Steven Spielberg DuelIn September 1973, 26-year-old Steven Spielberg attended a press conference in Rome to promote his made-for-TV chase thriller, Duel (1971), which had been released theatrically in Europe with around fifteen minutes of additional footage. When he refused to entertain Italian journalists’ notions of a subtext about American class struggle, a few of them stormed out of the conference. At the time, “Spielberg said he intended his film as an ‘indictment of machines’ and a fight for survival between man and machine-made danger.”1 “But Spielberg’s provincial American rejection of a European political analysis was a knee-jerk response,” argues Frederick Wasser in Steven Spielberg’s America, “not the finished position of a mature artist” and, by the late 1970s, he was “fully capable of his own bitter class-oriented interpretation of Duel.”2 For Spielberg, the character of David Mann (as played by Dennis Weaver), who is the target of the trucker’s unmotivated road rage in the film, was “typical of that lower middle-class American who’s insulated by suburban modernisation,” a man “that never expects to be challenged by anything more than his television set breaking down and having to call the repair man,”3 which suggests how the film may be read as an indictment of suburban values. The film has also been seen as an exercise in paranoia, a study of masculinity in crisis, an updating of the Western duel on wheels, the mythic struggle of David and Goliath, and even as a parable of repressed homosexuality (!). Indeed, part of the richness of Duel is how it accommodates a wide range of meanings and interpretations, and even the more mature Spielberg has shown his willingness to embrace multivalency in his films. Reflecting on the experience of the press conference, Spielberg said: “It taught me to think a little more in the abstract […] It really instructed me not to just look at something and say, ‘Okay, everybody is bound to see this picture the way I see this picture. We’re going to see the same colors, the same sky and horizon. We’re going to interpret this exactly alike.’ I learned very early on that nobody ever sees the same picture the same way. It’s impossible.” (p. 188) As quoted by Steven Awalt in Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career, one wishes that the touted Spielberg authority would also heed the lessons learned by the director.

Making-of books have become a crass and ubiquitous part of the advertising and revenue of Hollywood blockbusters. Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log (1975) is something of a classic, however, and chronicles the making of the famously troubled production, and greatly benefits from an insider’s perspective with knowledge of the movie business (Gottlieb was both co-screenwriter and bit actor in the film). The book has sold over two million copies. But such “official” accounts rarely qualify as serious, that is, critical works of film history, and several of Spielberg’s key films have been awaiting the full treatment. Concurrent with a renewed interest in the director in recent years, we have been treated to J.W. Rinzler’s The Complete Making of Indiana Jones (2007) and Matt Taylor’s Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard (2011): handsomely produced, coffee table-style books overstuffed with recollections, interviews and behind-the-scenes photography, a must for both fans and scholars; while Richard Schickel’s Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective (2012) is a glossy, if somewhat superficial, tribute to Spielberg’s artistry. Carefully researched, meticulously detailed and suitably critical is Ray Morton’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic Film (2007). Awalt seems to have taken his lead from this book. But whereas Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was made by a recently-established film artist, Duel was made by an artist seeking to establish himself. Thus, Awalt seeks to tell “the story of how Steven Spielberg and his talented cast and crew tamed the beast known as Duel, and how the film launched a motion picture legend’s career.” (p. 13) As an expression of gratitude to the film, Spielberg inserted the primeval roar from the truck’s slow, elegiac demise over the cliff into the soundtrack of the dying shark in Jaws (1975). One feels Awalt’s boyish enthusiasm for Duel and its young and “driven” director on the cusp of greatness.

