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Duel (1971)

April 9th, 2008 · 10 Comments

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Leaving Los Angeles and driving through the desert for a business appointment, David Mann (Dennis Weaver) gets stuck behind a 1955 Peterbilt dripping with grease and billowing diesel fumes. Mann’s road etiquette appears to offend the unseen trucker, who gains speed and cuts back in front of Mann before slowing to a crawl. Mann passes him again, but when he stops at a filling station, the truck pulls next to him. All Mann sees of its driver is a pair of boots.

The trucker goes from road hog to road rage, signaling Mann to pass and almost getting him hit by oncoming traffic. The trucker then runs Mann into a fence outside a diner before disappearing. Mann pulls his thoughts together in the men’s room, but when he comes out, discovers the truck parked outside, waiting for him. Attempting to identify his assailant among the diner’s customers proves unsuccessful. Climbing back into his Plymouth Valiant, Mann realizes the trucker wants to take him off the road permanently.

Production history
Novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson was golfing when he first heard that President Kennedy had been shot. Distraught by the news, Matheson and a friend headed home. Driving through a narrow pass near Simi Valley, a huge truck began tailgating them. They sped up, but so did the truck, and the day’s events only made them more anxious as they pulled off the road and the truck blew past. Matheson felt he had a story and scribbled the idea on the back of an envelope his friend had in the car.


Matheson presented the idea of a man being chased by a truck to the producers of several TV series, including The Fugitive. None of them felt there was enough of a story there. Seven years later, Matheson wrote Duel as a novelette, which was published in the April 1971 issue of Playboy Magazine. Universal Pictures obtained the film rights. This came to the attention of assistant Nona Tyson, whose boss was Steven Spielberg, a 25-year-old director looking to move from episodic television to feature films.

Spielberg read the novelette and felt it was a Hitchcock movie, “It’s like Psycho or Birds on wheels!” Tyson found out that producer George Eckstein controlled the property. Spielberg met with him and shared Eckstein’s enthusiasm for the story, as well as his idea to keep the point of view with the driver as much as possible. Spielberg showed Eckstein an episode of Columbo he’d just directed. Three days later, the producer made Spielberg an offer to direct Duel.

Eckstein had set up the project with ABC as a Movie of the Week. Spielberg was given 10 days to shoot a 73-minute film. His production manager Wally Worsley told the young director there was no way he could make a movie of this scale in that time frame on location. He advised Spielberg to shoot it on a soundstage. When Spielberg persisted in going on location, he was allowed to shoot the process plates of the road and continue making the film on location if he could stay on schedule.


Working on a fifteen mile stretch of Highway 14 north of Los Angeles in Palmdale – with Dennis Weaver in the lead and stuntmen Dale Van Sickle and Cary Loftin driving the car and truck – Spielberg wrapped only three days over schedule. Quickly edited in order to make its airdate in three and a half weeks, Duel drew a huge market share in November 1971. Spielberg shot some additional scenes (such as the truck pushing Weaver toward a train) and expanded to 90 minutes, his debut feature was released theatrically in Europe.

Given what Steven Spielberg went on to accomplish as the most successful film director of all time, it’s easy to overlook his first feature as a TV Movie of the Week or a work in progress and little more. But Duel holds up supremely well as both a taut and riveting entertainment, and as the ideal blend of terrific material being adapted by a hungry filmmaker. Though it aired almost 40 years ago, there wasn’t a moment in the movie where I lost interest in what was happening on screen.

Technology is making great thrillers more and more rare. All a character has to do when placed in jeopardy now is pull out a cell phone. Duel is old school all the way, stripped down in narrative, with only a businessman, two vehicles and some dimes for the phone booth to develop its conflict. Spielberg’s decision not to reveal the trucker demonstrates what an ardent student of Hitchcock he was, while Billy Goldenberg’s musical score – shunning melody in favor of disorienting sounds – also punctuates dread on the road.


Dennis Prince at DVD Verdict writes, “Duel is a film that is fully captivating as it drops us into perhaps one of modern life’s most frightening situations … The viewer experiences the events from Mann’s perspective, and shares in his mounting feelings of unease and dread; the situation is all the more disconcerting because, in addition to the fact that there seems to be no reason for the trucker’s extreme actions, Mann (and, therefore, the viewer) is left slack-jawed asking the most disconcerting of questions, ‘Why me?’”

“It’s a worthwhile thriller, ingeniously conceived and masterfully executed in almost every way. Perhaps the only thing that would make me love Duel more is if Spielberg could have made it without voicing the thoughts of Weaver’s character throughout, as it seems unnecessary (at least to me). Highly recommended for all Spielberg fans, or just thrillers in general. Duel has been often imitated, but far from duplicated in sheer tension,” writes Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.

Matt Day at DVD Times writes, “Duel is a film that transcended the boundaries of both the genre and the medium it was designed for and became a huge influence on a generation … It still works today as a tense thriller, even if the originality of the film has long been diluted, not to mention it being such an important film in the career of a man that has become synonymous with movie-making.”

