(1971 short story)
by Richard Matheson
|Written by||Richard Matheson|
|Directed by||Steven Spielberg|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Cinematography||Jack A. Marta|
|Running time||74 minutes (original)|
90 minutes (theatrical)
|Production company||Universal Television|
|Original release||November 20, 1971|
Duel is a 1971 American action-thriller television film directed by Steven Spielberg. It centers on a business commuter, played by Dennis Weaver, driving his car through California to meet a client. However, he finds himself chased and terrorized by the mostly-unseen driver of a semi-truck. The screenplay by Richard Matheson adapts his own short story of the same name.
Produced by Universal Television, Duel originally aired as a part of the ABC Movie of the Week series on November 13, 1971. It later received an international theatrical release in an extended version featuring scenes shot after the film's original broadcast. The film received generally positive reviews from critics, with Spielberg's direction being singled out for praise. It has since been recognized as an influential cult classic, and one of the greatest made-for-television films ever made.
David Mann, a middle-aged salesman driving on a business trip, encounters a dilapidated tanker truck driving slowly in the Mojave Desert. Mann passes the truck but the truck speeds up, roars past him, then resumes driving slowly. When Mann overtakes and passes it again, the truck blasts its horn. Mann pulls into a gas station and the truck parks next to him. Mann phones his wife, who is upset with him after an argument the previous night. The station attendant tells Mann he needs a new radiator hose but Mann says he will get it done later and declines the repair.
Back on the road, the truck catches up, passes then blocks Mann's path each time he attempts to pass. After antagonizing Mann for a while, the driver waves him past, causing Mann to nearly hit an oncoming vehicle. Mann finally passes the truck using an unpaved turnout next to the highway then glances at his rear window and waves as the speed of the truck decreases. The truck then tailgates Mann's car at increasingly high speed. Mann swerves his car off the road, loses control, and slams his car sideways into a fence across from a diner as the truck continues down the road.
Mann enters the restaurant to compose himself. Upon returning from the restroom, he sees the truck parked outside. He studies the patrons and confronts one (wearing the same type of boots as the truck driver) he believes to be the truck driver. The confused and offended patron beats Mann and leaves in a different truck. The pursuing truck leaves moments later, indicating that its driver never entered the diner.
Mann later stops to help a stranded school bus, but his front bumper gets caught underneath the bus's rear bumper. The truck appears at the end of a tunnel, causing Mann to panic. He and the bus driver then free his car and Mann drives from the scene as the truck helps push the school bus onto the road. Down the road, Mann stops at a railroad crossing waiting for a freight train to pass through. The truck appears from behind and pushes Mann's car towards the oncoming Southern Pacific freight train. The train passes, and Mann crosses the tracks and pulls over. The truck continues down the road and Mann slowly follows.
In an attempt to create more distance between himself and the truck, Mann drives at a very leisurely pace, as other motorists pass him. Once again, he encounters the truck, which has pulled off to the side of the road ahead, intentionally waiting for Mann. He pulls out in front of him and starts antagonizing him again.
Mann stops at a gas station/roadside animal attraction, consisting prominently of rattlesnakes, to call the police and replace his radiator hose but when he steps into the telephone booth, the truck drives into it; Mann jumps clear just in time, jumps into his car and speeds away. Around a corner, he pulls off the road, hiding behind an embankment as the truck drives past.
After a long wait, Mann heads off again but the truck is waiting for him again down the road. Mann attempts to speed past but it moves across the road, blocking him. Mann seeks help from an elderly couple in a car but they flee when the truck backs up towards them at high speed. The truck stops before hitting Mann's car and Mann, determined to fight back, speeds past the truck, which begins pursuing. Mann swerves towards what he believes is a police car, only to see it is a pest-control vehicle. The truck chases him up a mountain range, which slows it down. However, the faulty radiator hose of Mann's car breaks causing the strained engine to overheat and begin failing. Losing speed, he barely reaches the summit but then coasts downhill in neutral as the truck follows. Mann spins out and slams sideways into a cliff wall. He manages to restart his car, barely escaping being crushed by the truck, then to drive up a dirt road with the truck following him. He turns to face the truck in front of a canyon, locks the accelerator using his briefcase, then steers the car into the oncoming truck, jumping free at the last moment. The truck hits the car, which bursts into flames, obscuring the driver's view. The truck plunges over the cliff along with the car and crashes into the canyon. Above the wreckage, Mann rejoices his victory and then sits down exhausted at the cliff's edge and throws stones into the canyon as the sun sets.