Awalt gives important context to Spielberg’s career up until that time as a television director for Universal. Spielberg landed a seven-year-year contract with the studio after vice-president Sidney J. Sheinberg saw his award-winning short, Amblin’ (1968). Spielberg’s first directorial assignments included his memorable segment “Eyes” for the pilot episode of Rod Serling’s portmanteau series Night Gallery, where he directed the aging Joan Crawford. Subsequent credits included an episode of Marcus Welby M.D.; his curious, sci-fi long-form episode “LA 2017” for The Name of the Game series with Gene Barry (Spielberg would later give Barry a cameo in his 2005 remake of War of the Worlds); work on The Psychiatrist; and the stylishly-directed “Murder by the Book” episode of Columbo that launched the series proper. Spielberg often did not like the scripts he was assigned to direct and he looked for ways to put his own stamp on the material. But most of all he was looking for material that would get him noticed in Hollywood. It was Spielberg’s secretary at the time, Nona Tyson, who brought Richard Matheson’s recently-published short story “Duel” in Playboy to the attention of the filmmaker. Tyson tracked the option for the story to a teleplay written by Matheson, to be produced by ABC in collaboration with Universal. Spielberg then made contact with Duel producer George Eckstein, who was already familiar with the director’s work. But it was not until he showed Eckstein a rough cut of his Columbo episode that he hired him to direct Duel, which (unlike “LA 2017”) would be a stand-alone TV movie. Universal/ABC approved a budget of $750,000 with 14 days of location work (Spielberg would fall three days behind schedule), followed by six weeks of post-production, to be ready for the ABC Movie of the Weekend program on November 13, 1971. An older and wiser Spielberg would reflect that he could never again complete such a technically complex film on so tight a budget and schedule.

Steven Spielberg Duel

Chuck’s Cafe, Duel (Spielberg 1971)

While Awalt is full of interesting facts and trivia on the genesis, background and pre-production of the film, it is the principal photography that forms the core of the book. Spielberg initially had to appease unit manager Wallace Worsley to shoot plate photography, for a mock-up car on a soundstage, in case he ran over schedule. But when Worsley saw the dailies, he did an about-face: “We’re never going to shoot process. It will ruin the picture.” (p. 96) Spielberg’s insistence here on realism over studio-controlled artifice would later mirror his decision to shoot nearly all of Jaws at sea instead of a studio tank. Awalt details the operations of the tight-knit, modestly-sized production crew, including the staging of stunts. Special kudos must be given to veteran photographer Jack A. Marta, who helped “Spielberg capture the highly visual look he was after for Duel” (p. 91); while the so-called Bullitt car, a special rig developed by Pat Eustis for the 1968 Peter Yates/Steve McQueen thriller, allowed Spielberg to capture his most dynamic, exciting footage. Apropos the early travelling Bullitt-car shot of Mann’s 1971 Plymouth Valiant and the 1955 Peterbilt truck Awalt raves: “It’s a bravura shot, moving us away from Mann and our identification with him, revealing the truck’s size and menace in a single, dynamic image.” (p. 101) Later, Awalt devotes a sidebar to the challenges of accomplishing “Mann’s one-shot entrance into Chuck’s Cafe” after his ordeal with the tanker, lasting “two minutes and 45 seconds” (p. 118), using handheld camera (Steadicam was a few years off). For Awalt, this is “a standout bit in a film already filled with inventive imagery and choreography.” (p. 119) Awalt clearly revels in exposition of film technique: camera angle, framing and miseenscène, shot duration, choice of lenses, point of view, camera movement, editing and rhythm. In so doing, he illuminates the techniques employed by Spielberg to engage and entertain, to produce a visceral response in the audience. That said, his running commentary of the characters and action feels disappointingly concrete, literal.

