At 21, college dropout Steven Spielberg talked his way into a seven-year contract with Universal Studios, which gave him free choice of a limited pool of projects slated for television. On the DVD for the 1971 TV movie Duel, Spielberg says he wasn't too happy with his lot at first, but he "didn't want to be a maverick independent director screaming, 'I'm going back to New York to make underground films!'" That's Spielberg in a nutshell, certain from the beginning that he belonged not just at the heart of the Hollywood mainstream, but in charge of the prestige projects.
In that same Duel DVD featurette, Spielberg examines what he brought to his TV work: primarily an emphasis on master shots, with sparing close-ups. But the central theme of his careerhumanity's excessive and frequently misbegotten attempts to impose a system on the organicalso pops up in the Spielberg-helmed episodes from Night Gallery: The Complete First Season and Columbo: The Complete First Season, now available alongside Universal's simultaneous release of Duel and the 1974 theatrical feature The Sugarland Express. Rod Serling penned "Eyes," a segment of the Night Gallery pilot movie that features Joan Crawford as a bitchy blind socialite who inadvertently wastes her ocular transplant. In the episode "Make Me Laugh," Godfrey Cambridge plays a desperate stand-up comic who makes a deal with an occultist to become an overnight sensation, then gripes that no one takes him seriously. And in "Murder By The Book," the first regular episode of Columbo (and what Spielberg describes as "the best script that anybody had ever given me"), Peter Falk's dogged detective picks at mystery writer Jack Cassidy until his perfect crime unravels.
"Murder By The Book" also displays the tautness and visual wit of Duel, a slim Richard Matheson story that Spielberg padded into a 90-minute feature by artfully assembling a string of insert shots. Dennis Weaver plays a harried businessman who passes a tanker truck in the California desert and soon finds that same truck mercilessly riding his bumper. On the DVD, Spielberg explains that he considered Duel an experiment in pressuring an audience, keeping it hooked for as long as possible with a minimum of plot and character. But he also squeezes a lot out of Weaver's general discomfort as a civilized guy out of his element, unsure how to relate to working-class types and gradually becoming more and more of a prick about it.
Duel's selling point remains the way Spielberg gives heavy machinery a personality of its own, and that's also the main hook for The Sugarland Express, a modest entry in the post-Bonnie And Clyde "hicks on the lam" movie boom. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton play married ex-convicts who kidnap Texas patrolman Michael Sacks while on the way to retrieve their baby from foster care. As with two of Spielberg's other '70s films, Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Sugarland nicely utilizes flavorful overlapping dialogue, pop-culture references, and soft light. He makes smart use of practical split-screens (rear-view mirrors against narrow car windows) and practical superimpositions (faces reflected in glass), and, in the film's most memorable recurring image, a line of cars persistently hangs behind the heroes, stopping when they stop and turning when they turn. It's a potent visual representation of how problems pile up, as well as a hint of the devastating force Spielberg himself was prepared to unleash.