In the first ten years of an extraordinary career that has lasted more than four decades, director Steven Spielberg often tapped into the audience’s fear of the unknown.
That theme is played out in Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It also dominates two movies that screened on Halloween in 2015 at the Detroit Film Theatre (Duel, 1971) and the Redford Theatre (E.T., 1982).
Before Spielberg started making theatrical films, he developed his craft with television work, including episodes of Night Gallery, which was supervised by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling.
So suspense was a genre that first appealed to Spielberg, and where he felt comfortable starting his professional career.
Duel at the DFT
Duel made a strong impression when it debuted on the ABC Movie of the Weekend on Saturday, November 13, 1971 at 8:30 p.m. eastern time. It competed against such shows as the long-running Mary Tyler Moore Show on CBS and the very short-running The Good Life (starring Larry Hagman) on NBC.
In that day’s edition of The Sun-Telegram of San Bernardino, California, Sun-Telegram Television Writer Tom Green commented on Duel:
It is a 90-minute exercise in terror and it succeeds as unremitting suspense by keeping its story on an unswervingly simple course. It is strictly vulnerable man against awesome enemy and it never loses sight of that fundamental conflict.
The result? It is the best 90 minutes of suspense yet brought to television.
Spielberg skillfully used this story of a trucker terrorizing a car driver to create a large metaphor for those times in life when you feel like you are losing control of everything.
The everyday concerns of the life and times of lead character Dennis Weaver are sketched out before an extended act of road rage consumes him.
As Weaver drives through the mountainous canyons of southern California, he listens to a man on the radio talk about the identity challenges of being a stay-at-home father. Later, Weaver calls his wife to apologize for something from the previous day, and also tells her about the pressure he feels to keep a business account.
Much of the rest of Duel shows Weaver gradually letting go of the normal constraints in his life as he tries to stop the terrorizing truck driver.
As this played out, I thought that the anonymous trucker might have moved to an even more extreme level of frustration with life than Weaver and had decided to take it out on Weaver that day. I also felt a little frustrated with Weaver, who could have easily disengaged from the road rage of the trucker by not tail-gating at certain times in the movie.
The DFT showed a wide-screen theatrical print of the movie that had a 1972 copyright. Before the movie, DFT film curator Elliot Wilhelm talked about Duel.
“[Steven Spielberg had] been working in television in the late 1960s for Universal Studios. He’d done some work for them. I think he did a Night Gallery, I think it was a Night Gallery with Joan Crawford, if I’m not mistaken. Universal was impressed by how he had actually handled Joan Crawford, at the age of 22, at Halloween [crowd laughter]. They decided to give him bigger jobs and one of the things that they gave the green light to was a project that you’re going to see right now.
“It was a very low budget, but high energy film. It was Steven’s thought that he wanted to show, first of all to people around the world who were watching, what he could do with pieces of film on a very, very low budget and the kind of scenes that he could create. We know about the career that followed, forty years later, and that at Universal, he made Jaws, and the people at Universal were very, very glad that they had him under contract at that point.
“But Duel was shown on ABC in the United States as a television program with some minor cuts in it. It was successful, but Universal showed it to distributors in Europe and they, almost to a person, wanted the picture in theaters. They thought it was a big screen experience. So, if you spent a lot of time in Italy or France or the U.K. in the early 70s, maybe you saw Duel in a theater.
“Other than that, it was only in the 1980s, the early 1980s when Spielberg had achieved great success here, that it had a very limited release in theaters. But you are going to get to see it, the restored version, exactly as Spielberg ultimately wanted it to be seen.”
While watching Duel, I looked for early signs of the film techniques that Spielberg continued to exercise dramatically in later movies:
- Carefully crafted camera movements that combined both pans and zooms to give more focus to dramatic moments.
- Sudden bursts of action that combined loud noises and powerful images.
- Skillfully composed and edited outdoor scenes that included motion by multiple vehicles.
E.T. at the Redford
After Duel, Spielberg moved on to direct some of the most highly acclaimed popular movies of the 1970s and early 1980s, including Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
When E.T. was released on June 11, 1982, audiences wondered what kind of creativeness would next come from Spielberg, who was still in his mid-30s. The answer was a film that was more personal and had a little more heart and humanity than any of Spielberg’s previous blockbusters.
At the Redford, organist Dave Calendine warmed up the crowd with energetic selections from the film music of John Williams, who composed the music for E.T.
Soon, the lights were down, the screen curtains open, and we were once again witnesses to the earthly journey of this odd-looking creature who wasn’t able to get back to his spaceship in time.
As E.T. moved along, I looked at the different ways that a “Spielberg movie” had changed in the 11 years since Duel.
There were more special effects, especially in the opening scene when E.T. is left behind. There was a more heightened feeling of place, thanks in great part to advancements in camera depth and sound engineering.
Spielberg’s working relationship with composer John Williams had continued to grow since they had started working together on The Sugarland Express in 1974. Different versions of the main musical theme of E.T. are seamlessly integrated into the plot of the movie. It’s hard to imagine the propulsive effect of E.T.‘s final scenes without Williams’ music.
Both E.T. and Duel showed how adults reacted to disruptions in their lives by both predictable events, like marital and job pressures, and by unpredictable events, like terrorizing truck drivers and aliens from other planets.
Dennis Weaver of Duel and Dee Wallace of E.T. were often pictures of frustration. But Spielberg did an excellent job of showing how they made adjustments to stressful situations, which helped to give a human touch to both movies. These reactions helped them both take care of their families and keep their sanity.
E.T. was the first film where Spielberg was both a director and producer, and his control of many aspects of the filmmaking contributed to the movie’s tightness and drive. E.T. was the most popular movie of 1982 and went on to supplant Star Wars as the most financially successful movie of all time.
Other Thoughts On E.T.
Interestingly, two of my favorite film writers were not impressed with E.T.
David Shipman wrote in The Story of Cinema (1982):
It is about the friendship of a young boy with a creature left here from another planet, and you have to believe, to start with, that small boys are not afraid of squidgey monsters. The relationship between them is not developed, beyond a manipulative sequence where the boy at school ‘feels’ what E.T. is doing at home.
In Halliwell’s Harvest (1986), Leslie Halliwell wrote:
I hate to be carping, I truly do, about a film which so many seem to have watched with wonder and satisfaction, especially one which sets itself so firmly on the side of benevolence and trust and family feeling and the hope of glory. But honestly, these things were more enjoyable and emotionally diffused many years ago in movies like The Blue Bird and Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz. To wallow in E.T., perhaps, you have to be young enough not to have seen any of them.
As someone who is more than 30 years older than I was when I first saw E.T., I can relate to the comments by Shipman and Halliwell, who were both about 50 years old when E.T. was released. But I have my own kind of middle-aged perspective and nostalgia.
I still enjoy E.T., but I have little interest in the recent stream of super hero movies like Spiderman or Guardians of the Galaxy. These newer movies might have more advanced special effects than E.T., but they have nothing like its magic and heart.
From Duel to E.T., Spielberg explored many possibilities of the “roller coaster movie,” with its special effects-driven ups and downs of dynamic action. A few years after E.T., Spielberg started working on more serious projects.
These movies included The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987). You can see these movies, as well as other later Spielberg films like Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, at the Michigan Theater as part of its Steven Spielberg: Man & Monsters series that runs until November 28.
Copyright © 2015 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.