In fact, Awalt comes across as downright leery of interpretation and especially of academics. Most notably, he reserves his criticism (one should say “attack”) for psychoanalytic critic Andrew M. Gordon, author of Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg (2008). Here, Awalt takes Gordon to task for his “woeful misreading” (p. 106) of the radio program that Mann listens to while driving to his destination. As Gordon reads it, a put-upon househusband calls into the station about whether he should check the circle “head of the family” on a government census form, given that the wife he has been married to for “the last twenty-five years” has usurped his position. Gordon interprets this as one man’s “misogynistic tirade against his feared and hated wife,”4 which he then links to Mann’s estranged relationship with his own wife. According to Awalt, Gordon “misses the point” that this not an actual househusband calling in to complain about his wife but a made-up character on a real-life radio comedy sketch with radio DJ Sweet Dick Whittington. Make no mistake: I am grateful to Awalt for this piece of context but it was not immediately obvious to me whether this was a sketch or not. And it has not been obvious to a number of other Spielberg scholars either. Later, when Mann stops by at the gas station, the attendant informs him that he needs a new radiator hose. Mann: “I’ll get one later.” “You’re the boss,” says the attendant, prompting this “loaded response” (p. 103): “Not in my house I’m not.” (That the response does not appear in the original teleplay or its revisions begs the question: who came up with it, Spielberg, Weaver? Awalt doesn’t inquire). Thus, misogynist crackpot caller or made-up character, it hardly seems to matter. But knowing the full context of the program, we can better appreciate how the sketch might function as a commentary (laugh track?) on Mann’s “tragic-comic” married life. Indeed, we could also see the sketch as an extension of Mann’s interior monologue in the film, symptomatic of his paranoia. The expanded version shows Mann phoning his wife from a payphone inside a laundromat, attempting to make peace with her over an incident that occurred at a party the night before. His wife belittles him for failing to stand up to a certain Steve Henderson who “was practically trying to rape me in front of the whole party.” We – and Mann – instantly recognise this as hyperbole, but the effect of her statement is a blow to his masculinity (i.e. his “Mannhood”).5 For Awalt, however, “Gordon soon drives to untenable extremes any interesting, if admittedly slight, allegory about male emasculation Matheson and Spielberg may have established, presuming Mann is fuelled by an abject hatred of females.” (p. 106)

Steven Spielberg Duel

The laundromat, Duel (Spielberg 1971)

While non-Freudians may struggle with the notion that the character of David Mann is motivated by latent misogyny and psychological transference, whereby the truck stands in for the hated wife, it could be argued that the film has misogynistic undercurrents. Even acclaimed Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride (whom Awalt cites throughout) suggests that Spielberg’s most formative films may reveal a “streak of misogyny” in the youthful filmmaker, particularly seen in his ambivalent portrayals of wives/mothers, namely, Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) in his cinematic debut The Sugarland Express (1974) and the nagging Ronnie (Terri Garr) of Close Encounters.6 I’d add the hysterical, needy mother/hausfrau of Spielberg’s next TV film, Something Evil (1972), seemingly untouched by second-wave feminism.7 As for the nameless mother/hausfrau seen briefly in Duel, Nigel Morris notes how “Mann [in the Laundromat/phone call scene] is literally viewed through a female lens, this film repeatedly associating women, at the height of second-wave feminism, with household labour. His wife, her side of the conversation intercut, dusts the living room in a polka-dot frock and apron that parody 1950s commercials, with two children playing on the floor.”8 Actually, Spielberg wasn’t thrilled about the inclusion of the scene, which was devised by Eckstein and directed by Spielberg. For Spielberg, it smacked of overkill – and he’s right. For McBride, one of the major flaws of the film is that “David Mann’s emasculation is laid out verbally in such a heavy-handed fashion, through voiceovers and other dramatic devices. There is no need to refer to his home life, since the theme is implicit in the action.”9 We know that Matheson’s story and teleplay spoke to Spielberg: he instantly recognised in the material the makings of an exciting, suspenseful thriller. But Awalt recounts how it was the “senseless targeting of Mann that really hit home with Spielberg, himself victimized by bullies as a young boy for his less-than-athletic looks and, worse, for his Jewish heritage” (p. 50), an idea he endorses because Spielberg has said it was so. Yet is it not possible that Mann’s ambivalent feelings towards his wife (as spelled out in the expanded version) touched an unconscious nerve with the director? Writers, directors and producers cannot hide their true values and beliefs. Even if these values are unconscious, unexamined, unintended, the texture of language, character and story will reveal them. While this reading may not be textually supported to Awalt’s satisfaction, the additions to the teleplay are suggestive.

