By Charlie Brigden
While everyone knows about the legendary director-composer partnership of Steven Spielberg and John Williams, you may not know that the latter hasn’t scored all of Spielberg’s pictures. One of them is fairly well-known, 1985’s The Color Purple, which was scored by Quincy Jones. But the other was a television movie for the ABC network that was extended into a feature length film and released in theaters.
Hitting in 1971, Duel has a slight thematic connection to Spielberg’s later Jaws; but instead of a giant shark there is a massive truck, and instead of a nervy Police chief you have a nervy motorist -Mann, played by Dennis Weaver. The film is a simple tale and tells only of Mann’s encounter with a seemingly driverless Peterbilt, gigantic and menacing. But it’s incredibly well-made and one of Spielberg’s most effective if lesser-seen films.
Perhaps the latter reason is why the score has not been made into an album until now. Scored by Billy Goldenberg, a veteran TV composer who scored for shows like Columbo and Kojak, as well as the Charles Manson movie Helter Skelter, Duel is a primal and tense work, not hugely unlike that shark movie (although it shares more in common with another horror film I’ll talk about later). Goldenberg uses an intriguing selection of instruments, with the usual keyboards and strings together with lots of metallic percussion and a Moog synthesiser.
Essentially, Duel is one long car chase and Goldenberg treats it with menace and unbelievable tension – there was a point when I was listening to one of the cues and I just wanted to get it over with because it was so tense to listen to, yet also so fascinating in its composition. The score starts as it means to go on; after a short ‘Universal Emblem’ with eerie sounds we’re thrown into ‘Passing The Truck’ with dizzying harp and scratching strings fighting with dissonant metal clanks and keyboard stings – it’s fast and dangerous stuff, with ‘Truck And Car Encounter’ bringing a frenetic string/keyboard counterpoint and high string clusters.
Much of the early score has a foreboding atmosphere and it gets really creepy and uncomfortable. Hammered dulcimer meets spaced out strings with low Moog underneath, there’s a a building string melody with a twinkling percussion overlay – it feels like the oncoming truck, less a motor vehicle than a freight train. Goldenberg uses the instruments almost like engine parts, and they create an intense effect that conjures the image of a living, breathing machine which dominates the soundscape. By the time we get towards the end you can’t help thinking of a slasher killer, relentlessly pursuing their victim with no rhyme or reason.
As we reach the final tracks, low piano creeps along like the Jaws theme before we’re plunged into a whirlpool of dissonance as the pistoning percussion creates a cacophony of metal. In ‘Final Duel’, the percussion becomes desperately frantic, almost ethereal, as the noises die down. ‘The Duel (End Title)’ gives us almost silence, a sense of relief, with faint synth sounding like escaping steam. It lets us breath. The ordeal is over.
Duel is a brutal score at times, and its creative use of instruments and percussion remind me of a horror film from a few years later – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – whose score also used metallic percussion elements and ended with a similarly quiet cue. Saying that, Duel is not something that may appear inaccessible to the less hardcore/horror music enthusiast. The score is melodic, albeit with downbeat chords, and there is a classic of tense string writing that only really appeared throughout the 1970’s, and which John Williams became a master of.
Intrada have done a fantastic job putting together this album, with the complete score taking up the main part of the disc in excellent sound. Given that Duel is a TV production from forty years ago, the sound is remarkably clear and the instruments, particularly the harp, are reproduced with excellent clarity. Along with the score there are four source tracks of radio music composed by Goldenberg as well as an shorter alternate of ‘The Duel (End Title)’. There are also excellent liner notes from the always reliable Jeff Bond.
Considering what a milestone film it is in the career of one of cinema’s greatest creative minds, it’s taken a long time for Duel to appear. Thankfully it’s been done right by Intrada, who are really on a roll this year. Now if we can just get The Sugarland Express…