A second review requested by Andrew Johnson, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Once upon a time there was a 24-year-old named Steven Spielberg, who wanted to make movies. Not to grow up into one of the most marketable brand-name producers in the history of the medium; not to be personally responsible, along with his friend George, for murdering the concept of serious mass-market adult cinema; not to have his surname turned into an adjective meaning "glistening and manipulative awestruck innocence"; not to make artistic, difficult Motion Pictures like almost everybody else in his age group who went to film school. He wanted to make movies, and had spent much of his childhood and all of his adolescence dedicated to that goal. And he kind of got his chance when he sweet-talked his way into a job at Universal, where they let him direct episodes of TV shows, and fill up his CV with solid work that showed he could play nice with the hack jobs he was given, and eventually Universal decided he was so entirely good at doing this that they would let him direct feature-length made-for-TV movies. Which sounds worse than it was; the 1970s were an era where made-for-TV movies were, if not quite so prestigious as proper movies released in proper theaters, still treated with a level of respect by studios, critics, and audiences far beyond anything that even the most prestigious American television would regular enjoy until into the 2000s.

And that is how in 1971, Spielberg directed the Richard Matheson-scripted Duel, adapted from Matheson's own short story. The rest is history, we could say, noting that Duel was immensely well-received, enough to be given a theatrical release in Europe in a slightly extended version (the American TV cut ran just 73 minutes, the European cut is 90 minutes, and this longer version has entirely supplanted the original) - not unknown in made-for-TV films, though I'm not sure that it happened before 1971, and certainly wasn't obligatory. And while Spielberg had a few more telefilms to clean up his contract before Universal started handing him theatrical features, there was little to no chance that he wouldn't be given that opportunity following this film's success.

But glossing over things like that ignores that Duel is an excellent thriller in its own right, regardless of the career it directly facilitated. Spielberg could have drowned in a terrible shark robot-related accident on the set of Jaws, his second theatrical feature, and Duel would still be film enough to demonstrate his worth as a director, though it would also be unlikely in that case that we'd have such ready access to it as its director's inexhaustible popularity has ensured. But who's to say? Duel isn't just a very good TV movie, it is possibly the greatest of all TV movies - I haven't seen a better one, at least, and I've tried to track down most of the really well-regarded titles. And harping on its TV-ness is belittling it to a degree it doesn't deserve: this is a virtually perfect thriller as a movie qua movies. Spielberg would make films later in his career in which he invested more of himself, but this is among the most flawless pieces of entertainment he ever put his name to.

The scenario is as streamlined as they come: David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a middle-aged southern California business trip, has to make a trip for his job, the details of which are left entirely unexplained. Along the way, he finds himself stuck behind a slow-moving tanker truck, rusted all to hell and back, belching thick black smoke. As one will, he passes it; the driver of that truck almost immediately passes him back, and slows down even more. Thoroughly irritated, David passes it a second time and peels away, and this proves to be much more than the unseen truck driver can deal with, because he spends the rest of the movie stalking David, going from a distressing presence to an actual danger, trying to force David into an accident, and finally turning out to be a full-on horror movie psycho, his his very truck as the weapon to attempt to kill this suburban nobody.

It is, in its entirety, a chase; I can only think to compare it to The Terminator in terms of a film that's nothing but one steady flow of action with no meaningful ellipses. And even The Terminator pauses for a sex scene and a short nap. Duel doesn't take place in real time, but it has no narrative layovers; from the time David pisses off the truck driver until the time he finally succeeds in turning the tables on his unseen adversary, there's not a single point at which the film deviates from its single-minded conflict, although there are points in the early going at which David doesn't realise this is the case.

That's all on Matheson, of course, and it would be entirely possible for all that narrative minimalism and dementedly uninterrupted rising action to find itself caught by a film that didn't know how to capitalise on it. Duel is not that film. It is the work of a director whose facility with the medium genuinely seems innate - reminding myself of just how godalmighty young Spielberg was when he made this movie, it moves from impressive to outright freakish how well he knew exactly where to place the camera and how to stage action in front of it to maximise the tension that could be wrung from its basic scenario. And to be fair, much of what is especially great in Duel could be equally well dropped in the laps of cinematographer Jack A. Marta and editor Frank Morriss. But plenty of the specific things that show up here would be refined into even better shape in later Spielberg films: the editing specifically anticipates Jaws in certain points where the camera needs to move in close to Weaver's face in a hurry, as does a sound effect of a roaring jungle cat to subliminally trigger our savannah ape brains as the big hulking monster of the movie dies. The trick of using the truck driver's cowboy boots to signify his presence, trotted out just a couple of times, becomes a character-defining trick in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

But again, let us not reduce Duel. It is not interesting because it foreshadows the director's later megahits, but because it's so damn good on its own terms. Right from the start, in the extended cut, the film starts hitting us with absolutely perfect images, in this case a fender-mounted camera on the front of David's car, backing out of the garage (in fact, the solitary reason I've never tried to hunt out the TV cut is that I don't want to know what it's like without this opening image. Shabby of me, but there it is). It gives the impression of blackness receding from the camera, a grandiose opening gesture but one that perfectly starts the film off on a footing of unexpected perspective and continuous momentum, especially once the soundtrack kicks in and we hear a constantly changing radio while the road constantly rushes towards us at a freakishly close angle. It's a specific image that's never exactly re-created, though it is echoed, and it's the start to the film's cunning use of wide lenses to exaggerate the closeness of objects and the speed with which they approach the camera - best employed when the truck is tailgating at a deliriously close range, but always an effective way to suggest the California desert rushing by at breakneck speed.

There aren't many scenes that don't involve moving cars, but they're just as well staged: there's a protracted scene in a diner in which almost nothing happens for minutes at a time, as David tries to decide if any of the boot-wearing strangers are his pursuer, and it's amazingly tense, largely as a result of its whiplash contrast between wide and close-up shots (there's a particularly great shot of Weaver standing at the far end of a deep composition over a pool table, visually emphasising his isolation and distrust of the people around him in a most brutalising way). And even in the still moments, cars and the road haunt the frame: Spielberg uses the old trick of showing the beat-up rusty heap of the truck flittering around the sides of the image and in the back of shots through windows and the like, pure horror movie stuff that gives Duel more constant tension than even Jaws would ever come close to.

It is, to be clear, all deeply lowbrow stuff: one of the most strictly genre-bound films in Spielberg's entire career. But it's lowbrow stuff made with the utmost sophistication of craft. It's lovely that Duel put the director in a place to start the rest of his career, but frankly, in the four decades and change that have followed, he's only improved on it a handful of times.