Steven Spielberg Duel

Mann’s wife, Duel (Spielberg 1971)

Awalt later goes after Gordon for his queer reading of David Mann. I am with Awalt here: “it takes a student of Freud to draw a direct correlation between paranoia and homosexuality without real evidence of any homosexual urges or even homophobia.” (p. 120) But still one gets the sense that Gordon has been misrepresented by Awalt for his own purposes. To be fair, Gordon only suggests this reading as a possibility, noting how this psychoanalytic linking of homosexuality and paranoia is “by no means universally accepted” and how the scene in Chuck’s Cafe, “when Mann nervously sidles up to a trucker […] could be read as either confrontation or come-on.”10 No, I do not place stock in this reading, but neither, I think, does Gordon! As much as one would like Gordon to take a stronger editorial stand, he is simply submitting this idea for our consideration. Gordon himself immediately modifies his own reading when he suggests that Mann’s problems stem from an overbearing wife.11 All told, it is a pity that Awalt gives so much space to debunking Gordon, especially since he overlooks important contemporary scholarship on the film: for example, worthwhile readings by Lester D. Friedman, Nigel Morris and Frederick Wasser. Despite some of the excesses of his psychoanalytic exegesis, Gordon basically highlights the multivalent nature of the film text and the truck in particular: “All this possible symbolism [note the use of the subjunctive mood again – AS] is not contradictory but mutually reinforcing; it enriches the symbolic suggestiveness of the evil truck through layers of overdetermined meaning.”12 Like the shark in Jaws, the monster truck may be seen as an overdetermined signifier, suggesting how the film can accommodate different interpretations through different theoretical frames. Awalt describes the truck, colourfully, as “a dirty rust brown, monstrous in size and appearance, looking like a tetanus carrier on wheels.” (p. 101) And as the antagonist of the film, standing in for the trucker, the director went to great lengths to anthropomorphise the truck, which he saw “as an extension of a kind of evil, bullying force” (p. 51), apropos his own being-bullied experiences. Despite this, Awalt sees the truck as little more than an object of menace: a threat to be overcome. This way of reading feels reductive: a truck is a truck is a truck.13

Steven Spielberg Duel

The truck, Duel (Spielberg 1971)

Not unlike the character of David Mann before he’s challenged to the duel, Awalt plays it safe in the road to interpretation. This yields some commonplace, even trite, observations, where he reaches too easily for the cliché. For instance: “David Mann is a man trapped: by the intrusive world around him, in a potentially loveless marriage, and in the pressure and responsibilities of a man just trying to make an honest living to care for those he is responsible for. Worse, he’ll soon have another random adversary breathing heavily down his neck, one that’ll make all of his other pressures seem like child’s play.” (p. 105) If I understand Awalt correctly here, he is drawing a conceptual link between the truck as an adversary and Mann’s adversarial home life and wife. Or: “Back from the second commercial break, we find Mann is still in one piece, if worse for the wear.” (p. 115) And again: “Mann is, as he’s been this entire journey, on his own, and he won’t be able to rely on anyone else to settle the score the trucker has set for him.” (p. 135) Occasionally, when Awalt does venture into the unmapped realm of interpretation, it can come across as a little too abstract. Commenting on the climax where the truck and car plummet over the cliff in slow-mo and Mann barely makes it out alive: “There are moments of visual poetry not present in Matheson’s short story or teleplay, given they both end in a conflagration and not a eulogy for the destroyed metal combatants, and up above, perhaps even a bit of Mann’s soul itself has died.” (p. 142)

If Awalt doesn’t assign much credence to these “class consciousness” and “masculinity in crisis” readings with regards to the film, then he perceives how representations of class intersect with representations of masculinity in Matheson’s short story: 

This earthy, fleshy, masculine description of just one piece of the driver’s person [i.e. his hand] contrasts sharply with the white-collar description of Mann driving along with his suit coat and tie removed as the California sun beats down on his left arm and pants. While Mann is a creature of the city, the office, and the boardroom, the driver is tanned, well-muscled, and blocky. Matheson casually, but with great specificity, paints such details throughout to set up the dichotomy between a man too soft and a man presumably tough as gristle. (23)