Appears only in the extended theatrical version.
The script is adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story, originally published in Playboy magazine. Matheson got the inspiration for the story when he was tailgated by a trucker while on his way home from a golfing match with friend Jerry Sohl on November 22, 1963, the same day as the John F. Kennedy assassination. After a series of unsuccessful attempts to pitch the idea as an episode for various television series, he decided to write it as a short story instead. In preparation for writing the story, he drove from his home to Ventura and recorded everything he saw on a tape recorder.
The original short story was given to Spielberg by his secretary, who told him that it was being made into a Movie of the Week for ABC and suggested he apply to be the director. Duel was Spielberg's second feature-length directing effort, after his 1971 The Name of the Game NBC television series episode "L.A. 2017".
Much of the movie was filmed in and around the communities of Canyon Country, Agua Dulce, and Acton, California. In particular, sequences were filmed on the Sierra Highway, Agua Dulce Canyon Road, Soledad Canyon Road, and Angeles Forest Highway. Many of the landmarks from Duel still exist today, including the tunnel, the railroad crossing, and Chuck's Café, where Mann stops for a break. The building is still on Sierra Highway and has housed a French restaurant called Le Chêne since 1980. The "Snakerama" gas station (now the Peppertree market) seen in the film also appears in Spielberg's comedy film 1941 (1979) as a tribute to Duel, with actress Lucille Benson again appearing as the proprietor. The cliffs where the truck crashes at the end are Mystery Mesa, off Vasquez Canyon Road.
Production of the television film was overseen by ABC's director of movies of the week Lillian Gallo. The original made-for-television version was 74 minutes long with filming completed in 13 days (three longer than the scheduled 10 days), leaving 10 days for editing prior to broadcast as the ABC Movie of the Week.
Spielberg lobbied to have Dennis Weaver in the starring role because he admired Weaver's work in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Weaver repeats one of his lines from Touch of Evil, telling the truck driver in the café that he has "another think coming." This phrase is commonly misstated as "another thing coming", as Weaver's character did in Touch of Evil.
In the Archive of American Television website, Spielberg is quoted in an interview given by Weaver as saying: "You know, I watch that movie at least twice a year to remember what I did".
Matheson's script made explicit that the unnamed truck driver, the film's villain, is unseen aside from the shots of his arms and boots that were needed to convey the plot. In the DVD documentary, Spielberg observes that fear of the unknown is perhaps the greatest fear of all and that Duel plays heavily to that fear. The truck driver remains anonymous and unseen throughout the film, except for three separate shots. The stunt driver can very briefly be seen in the truck's cab, where his arm waves Weaver’s character into oncoming traffic and observes the driver's snakeskin boots. His motives are never revealed. Spielberg says that the effect of not seeing the driver makes the real villain of the film the truck itself, rather than the driver.
The car driven by Mann is a red Plymouth Valiant, although three cars were used in the actual production of the movie.
The original release of Duel featured a 1970 model with a 318 V-8 engine and "Plymouth" spelled out in block letters across the hood (which was covered with aluminum foil to mask the "Plymouth" name from view), as well as trunk lid treatment characteristic of the 1970 model; a 1971 model with a 225 Slant Six was also used.
Spielberg did not care what kind of car was used in the film, but insisted the final chosen model be red to enable the vehicle to stand out from the general landscape in the wide shots of the desert highway.
