There is some dispute amongst pedants like myself as to what constitutes Steven Spielberg’s first film. Technically, he made a home movie called Firelight at the age of 17 which was screened in one local cinema for one night, but nobody’s bloody well seen that. He attempted to make another movie called Slipstream a few years later but ran out of money and never finished it so that doesn’t count, and at 21 made a film called Amblin’ which won some festival awards and earned him a TV contract at Universal Studios but that was a short film. Amongst the various television work he then spent time on was a TV movie called Duel, which was so well-received that a longer edit of it was released in cinemas, and this is generally accepted as his big-screen debut. It just looked worlds apart from its peers in the era of early 70s tacky TV, clearly belonging to a larger canvas of more artful ideas, and deservedly launched his feature film career.

Based on a short story which first appeared in Playboy magazine (written by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson), what’s perhaps most striking about it now is how much it signifies Spielberg’s later work. Here we have an absent father figure (of course), trying to get home to his family, and encountering a primal enemy – Dennis Weaver plays a salesman driving across the desert who is plagued by a large truck with tinted windows which repeatedly tries to run him off the road. It’s kind of like the last third of Jaws only with a truck – speaking of which, the truck itself here is a brilliant creation, a faceless monstrosity brought to life with some brilliant editing and design choices, a dark streak of rusty red that moves and sounds like an organic animal. Spielberg himself has gone back to Duel several times – he even used the truck’s final roar in the finale of Jaws, a dinosaur-like sound which would come in handy again later in his career.

Arguably the greatest TV movie ever made9
The "character" design on the mechanical truck9
Spotting themes and motifs that would later define Spielberg's work8
A demonstration of how to make a film look good even with a limited budget8
That lack of budget is genuinely noticeable in places though6
Bechdel Test Passes
  • n/a
Bechdel Test Failures
  • As far as I can tell, there is only one named character at all, and he is male
8Overall Score

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