One wishes that Awalt would explore how Spielberg also paints, implies, such details through images rather than words i.e. through the medium of film: pen pusher Mann (in shirt and tie) and rugged truckie (glimpsed only in body parts: cowboy boots, blue jeans). Call me an over-reader, but I find it significant that the travelling businessman defeats the truck/trucker by lodging his brief case (inscribed “David Mann”) between the seat and accelerator, before bailing out of the car at the last moment. On the one hand, Awalt is ready and willing to admit that “One of the great subtexts of the [short story] ‘Duel’ is how the salt-of-the-earth, proletarian trucker pushes the soft, bourgeois Mann into a primal, stereotypically masculine state.” (p. 26) On the other, he seems intent on closing off such a subtext with the film: “While one can make the argument […] that Richard Matheson’s original short story includes plenty of evidence that the story holds a subtextual sense of classism through the character of Mann, Spielberg’s film largely strips away all of the dialogue and symbols that Matheson (unintentionally, he insists) included in his story” (p. 188). Yet I find it telling that Italian journalists apprehended a Marxist subtext – surely not all of them had read Matheson’s short story?

Steven Spielberg Duel

David Mann (Dennis Weaver), Duel (Spielberg 1971)

Are we to understand, then, that Awalt sees the film text as straightforward, transparent, and not amenable to this sort of figurative analysis (i.e. what you see is what you get)? At times, one feels he assigns too much importance to what Matheson or Spielberg intended with the making of the film. At one point, he quotes the director: “What I was really striving for was a statement about American paranoia. Duel was an exercise in paranoia.” (p. 188) It might have been worth Awalt’s while to quote Spielberg in full here where he acknowledges how he kept other symbolic possibilities in the back of his mind: “All the symbols others read into Duel, I had encountered or anticipated along the way. But in shooting from scene to scene they were not my primary concern.”14 Awalt could have equally given weight to how Spielberg has framed his film as the duel between man and technology. But this is beside the point. While, contra the intentional fallacy, I am not about to posit that intention is irrelevant, surely we can reconcile intentionalism with more pluralistic, post-structuralist accounts of meaning and interpretation, which, following Spielberg’s open-minded attitude, means thinking more in the abstract, without sacrificing reason and argument and, yes, commonsense? But I may be misrepresenting Awalt. His seeming mistrust of interpretation may simply be because he regards Duel as an exercise in action and suspense, and thus a showcase for bravura technique i.e., style over content. And this is where he is on surer ground.

When Alfred Hitchcock saw Jaws, he is reputed to have said something like, “Young Spielberg is the first one us who doesn’t see the proscenium arch,”15 by which he meant that he experienced his world outside the limits of the stage and through his camera lens. Whether Hitchcock actually said this or not, it resonates with his theory of “pure cinema,” based on the judicious assembly of bits of film to create ideas, emotions or excitement, with a minimum of dialogue and exposition. Hitchcock told François Truffaut that “the silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,”16 before sound made moving pictures static again, and it is telling that Spielberg envisioned Duel as “more of a silent movie.” (p. 54) Whereas many at Universal thought the premise of the story wouldn’t fill the 90-minute television slot, Spielberg and Eckstein immediately saw its filmic possibilities, and set about keeping Mann’s internal monologue or thoughts to a minimum. In addressing the Hitchcock connection, Awalt describes how “Spielberg went to work with his art director, Robert Smith, translating the script into storyboards for specific scenes […] and creating a visual production device that would make a meticulous planner like Alfred Hitchcock nod in deep appreciation.” (p. 61) Spielberg marked off Mann’s route on an overhead map after each day of shooting, and used handwritten notes on IBM cards posted on a bulletin board. On the subject of technique, Awalt sheds light on the different motivations of Spielberg and Hitchcock in deploying jump cuts (p. 133). As well, he devotes a sidebar to the influence of Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann on Billy Goldenberg’s often unconventional score for Duel (pp. 156-8). But in terms of Spielberg’s overall approach, Awalt might have mentioned how, on reading Matheson’s short story, Spielberg saw Duel “as like a Hitchcock movie. It’s like Psycho [1960] or The Birds [1963] only it’s on wheels.”17 Or how he deployed the Master’s methods to draw out the suspense, and to refrain from answering key questions in the film, a la The Birds. Ironically, Awalt’s “patsy” Gordon has some good things to say about the Hitchcock parallels: “Although it is not a slavish imitation of any particular Hitchcock film, the elements are recognizable: The hero is an ordinary man who is suddenly plunged into trouble by mere happenstance. Chaos and violence erupt, totally disrupting his complacent routine. Macabre and bizarre events take place in broad daylight. The hero’s life is in danger, he is chased by a malevolent force, and the climax is a plunge over a cliff.”18

