You can be forgiven if after watching director Steven Spielberg’s freshman film effort Duel that one of your last takeaways after watching this taut road thriller is the score. This white-knuckle thriller is about Everyman Dennis Weaver being pursued across the badland backroads of California by a mysterious truck and Spielberg succeeds so well in engrossing audiences in this Richard Matheson crafted tale that a charging rush of endorphins obscures something that is so minimal as to be missed on the first go-around. But there it is, nevertheless; creeping slowly upon us the further out from civilization our hero (Dennis Weaver) drives. Like the truck that terrorizes him unrelentingly, the first taste of respected and Emmy Award winning composer Billy Goldenberg’s score seems innocuous at first, almost mesmerizing in its slow burn. It’s a perfect marriage of music and visuals and for anyone who can only envision a Steven Spielberg film with a John Williams soundtrack really ought to track down this inaugural directing effort by the Boy Wonder who would one day rule Hollywood.
Billy Goldenberg was an Emmy winning composer with a love for Broadway and one glance at the man’s resume is an awe-inspiring thing: The maestro worked with the King of rock ’n’ roll himself, Elvis Presley and also collaborated with such heavy-hitters as Diana Ross and Barbara Streisand.
The man who would one day go on to expertly drop in some of the eeriest music to drive in terror to via Duel began life on February 10, 1936, the same day that the Battle of Aradam kicked off in northern Ethiopia. His full name was William Leon Goldenberg and he was born into the world of music: His father was the renowned percussionist, author and Julliard instructor Morris Goldenberg. With those qualifications, was it any real wonder that the junior Goldenberg would follow in his father’s formidable shoes? As far as self-fulfilling prophecies go, this one would seem to be a no-brainer.
Blasting out of Columbia College in 1957, Billy Goldenberg took pen to paper and created songs for the early American television show Kukla, Fran and Ollie before moving onto what would prove to be his big love in life, Broadway. After a slew of well-known incidental tunes for the Great White Way, Goldenberg made a huge splash with the historic 1968 Elvis: The Comeback Special before moving on to score such films as Play It Again, Sam, Up the Sandbox and the aforementioned Duel. The truck with an attitude thriller marked the second collaboration between a still wet behind the ears Steven Spielberg; the two had melded talents and minds for the 1969 pilot of the ill-conceived NBC anthology Night Gallery. The duo made their team-ups a trilogy when they reunited for a 1971 episode of Columbo, the same year as the release of Duel.
After his work with Spielberg, Goldenberg went on to rack up a whopping twenty three Emmy nominations and won the coveted award twice for ‘75s The Lives of Benjamin Franklin and again for ‘78s King. He picked up fans in the industry along the way, too, striking up a lifelong friendship with legendary actor Bea Arthur and even accompanying her on a 2002 one-woman Broadway production.
But it’s Duel I – and most genre fans – keep returning to. In the very simplicity of his arrangements for the film, this auteur worked hand in hand with his director to spin a web of uneasiness that permeated the proceedings in the most beautiful and perfect of ways. For this minor trifle alone – and there are so many major accomplishments in his storied career that it would take a whole series of articles for me to properly acknowledge them all – this artist and mensch will live on forever in our shared love of cinema.