Duel: Collector’s Edition
Running Time: 90 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Full Frame (1.33:1)
Subtitles: French, and Spanish
Audio: English – DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Monaural (2.0);
August 17th, 2004
Duel, the made-for-TV movie that put the great Steven Spielberg on the map, is essentially a simple story, but Spielberg takes this premise, penned by writer Richard Matheson, and makes it grand! Indeed, he exhibits early flashes of the cinematic flair and storytelling skills that have entertained filmgoers for over 30 years and made him one of the most respected directors of all time!
In Duel, Dennis Weaver plays David Mann, a businessman traveling alone through long, lonely stretches of the California desert to make it to a meeting that he is late for. While on the highway, David happens upon an immense truck that is blocking his path, so he passes it to avoid getting further behind schedule, which causes the truck’s operator to take serious issue with David’s driving. At first, the trucker shows his displeasure by merely getting back in front of David and slowing down to impede his progress, but when David passes him a second time, the trucker snaps, and eventually tries to run David’s car off of the road! Unfortunately for David, things escalate even further from there, and it soon becomes clear that the trucker’s aim is to make him into road-kill!
Initially, Steven Spielberg crafted his cohort Richard Matheson’s (the two would collaborate again on Amazing Stories) story into a made-for-television film for the ABC network. However, the end result impressed the powers that be at Universal so much that additional scenes were added to Duel, padding its running time (up to 90 minutes) for an international theatrical engagement, and the legendary career of Steven Spielberg the feature film director began!
One of the things I really love about Duel is how Spielberg builds a palpable sense of tension and danger by not showing us the trucker. This is a trick he would later employ in Jaws, where the terrifying denizen of the deep remains out of sight until the film’s latter stages. Instead, Spielberg makes the truck into an ominous, hulking presence that is helmed by an unseen menace that never reveals the motive for his attempts to murder David Mann. Thus, the viewers imagination is free to run wild, trying to imagine what the maniacal trucker looks like, or to figure out why he is intent on killing David. Often times, it is the things that a movie does not show the audience that are the most frightening, and the sense of mystery that the lack of a clear motive for the villain’s behavior creates that make a film so intriguing, and Duel uses both concept to great effect!
In sharp contrast to the menacing truck driver and his powerful machine, Spielberg portrays the David Mann character as feeble and panicked, which is evident in both his behavior and Dennis Weaver’s nervous voiceovers. As the movie unfolds, it seems like this crazy situation Mann is involved in is a test of his individual courage. This is most evident in the diner scene, where Mann asks for help, but not a single soul seems willing to believe his story, much less help him.
The chase scenes are also superbly executed on a technical level, with the quick cuts between the two vehicles as they race through the bleak, barren California desert creating nail-biting suspense. Spielberg also employed sound effects, like the roar of engines, expertly to ratchet the tension up even further. As a result of such excellent setup and execution, this little “television flick that could” became one of the most exciting and memorable car chase films of its decade!
Duel is not only a watershed movie, but it flies in the face of the notion that made-for-TV movies are never worthwhile. On the contrary, it is a slickly executed, entertaining thriller that gets a lot of mileage out of a basic idea, and showcased the immense potential of an up-and-coming director that would go on to become one of the greatest storytellers of our times. To be sure, Spielberg has greatly surpassed this early offering with classic works like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial, and Schindler’s List, but those movies might not have been made were it not for Duel! Personally, I would go so far as to rank this right up there as one of his most suspenseful and entertaining films. If you like Spielberg’s work, I really doubt you have missed this one, but if so, do yourself a favor and make a little room on your DVD shelf for Duel!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
To quote Darth Vader, “Impressive. Most impressive.” The splendid rendering of Duel’s visuals makes up for the postponements of this release, as the sharp, clear image and vibrant colors (by early ‘70s standards anyway) make the time, effort, and $$$ that went into this transfer evident. The image’s black level is also consistently deep and well defined, giving the visuals a nice sense of depth and excellent shadow delineation! Best of all, Duel’s relatively short running time helps make compression artifacts and edge enhancement non-issues, despite the presence of multiple 5.1 channel audio tracks.
The only real quibble I had was that a handful of shots are not as detailed as the rest (the diner scene springs to mind), but this issue really doesn’t detract from what is truly a very pleasing viewing experience. Considering that Duel was made for “the small screen” over 30 years ago, I can say with all certainty that my expectations were exceeded. Bravo Universal!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Along with the original monaural soundtrack for purists, Universal has re-tooled Duel’s audio, and decked this release out with both Dolby Digital and DTS (5.1 channel) tracks! Again, since this is an older film, these “created” surround mixes do not have the punch and fidelity of modern, native surround mixes. Still, fans have no reason to worry, as these new mixes appear to have been handled as carefully as possible, and do not sound as “gimmicky” as other attempts to remix older sound sources.
Another thing about Duel that has always interested me is that it does not feature a traditional score, and relies instead on sound effects to create the moods and feelings that Spielberg was aiming for. Happily, both the DTS and Dolby tracks reproduce the source material very well, which helps the listener “feel” the tension that Spielberg builds as the film plays out.