Steven Spielberg Duel

Alfred Hitchcock and pure cinema

Awalt does a good job of assessing the significance of the film to Spielberg’s career. On its premiere, Duel was met with widespread acclaim, with TV critic Cecil Smith proclaiming it “a classic of pure cinema” (p. 165), and it quickly earned a reputation as one of the best television movies ever made. When it was released theatrically abroad, UK critic Dilys Powell helped to champion the film, and it also impressed critics in France and Italy, where it won accolades at film festivals. In short, the film put Spielberg on the Hollywood list of hopefuls, leading to multiple offers to direct his first theatrical feature. Yet when Duel was re-released in April 1983, after E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) had broken box office records and Spielberg was a force to be reckoned with, the film did not set the box-office alight, and it was prematurely withdrawn from release. Awalt’s assessment thus seems about right: “Four decades on, Duel is, contradictory as it may sound, both an acknowledged classic and perhaps a somewhat forgotten work waiting for rediscovery by young generations” familiar only with his more contemporary work (pp. 205-6). Awalt’s book will no doubt aid in its rediscovery and re-examination. And as film history, this book contains a wealth of material: new interviews with the great director himself, as well as key collaborators no longer with us, including Matheson, Eckstein and editor Frank Morriss; the reproduction of storyboards for the climactic sequence of the film; and Matheson’s highly descriptive teleplay, a tour de force of dramatic construction and a boon for both fans and scholars.

Steven Spielberg and Duel, then, is an important document of a career-making film in the famed filmmaker’s canon. To be clear, I have no quarrel with Awalt’s account of the genesis, different phases of production, reception and legacy of the film; or his analysis of Spielberg’s effects and techniques. Here, he amply demonstrates his credentials as an authority on the director’s career. It is when he gestures towards meaning, interpretation, that his “take” on the film can seem unsubtle and superficial, thus intellectually unsatisfying. While I am sympathetic to a more level-headed criticism grounded in textual support, rather than the free-for-all criticism (mea culpa, I fear!) that threatens to corrupt the Academy, I would call on Awalt to take some intellectual risks, be more courageous in making meaning of the film, and not let his adulation for his subject limit his analysis. All in all, this is a brisk, enjoyable read, and Awalt is such a passionate and down-to-earth Spielberg scholar that I look forward to reading his history of Spielberg’s next, but very different road movie, The Sugarland Express.

Steven Awalt, Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).



