MOVIE DADDY: Spielberg's TV Movies
Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most popular films of all time, garnering him an enormous amount of respect on both a critical and financial scale. He is considered by many to be the most famous director of all time, given his track record as both director and producer of some of the most recognizable films of the past 50 years. Movie Daddy is a series by Story Screen Editor-in-Chief, Mike Burdge, which aims to cover the Beard's directorial filmography in an attempt to present just why Steven Spielberg is very much that hot fire when it comes to being an American filmmaker. In this first installment, we look at the three films the director created for television in the 1970's before his ascension to Hollywood feature films.
We all know the story: Steven Spielberg, a brash young filmmaker, was up against the ropes in 1974 shooting a film with a shark that didn't work, a cast of hotheads at each other's throats, and a studio breathing down the 27 year-old's neck for running overtime and over budget. The movie was obviously, Jaws, and it would go on to become the very first “blockbuster” of the New Hollywood era, cementing Spielberg's placement as a pioneer of new-age filmmaking and giving him a pretty decent “anything goes” path towards his future career in the 80’s. But before all that, young Spielberg sharpened his teeth on television sets: first with a handful of episodes for random series (more on those in the future) and finally, with a string of feature length flicks in 1971, 1972 and (technically) 1973. These films hold within them the very beginnings of the Spielberg Style, which is to say, they contain small doses of varying levels of success, the things that make this director's techniques and approach to storytelling so unique and flat out effective.
1971's Duel follows the thrill ride chase between an everyday man and a seemingly psychopathic truck driver on the backroads of America's desolate highways. Initially shot and screened as an ABC Movie of the Week, the film was eventually given a small theatrical release based on immensely positive reactions to the first cut. Some scenes were extended through editing, upping the tension and tone of the entire piece, while other scenes were completely shot in a second small production in order to beef up the runtime to get it through the theatrical window. Both techniques heavily helped the overall product become the form of the only available version of the film we have today.
One of the coolest things Duel has going for it is its treatment of a very basic setup: a guy getting chased down by a trucker. The truck is treated as its own character, to an extent where we never even get to see the driver in any full form; the bug-covered grill and greased out windshield act as the menacing face of the unstoppable pursuer. Spielberg shoots the truck as a beacon of power and violence: the spinning wheels right up in the audience's faces, always towering over any angle or position they may find their vantage point placed in. It's a ridiculously potent recipe for characterizing your antagonist, and a trick the film lavishes in exploiting from start to finish.
Duel is one heck of a movie, and personally, one of my favorites of the Beard's. And for a TV movie from 1971, it holds up marvelously, with its quiet scenes of breath catching being just as captivating as its car scenes. And boy oh boy, those car scenes! It's quite easily one of the best executed chase films of all time, right up there with Mad Max: Fury Road in my book, and I'd imagine anyone who digs George Miller's film for its shockingly impressive balance of character development, ratcheted together with non-stop tension building, would agree. Although obviously on a much smaller budget and scale than Fury Road, these attributes actually shine through at every moment in the film, and Duel is all the better for it.
There's something about many of Spielberg's best known techniques that lend themselves to tip-toeing just on the edge of the audience’s awareness. These tricks of his trade are more often than not quite apparent to even the most basic of film lovers: i.e. anyone with no knowledge of just how all of this movie magic is accomplished. There are internal monologue moments used to hasten the development of a scene efficiently, shots used repeatedly to expand the scope of the moment, and some angled just right to increase the sense of speed of our character's vehicles. There's even these great long takes that you don't even really notice (until you do) that is 100% a staple of Spielberg's humble style. These are small tricks, very basic methods of expressing the most you can with what you've got, and it is in this area of directing that Spielberg remains one of the masters. The dude just knows how to make anything look exciting.
