SOME PEOPLE LIKED Steven Spielberg better when they felt like they didn't have to take him seriously. For a long while, these contrarians preferred Duel to the large scale and large ambitions of such theatrical productions as Close Encounters and The Color Purple. Even after Schindler's List, one mainstream New York reviewer argued with me that Raiders of the Lost Ark was Spielberg's best movie. (Was he pulling my leg or just shortening his intelligence?)
This dilemma is refreshed with the new restoration of Duel, a made-for-tv movie that Spielberg just barely transcends. The square frame and spare plot (motorist Dennis Weaver is menaced by an 18-wheeler along the California highways) don't lend themselves to grand themes, but Spielberg makes the most he can out of camera velocity and surprise edits. It's a textbook example of how virtuosity can lift a b-movie into a new level.
Duel offers mystery and threat. It is the most plainly manipulative of all Spielberg films, but you have to be attuned to the potency of movie grammar to see anything more in it than the kind of portentous graphics that buffs love in Kubrick. By releasing Duel along with the first DVD version of The Sugarland Express, Universal has helped clarify the difference between a b-movie with potential and a full-scale movie vision. Sugarland belongs to the same lovers-on-the-lam genre as Bonnie & Clyde, Thieves Like Us and Badlands, but it is the most dynamic of the bunch. The feel for the pop-culture landscape (endless ribbons of police cars stretched along the highways in pursuit of Goldie Hawn and William Atherton) is made almost tactile by Vilmos Zsigmond. But this 1974 movie still astonishes through its combination of folk and pop humor and visual panache.
The difference from Duel is like that between an idea and an experience. The outlaw couple of Sugarland trying to reclaim their baby from foster parents is not mysterious. It can be appreciated as a parable (based on a real-life incident) of the younger generation testing its allegiance to the values that the older generation thinks is solely theirs. (Ben Johnson plays the first of Spielberg's ambivalent authority figures.) A key moment is Atherton realizing the gravity of his heartfelt folly when pantomiming a Road Runner cartoon. The meta-movie complexity is way beyond Duel-way beyond Guy Maddin. You'd have to be blind not to take this kind of talent seriously.