  1. “Spielberg Ducks Politics,” Variety, September 12, 1973, p. 32.
  2. Frederick Wasser, Steven Spielberg’s America (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), pp. 52-3.
  3. Tony Crawley, The Steven Spielberg Story (London: Zomba Books, 1983), pp. 25-26.
  4. Andrew M. Gordon, Empire of Dreams: The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), p. 22.
  5. The school bus scene, another significant addition to the expanded version, is devastating to Mann’s masculinity, which arguably weakens our identification with the character. While Spielberg approves of the scene, Awalt is hesitant about “Mann’s panicked escape {which} calls his manliness into question, as he ultimately abandons a pack of defenceless children {to the truck}” (p. 178). Here, I was half-hoping that Awalt would probe into the nature of Mann’s “traumatised” masculinity. Spielberg felt strongly about what Weaver could bring to the role, and remembered him as the jittery, craven nightwatchman from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).
  6. Joseph McBride, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, 3rd ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), p. 219, p. 283. McBride also notes how the “streak of misogyny is an attitude in Jaws shared with other American films made during the period when the women’s liberation movement was threatening traditional male prerogatives.” Ibid., p. 247.
  7. Following other critics, Awalt is dismissive of Something Evil: “The telefilm … is hardly Spielberg’s finest work in television, but it’s an interesting curio nonetheless” (p. 190). Yet he admits that it “does portend one of Spielberg’s major set of themes that has followed him throughout his career {or should we say that Spielberg has followed these themes? – AS}: strong mothers, ineffectual fathers, and how they relate to and protect their children from larger-than-life forces that enter a family’s life.” (pp. 190-191) Indeed, it could be argued that the TV film portends the “suburban trilogy” – Close Encounters, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist (both 1982) – so-called by Gordon because of their linked subject matter, emotional tone, technique and underlying psychological concerns. Something Evil seems like a dress rehearsal for Poltergeist. While, in retrospect, Something Evil may not be a particularly good film, surely it deserves greater attention in the Spielberg canon? Even Spielberg admitted that it was a film he wanted to direct, unlike his next film for television, Savage (1973), which he undertook as a favour to Sid Sheinberg. In Awalt’s diplomatic assessment: “The film is perhaps Spielberg’s most pedestrian job out of all of his long-form television projects, but it’s ultimately a competently directed telefilm.” (p. 193)
  8. Nigel Morris, The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light (London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2007), p. 24.
  9. McBride, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, p. 203.
  10. Gordon, Empire of Dreams, p. 21, my italics.
  11. Ibid., pp. 21-25.
  12. Ibid., p. 26.
  13. I am of course hijacking Gertrude Stein’s injunction against interpretation: “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
  14. Philip M. Taylor, Steven Spielberg: The Man, His Movies, and Their Meaning (New York: Continuum, 1992), p. 78, my italics.
  15. Pauline Kael is the source of this quote, although she refrains from mentioning the director by name, making its attribution to Hitchcock questionable: “While having a drink with an older Hollywood director, I said that I’d been amazed by the assurance with which Steven Spielberg, the young director of Jaws, had toyed with the film frame. The older director said, ‘He must never have seen a play; he’s the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch. With him, there’s nothing but the camera lens.’” Pauline Kael, The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, ed. Sanford Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2011), p. 533. For the record, Hitchcock critic/historian Bill Krohn (personal communication) is highly sceptical that Hitchcock made this comment.
  16. François Truffaut with Helen G. Scott, Hitchcock, rev. ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Book, 1985), p. 61.
  17. A Conversation with Steven Spielberg, written, directed and produced by Laurent Bouzereau (Los Angeles County, CA: Universal Studios Home Video, 2001), Blu-ray.
  18. Gordon, Empire of Dreams, p. 15. Specifically, Mann’s attack by the truck and trailer recalls Roger Thornhill’s out-of-the-blue attack by a crop-duster plane in North by Northwest (1959); while Mann’s assault by the truck inside the phone booth, which also smashes into cages and pens unleashing spiders and snakes, vaguely recalls Melanie Daniels’ avian phone booth assault in The Birds. Just before, Mann remarks to himself, “Weird place for a telephone booth,” recalling the remark from the man waiting with Thornhill at the road crossing: “That’s funny, that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.”

About The Author

Adrian Schober is a Melbourne-based film writer and scholar with a PhD in English from Monash University, Australia. He is the author of Possessed Child Narratives in Literature and Film (Palgrave, 2004) and a Devil's Advocates monograph on The Omen forthcoming by Auteur/Liverpool University Press. He is also the co-editor (with Debbie Olson) of Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018) and Children, Youth, and International Television (Routledge, 2021). He is currently engaged in a research project on Steven Spielberg and Romanticism through the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Contemporary Culture Research Unit at the University of Melbourne.

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