In particular, overall frequency response was very good, with clear, airy highs and a smooth midrange. Bass response was a little less impressive, but a few scenes do kick the subwoofer into high gear, and as usual, I believe that the LFE channel was a bit cleaner and more controlled in its DTS incarnation. Similarly, dialogue sounded a bit hollow on occasion (only slightly), but I never had any problem hearing what the characters were saying.
The surround channels are also used a bit more aggressively than I would have expected from 33-year-old source material, particularly to spread the rumbling sounds of the semi truck around the listening space. Again, the DTS track comes up the winner here, as it handles the use of location-specific sound effects better, and exhibits more precise overall imaging.
Basically, either surround mix offers an engaging presentation of Duel that offers a new way to experience it. I cannot say that either is as much of a revelation as the transfer was, but it is obvious that a lot of work went into the audio portion of this disc as well, and the results are almost equally impressive!
A Conversation With Steven Spielberg
“Conversation”, a 36-minute documentary, is a comprehensive and entertaining talk with Steven Spielberg, who goes into great depth about all things Duel. It is all here…information about the conception of Duel, about the production of the film (shot in only 13 days!), and how it changed his career.
This is one of those rare instances when I don’t want to say too much! Really, I think that Spielberg buffs should experience what the man has to say all on their own, as the renowned director provides a wealth of information on the early part of his career. Honestly, since he does not do commentaries, this is as fantastic and thorough a documentary on a Spielberg film you are likely to see – I enjoyed it almost as much as the film!!!
Steven Spielberg and the Small Screen
This brief extra (approx. 10 minutes long) kicks off with a bang – with a wonderful montage from Steven Spielberg’s films, including clips from rare gems like Eyes, the Daredevil Gesture and L.A. 2017! While I am on the subject, I would be remiss not to mention that though these are only clips, the apparent image quality on these early Spielberg treasures is impressive, which gives me hope that if these works are ever released on DVD that they will look great!
The featurette continues with Spielberg himself, who talks about his early work in the television industry, and his aspirations of becoming a feature film director. He goes on to recall the difficulty of creating television programming, and describes how he made a name for himself by bringing a more theatrical visual style to his television work, especially by using a lot more “wide” shots than his contemporaries.
All in all, this is another entertaining and informative look at the early period in the career of one of America’s greatest filmmakers. About the only negative thing I can say about it is that it is too brief, which means that it cannot go into the level of detail about Spielberg’s earliest projects that more ardent fans were looking for. On the other hand, I suppose that even hours of extras might not be enough to cover such topics in sufficient detail.
Richard Matheson: The Writing of Duel
This featurette, which runs for 9 ½ minutes consists of an interview with screenwriter Richard Matheson, who reveals the development of the story for Duel, and how he tried pitching it for a television show. Subsequently, he talks about how he later turned the story into a novella that was published in a 1971 issue of the famous men’s magazine “Playboy”.
Mr. Matheson then transitions into a discussion about the process of turning the story into a teleplay, and reveals some of the research he did to ensure the script contained sufficient detail. One of the things I found fascinating was that he actually drove out into the desert and made notes about details that he wanted to incorporate into the screenplay. Finally, Matheson offers some insight into the production process, Steven Spielberg’s direction, and why the project was titled Duel, to mention a few other topics.
Honestly, there is a lot of information crammed into a short amount of time by Matheson, almost all of it very interesting. This is a very good featurette, and has a lot to offer fans of the film!
Photo and Poster Gallery
The gallery consists of 14 production stills, which are accompanied by images of 7 posters from around the world, some of which are undoubtedly quite rare.
The theatrical trailer (the film was released in theaters internationally) for Duel is included
Cast & Crew Bios
Brief cast bios are available for:
--- Dennis Weaver
--- Jacqueline Scott
--- Eddie Firestone
--- Lou Frizzell
Brief crew bios are available for:
--- Steven Spielberg
--- Richard Matheson
Four pages of slight, forgettable production notes are included, which claim that Duel was also known as “Duel of Death”. That is news to me…perhaps someone will be able to elaborate on the accuracy or inaccuracy of this statement better than I can.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Finally (it is about damn time!!!), after several lengthy delays, Steven Spielberg’s Duel has made its way onto our favorite movie-viewing format –at least until HD-DVD arrives ! And not only has it arrived, but Duel looks and sounds better than I could have hoped for, sporting a clean, detailed transfer and a variety of audio options (English only ), including two intelligently crafted surround re-mixes!
And while I would not say that the amount of extras included qualifies this DVD for its “Collector’s Edition” moniker, Spielberg does not do commentaries, so I am not sure how much more could have been included. At any rate, the documentaries, especially the “Conversation With Steven Spielberg”, are first-rate, and offer fans of this early Spielberg gem plenty of insightful information to digest.
It did take them a while, but given the overall quality of the presentation of Duel they have come up with, I think Universal should be forgiven for keeping Steven Spielberg’s fans waiting for so long for this title! If you like Spielberg like I do, I recommend purchasing this edition of Duel without reservation! Highly recommended!!!