Steven Spielberg can never be accused of lacking versatility. In the course of directing 56 films (and producing three times that number), he has explored virtually every genre. He’s made classic family movies (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial), action-adventure thrillers (Raiders of the Lost Ark), blood-and-guts war stories (Saving Private Ryan), and thought-provoking science fiction flicks (AI Artificial Intelligence). Over a fifty-year career, he’s tried his hand at serious historical drama (Amistad, Lincoln) and off-beat whimsy (The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can). He’s been gutsy enough to tackle the intimate story of a black woman (The Color Purple), and ambitious enough to take on the Holocaust in Schindler’s List. This latter film, of course, has had global repercussions and has led to Spielberg’s establishment of the highly respected Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, through which the personal stories of Hitler’s victims are being carefully preserved.
No question that Steven Spielberg has a strong sense of social responsibility. In some ways he comes across as a grown-up Boy Scout. Still, like some Boy Scouts I know, he enjoys scary tales told around a campfire in the dark. Remember when Jaws persuaded all of us to avoid the ocean? Yes, some Hollywood wag labeled this 1975 Spielberg fright-fest a Roger Corman film on a big budget, but it certainly did the trick, scaring the pants off of us while creating the whole idea of a summer blockbuster. And Spielberg’s genius for crowd-pleasing by way of crowd-scaring was certainly on display in 1993, when dinosaurs ran amok in Jurassic Park. This fascination with the scary – and even the demonic – shows up in 1982’s Poltergeist, which Spielberg co-wrote and produced but didn’t direct. (Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, did the honors, in the same year that Spielberg himself helmed E.T..) Poltergeist, in which sinister forces appear via a family’s TV screen, clearly reflects Spielberg’s own childhood obsession with his own parents’ new television set.
So it makes perfect sense that Spielberg’s big Hollywood breakthrough came by way of television. It all began with a short story by Richard Matheson, who (in the course of a long career) wrote screenplays for such Roger Corman classics as House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. Matheson was reportedly moved to write this story, which first appeared in Playboy, after he was tailgated by a trucker on what turned out to be the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. Matheson himself adapted “Duel” for the screen, and the result was a 1971 TV movie (later released as a feature film) that jumpstarted Spielberg’s career.
Steven Spielberg (somewhat alone among the great directors of his generation) never worked for Roger Corman. Still, Duel can be considered Cormanesque. It was made on a very low budget, along the highways and back roads of Southern California. Plot and characterization are subordinate to the fast-paced action on the screen; dialogue barely exists. At base, this is the story of a middle-aged middle-class Angeleno (Dennis Weaver) who’s driving his bright red Plymouth Valiant to some sort of appointment in the hinterlands. Suddenly he’s being threatened at every turn by a monstrously lethal Peterbilt 281 tanker truck. Its driver is barely visible, but the rusted-out truck (which takes on demonic characteristics as the film advances) clearly seems out to get him, and damn the consequences! The filmmaking is bravura, and Duel ended up turning Spielberg into the next big thing, allowing him to dream up bigger and costlier scares as his career advanced.
Who knows what scary critters will be next on his agenda?