“Okay. You wanna play games.” This is awesome stuff. View the original theatrical trailer for Duel.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Based on short story · Paranoia · Road trip

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck // Apr 10, 2008 at 6:13 am

    This is a brilliant picture, and when you follow that in short succession with The Sugarland Express and Jaws, its easy to see why Spielberg became what he became. People can say whatever they wish, and certain Spielberg films more than encourage it, but Spielberg is undeniably one of the most fluid and able craftsman of the medium.

    Too bad, he has, at times, a rank sentimentality that could make Capra blush. I wish he’d go back to the basics and make another of his lean, raw thrillers. War of the Worlds or Minority Report could’ve gone there, but they were made by Spielberg who’s too interested in being “good for you” and not enough interested in fucking with you. They also had some rather imperfect plotting. Munich comes closer than most modern Spielberg, a largely tense men on a mission thriller that few directors could handle with such visual mastery.

  • 2 Fletch // Apr 10, 2008 at 8:52 am

    It really is a feat that he took such a simple premise and turned it into an enjoyable feature. It remains tense throughout. Amongst the films brought about via its influence, I’d have to cite Breakdown as a favorite, if for no other reason than that it featured the great JT Walsh as the villain.

  • 3 christian // Apr 10, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Recall what Pauline Kael wrote about SUGARLAND EXPRESS in her uber-perceptive review:

    In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies. If there is such a thing as movie sense… Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else.

    I love DUEL because it’s really pure cinema. Would love to see Spielberg tackle something small and raw again.

  • 4 Alice // Apr 11, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    Where is your deeply introspective comparative analysis with Joy Ride (Kah-andy Kayne…)? Classic! Steve Zahn deserved a supporting Oscar nod! (Is sarcasm permitted in this forum?)

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Apr 11, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    Chuck: Terrific points all around. I think as moviegoers you see what you want to see in a lot of movies and this is certainly the case with Spielberg. The Sugarland Express and Jaws both feature a lot of the sentimentality you mention, and whether it’s sugar overload or not is really up to the individual viewer. However, none of that is to be found in Duel, which is probably the least compromising film emotionally Spielberg ever shot.

    Fletch: I think the fluidity that Spielberg was able to operate in when it came to action with moving cars was the greatest influence here. The Sugarland Express had its narrative faults, but the way the film was shot was mindblowing. You can see a lot of that experimentation in Duel. Thanks for commenting!

    Christian: Thanks for reminding me that not all critics are useless. Pauline Kael had her finger on the zeitgeist when it came to Spielberg. Obviously, all of us dig Duel, but I have my doubts that even a filmmaker of Spielberg’s ability could go back and make the type of film at 65 that he was making at 25. If he tried, it would probably feel like David Bowie or Elton John putting on the makeup or wacky costumes and running around stage again.

    Alice: I completely forgot about Joy Ride. Before the days when the wizard of viral marketing could do no wrong, J.J. Abrams actually wrote and produced that movie, if I recall. Think of how bad Duel would have been with the trucker taunting Dennis Weaver over the CB radio. Ack. Oh, you are free to make fun of anyone on this site except for one: Jennifer Connelly.

  • 6 R.W // May 18, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Where is a picture of Cary Loftin? He is the truck drivers. Was he actually in the cafe in the movie? Who knows.

  • 7 trucker4life // Jul 15, 2008 at 9:06 am

    what was the point of this movie? you never even got to see the truck driver. they showed things that seemed important that really had nothing to do with the movie! i think it was a waste of 2 hours. i could make a better movie then that in fact i think i will if you want to see it go to youtube in about a month. i promise mine will be better and it may have a point. look for verses that will be the name. it will be verses(the duel remake) i hope you like it if you liked this dumb movie i know you will

  • 8 pointlessmovie // Jul 17, 2008 at 8:47 am

    this movie is great i think trucker 4 life that u r wrong this movie is exiting and every time the truck shows up it gives me chills and i always think that the truck is going to get the guy in the car this movie could be scary 4 little children so i suggest this be rated pg-13 but back to my love 4 this movie i think that anyone that is looking for a good exiting movie this will be the perfect one!

  • 9 Toffo // Jun 18, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Christian is right: Duel is pure cinema. With the least, Spielberg made the most. I’m a great admirer of Spielberg’s (as I think he’s quite a sort of modern Perrault or Andersen), though I doubt he’d ever reached that summit of ‘pure cinema’ again along his career. Duel’s camera work is unsurpassable: it translates perfectly the ‘feeling of wilderness’ shown by abandoned cars, rags fluttering on a rope, birds singing, distant rails… not to mention marvelous photography, amazing music and unique Dennis Weaver’s performance. A movie forever.

  • 10 Allan // Feb 9, 2010 at 4:27 am

    Interesting to note here too. The road this film was shot on was one of the first to have the new yellow center line striping which had just been introduced

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