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A road rage horror show – Spielberg’s “Duel” on 4K

Updated: Dec 1, 2023


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

Actor Dennis Weaver took a short break from his role as Marshal Sam McCloud to play salesman David Mann in Steven Spielberg’s first movie. “Duel” originally aired on ABC’s Saturday Night Movie of the Week in November 1971.


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“DUEL”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy; 1971; PG for violence; streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (iTunes) (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: The original TV version of “Duel”












STEVEN SPIELBERG got the bug – that’s the movie bug – just before his 13th birthday. A Boy Scout merit badge in photography was the instigator. Using his dad’s 8mm movie camera, the skinny kid from Phoenix produced a nine-minute western, “The Last Gunfight.”

In the years that followed, he recruited neighborhood buddies and family members to make a handful of homemade movies including a two-and-a-half-hour sci-fi epic, “Firelight,” where aliens terrorize a small town. Spielberg screened it at a local theater and charged moviegoers 75 cents to recoup his $500 budget. Much of Spielberg’s childhood wishes to become a filmmaker are revealed in his personal biographical film “The Fabelmans,” which received seven Academy Award nominations earlier this year.

While attending college in Long Beach, Calif., Spielberg began sneaking onto Universal Studios’ backlot, where he met Sid Sheinberg, president of the television division, who offered the young filmmaker a seven-year contract to direct TV shows. Spielberg cut his teeth on “Night Gallery,” directing the premiere episode with legendary actress Joan Crawford. Next, he worked with veteran actor Robert Young on “Marcus Welby, MD,” afterwards he took a short sabbatical from directing TV shows.


Spielberg directed the first episode of Peter Falk’s “Columbo,” which he treated as a mini-movie. It aired on September 15, 1971 on NBC.




Barely 24 years old, Spielberg returned to Universal with a new attitude realizing TV could be a “kind of training ground and if I did good there, maybe somebody would give me a movie,” he says during the featurette “On the Small Screen.” He directed two episodes of the hour-long “The Psychiatrist” and then got the opportunity to direct the very first episode of Peter Falk’s “Columbo.” With a running time of 76 minutes “Murder by the Book,” “I treated it like a mini-movie, with the psychology of a film director and to make it look like a million bucks.” It had a budget of $130,000 and the teleplay was written by a young Steve Bochco, who later became the 1980s and ‘90s top TV creator for “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.”


PLOT/STORY

While trying to launch his first feature film, Spielberg’s assistant came across a short story, “Duel” penned by Richard Matheson (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “I am Legend,” “Hell House”). She knew it was right up his alley. Spielberg gleefully took on the Hitchcockian tale of a predatory trucker in pursuit of an ordinary driver played by Dennis Weaver (“McCloud,” “Gunsmoke”). “It’s like ‘Psycho’ or ‘The Birds’ only it’s on wheels,” he says in the “Conversation” featurette on the 4K disc.

“Duel” premiered on Nov. 13, 1971, on ABC’s “Movie of the Week.” Originally, Universal wanted “Duel” filmed in 10 days using process shots projected onto a studio background, with Weaver filmed inside a car on a soundstage. Spielberg had already plotted every scene using a bird’s-eye overhead map that wrapped around his entire motel room in Palmdale, Calif. He planned to film about 80 miles north of Universal Studios. He convinced them that, if he could stay on schedule during the first three days, they would greenlight the rest. Using multi-cameras and filming much of the chase sequences on a one-mile stretch of highway, he met the deadline. To double his coverage, he repositioned the cameras on the opposite side of the road for the second pass, providing a fresh background.




The cat-and-mouse game begins





For the opening shot on the 4K disc, Spielberg mounted the camera on the front bumper of the reddish Plymouth Valiant David Mann (Weaver) drives. He pulls out of his suburban driveway and maneuvers through the Los Angeles morning traffic. Then, when he hits the high desert roads, is slowed by an old tanker truck. FLAMMABLE is painted in big letters across the back and smoke billows from the old Peterbilt. Mann accelerates past at his first chance, but, minutes later, the truck soars up to shadow just inches off the Plymouth’s back bumper. A cat-and-mouse game intensifies through the next 80 minutes as the faceless truck driver terrorizes Mann.

The 4K presentation is from the theatrical release shown in Europe 16 months after its ABC broadcast; it required 18 more minutes of footage to hit the minimum movie length. Spielberg shot more footage, including one of the most frightening moments, as Mann waits at a train crossing and the truck starts to push his car toward a freight train. “Duel” opened the European gates for Spielberg, who met legendary Italian director Federico Fellini. He still cherishes the photograph of them together. “I look like I’m as skinny as a rail,” he recalls.

EXTRAS

It’s a good surprise to find the 4K disc also includes the shorter TV version – a first for a physical disc. This is the one I saw live in 1971 with my mother on our upstairs black and white TV, while my dad watched “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” downstairs on the color TV. The 2K master has not been restored and has plenty of imperfections much like the analog over-the-air signal we viewed on network TV during the 1960s and ‘70s. The disc also includes the three carryover featurettes originally taped in 2001: “A Conversation with Steven Spielberg,” “The Small Screen” and “Richard Matheson: Writing of ‘Duel.’”




The road rage continues




VIDEO

Universal doesn’t reveal the source of the 4K master, but it’s clearly from the original 35mm camera negative scanned in 4K. It’s matted in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio with cropping on the top and bottom of the frame compared to the original open matte TV ratio 1.33:1. The framing never seems off-balanced and actually gives it a more cinematic feel.

Onscreen clarity is a major upgrade over the 2K mastered Blu-ray from nearly a decade ago. There is more detail from inside the Mann’s vehicle to improve the reading of a variety of license plates on the truck and transparency in the desolate landscape. Plus, the film grain is more controlled and much more refined without any artifacts, while the 4K content was encoded onto a 100 GB disc. The video bitrate is less than we expected because the 4K disc includes all of the extras. It varies from upper 50 Megabits per second to just over 70 MB and the peak brightness runs 1000 nits and averages 226 nits.

The HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading produces a more neutral color palette, giving the red Valiant a less vibrant appearance, while the old Blu-ray had a strong reddish Push to the car and Weaver’s face. Highlights are more complete, without blown-out areas, while shadows are inky black with full and balanced midtones.

AUDIO

Another surprise – the audio has been upgraded to an eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack expanding the soundstage of the powerful 1955 truck and the Emmy-winning sound editing. Spielberg asked composer Billy Goldenberg to provide a non-traditional score, which is full of abstract and experimental sounds. The finale highlights the groaning, roaring sound of the truck crashing over the cliff. The same sound effects were used at the end of Spielberg’s “Jaws.”

“Duel” put Spielberg on the map and gave audiences a glimpse of his visual smarts for a film he called “‘High Noon’ on Wheels.”

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer





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