerani: The youthful, full-of-energy Spielberg was ideally suited to this project, partially because he was in sync with writer Richard Matheson's offbeat sensibilities, but mainly because his remarkable command of cinema enabled him to literally map out and fully cover the truck vs. car odyssey in every detail. This duel was real, with no process photography or any of the other convenient short cuts TV directors employed to finish their assignments on time and on budget.

    The Digital Bits: Which are the standout scenes?

    Gerani: In terms of standout sequences, the whole movie qualifies as one. But if I had to choose... the scene of growing paranoia in the diner, with almost no movement at all going on other than an increasingly rattled Dennis Weaver rubbing his sweaty forehead, and that final, beyond-awesome shot of the truck careening down the cliff, its elongated hulk emerging from clouds of smoky dust again and again, before finally settling into a silent grave at the bottom of a canyon.

    The Digital Bits: What are your thoughts on Dennis Weaver’s performance?

    Gerani: Playing Mr. Mann in this man against machine contest, Weaver is ideal, physically fit enough to appear convincing during the rougher attack scenes, but also burdened by the self-deceptive weakness of a flawed, average person that most audience members can relate to.

    The Digital Bits: Do you believe Duel has been well represented on home video?

    Gerani: I believe Duel has been treated respectfully on home video, but I am disappointed that the original, slightly different TV version hasn't been included in Universal's last Blu-ray special edition. There are enough differences between it and the theatrical incarnation (which boasts added footage) that it should be made available for a comparison.

    The Digital Bits: What compelled you to produce your Billy Goldenberg documentary?

    Gerani: I produced the Billy Goldenberg documentary because, in addition to Billy being a close friend, he was my favorite film composer, with a unique sound that grabbed me the very first time I heard it. Billy was Steven's John Williams before John Williams himself came into the picture, and all of the early '70s Steven Spielberg/Billy Goldenberg collaborations were exceptional (Duel, Night Gallery, Columbo, Name of the Game, etc.).

    The Digital Bits: How would you describe Duel to someone who has never seen it?

    Gerani: I would describe Duel as a fluid, superlative cinematic ride with no stops for extraneous material or unwanted subplots. Pure cinema, crafted by a master of the form at the peak of his unspoiled powers.

    The Digital Bits: What do you think is the legacy of Duel?

    Gerani: Duel‘s legacy? It showed us that art could be produced on a television budget and on a television schedule, if the right artist is at the helm. And there was no better celluloid artist for Duel than Steven Spielberg.

    The Digital Bits: Thank you, Gary, for sharing your thoughts about Steven Spielberg’s Duel on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.


    Selected images copyright/courtesy New York Daily News, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Universal Television.

    Edwin S. Hall (sound), 1919-1973
    Dale VanSickle (“Car Driver”), 1907-1977
    Lou Frizzell (“Bus Driver”), 1920-1979
    Charles Seel (“Old Man”), 1897-1980
    Amy Douglass (“Old Woman in Car”), 1902-1980
    Lucille Benson (“Lady at Snakerama”), 1914-1984
    Tim Herbert (“Gas Station Attendant”), 1914-1986
    Alexander Lockwood (“Old Man in Car”), 1902-1990
    Wallace Worsley (unit production manager), 1908-1991
    Jack A. Marta (director of photography), 1903-1991
    Cary Loftin (stunt coordinator and “The Truck Driver”), 1914-1997
    Shirley O’Hara (“Waitress”), 1924-2002
    Dennis Weaver (“David Mann”), 1924-2006
    Eddie Firestone (“Café Owner”), 1920-2007
    George Eckstein (producer), 1928-2009
    Jerry Christian (sound effects editor), 1925-2012
    Richard Matheson (short story and screenplay), 1926-2013
    Frank Morriss (editor), 1927-2013
    Gene Dynarski (“Man in Café”), 1933-2020
    Jacqueline Scott (“Mrs. Mann”), 1931-2020
    Billy Goldenberg (composer), 1936-2020
    Attached Files