The following year, Stevie shot his one and only official horror movie: Something Evil. A fairly silly piece of cinema, this one did not receive positive acclaim, and thus, no theatrical release for this bad boy. In fact, it never even got any hard release at all, making a very poor uploaded copy on YouTube the only way to view it. It's your typical Amityville Horror premise, (although produced seven years before the actual Amityville Horror film was released) revolving around a well-intentioned family buying up a nice house with a shady past, and getting screwed with by demons for an hour. All traits of the premise are accounted for: the ever dismissive, workaholic father, the housewife slowly falling into madness and paranoia, the creepy kid, some old timer neighbor holding back secrets before getting killed off violently. Wind blowing and spooky noises. You get it.
While not that interesting as a film itself, (though it definitely holds up against most of the horror fare of the late 90’s and throughout the 00’s) what is most fascinating upon rewatch is considering all of the fun things Spielberg can do within the horror genre. One of my big takeaways from my recent rewatch of the director’s filmography is just how often he utilizes horror elements in almost all of his films, layering them with sprinkles of the very vocabulary that make up some of horror filmmaking's go-to tools. These, when worked in with small doses, create a dread that the filmmaker has molded into the perfect spectacle strategy that he resorts to time and time again, always to phenomenal success. I mean, Jurassic Park is at least 25% a horror movie, right? And Something Evil works very well as a time capsule for the apparent learning of these tricks for the young filmmaker, as each horror set piece is constructed with all of the goods a movie should have. The cinematography is actual pretty impressive, especially given its budget, making the moments of moderate fright even more terrifying. There's an ease on display of the tension building that you would normally find in more atmospheric low budget horror films of the same decade. While most of the film's story and characters are pretty lacking in anything outstanding or memorable, I will admit that the sounds of a child crying and whimpering, “No...” that are used several times during long, drawn out scenes are etched into my very soul. If you find yourself taking the 73 minutes to witness this movie, I assure you: you will never forget this sound. It is one of the most hauntingly effective things I have ever experienced in a horror movie, and that's no small feat as far as I'm concerned.
Then there's Savage, a Martin Landau headed pilot that wasn't picked up for a series. They took what they had and cobbled together what can only be described as a pilot that wasn't picked up for a series and was then cobbled together with what they had. The “film” revolves around a TV investigative reporter, Paul Savage, (played by Landau) who says very quippy things while surrounded by morons. It seems like the crux of the show was going to lean on an episodic “case of the week” style formatting, finding ya boi Paul Savage hot on the trail of the next big scoop. Riveting, I know. While nothing terrible, the film is definitely not very interesting, which is the least a movie can try to be.
But, wouldn't you know it, the talents of Spielberg as a director shine through again, here most brightly, even though he really didn't even want to make it. Devoid of any pesky distractions such as plot or likable characters, the viewer can really pay attention to some of the captivating choices the young buck puts into motion throughout the run of the flick, most importantly, with the climax, which is shot using shadowing and silhouettes to communicate space and its relation to the characters that is truly cool. Other than that, there's some fun chemistry to be had with the way Spielberg chooses to frame his subjects in this political thriller, evocative of his styling in similar pictures he would direct much further down the road, like: Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and, most similarly, The Post.
While these early works of the now well-known director vary in quality from stale to great, there's no denying that each offers a glimpse into the mindset of this young talent, continuing to craft his own visual style and directing technique through a pretty eclectic assortment of genres and moods. It's obvious that many of these choices are being made purely in the hopes that they will work out, but this is also how Spielberg claims he simply directs all of his movies. It's a well known fact that the director constantly takes risks before and during the productions of his films in the hopes of shaking things up and wringing out that very thing that makes all of his movies so special in the first place. As a lover of movies, and someone who studied for quite some time to be a director himself before turning to the criticism and exhibition side of the industry, it's refreshing to see the beginning efforts of an artist that I now know, in hindsight, will become one of the most well known directors of all time, and there's a admirable quality to the quaintness of these productions that make me even more excited to revisit his much bigger and riskier fares.
Next up on Movie Daddy, we'll be talking about 1974's The Sugarland Express, Spielberg's first full on theatrical release.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.