Spielberg had what he called an "audition" for the truck, wherein he viewed a series of trucks to choose the one for the film. He selected the older 1955 Peterbilt 281 over the current flat-nosed "cab-over" style of trucks because the long hood of the Peterbilt, its split windshield, and its round headlights gave it more of a "face", adding to its menacing personality. Additionally, Spielberg said that the multiple license plates on the front bumper of the Peterbilt subtly suggested that the truck driver is a serial killer, having "run down other drivers in other states". For each shot, several people were tasked to make it uglier; each successively adding oil, grease, fake dead insects and other blemishes.
The truck had originally started out life as a single axle that had a tag along axle added to it, a 260HP 1673 CAT turbocharged engine with a 13-speed transmission, making it capable of hauling loads over 30 tons and top speeds reaching 75–80 mph. During the original filming, the crew had only one truck, so the shots of the truck falling off the cliff had to be completed in one take. For the film's theatrical release, two additional trucks were purchased in order to film the additional scenes that were not in the original made-for-television version (the scene where David telephones his wife and when David walks out of the laundromat also showing an interior of the truck in gas attendant scene, the school bus scene and the railroad crossing scene).
Stock footage of both vehicles was later used in an episode of the television series The Incredible Hulk, titled "Never Give a Trucker an Even Break". Spielberg was not happy about this, but the usage was legal, as the show was produced by Universal and the Duel contract said nothing about reusing the footage in other Universal productions.
Throughout the film, there is very little dialogue given to Weaver's character, David Mann, and none whatsoever to the antagonistic truck driver. Instead, as stated in his post-film documentary, Spielberg wanted to let the vehicles and setting "speak" for themselves. Duel, being filmed on a tight schedule and based on a short story, needed to fit within the 75 minutes of time allotted for its television debut, and as such Spielberg focused on the film's visuals and menacing audio. One break from the silences and heavy roar of the vehicles occurs after the initial chase scene, when Mann crashes into a fence post just outside of Chuck's; when Mann goes inside to use the restroom to collect himself and recover from the crash, the audience is introduced to his inner thoughts. This diegetic use of sound was explained by Spielberg as Mann wanting to "physicalize" and "emote" his feelings, giving the audience an intimate relationship with Dennis Weaver's character. The use of sound, or lack thereof, was a tactic used by Spielberg to "keep the audience in suspense" throughout the entirety of the film, a trait that he said he was inspired to use from Alfred Hitchcock. According to Spielberg, "sound has to fit like a glove...it makes everything scarier", which was applied towards the end of the film when Mann is asleep at the wheel but he is awakened at the sound of what appeared to be the truck, but was revealed to actually be a passing train, giving the audience the anxiety that this was going to be a major turning point. Along with the natural sounds kept in the film, Steven Spielberg also incorporated a minimal score, composed by Billy Goldenberg.
The film's original score was composed by Billy Goldenberg, who had previously written the music for Spielberg's segment of the Night Gallery pilot and his Columbo episode "Murder by the Book," and co-scored Spielberg's The Name of the Game episode "L.A. 2017" with Robert Prince. Spielberg and Duel producer George Eckstein told him that because of the short production schedule, he would have to write the music during filming, and Goldenberg visited the production on location at Soledad Canyon to help get an idea of what would be required. Spielberg then had Goldenberg ride in the tanker truck being driven by stunt driver Carey Loftin on several occasions; the experience terrified the composer, although he did eventually get used to it. Goldenberg then composed the score in about a week, for strings, harp, keyboards and heavy use of percussion instruments, with Moog synthesiser effects but eschewing brass and woodwinds. He then worked with the music editors to "pick from all the pieces (they) had and cut it together (with the sound effects and dialogue)." Much of his score was ultimately not used in the finished film. In 2015 Intrada Records released a limited edition album featuring the complete score, plus four radio source music tracks composed by Goldenberg.
Duel was initially shown on American television as an ABC Movie of the Week installment. It was the 18th highest-rated TV movie of the year with a Nielsen rating of 20.9 and an audience share of 33%.
Following Duel's successful TV airing, Universal released the film overseas in 1972. It was released to cinemas in European countries and Australia; it had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States, and it was widely praised in the UK. The film's success enabled Spielberg to establish himself as a film director.
The TV movie was not long enough for theatrical release, so Universal had Spielberg spend two days filming several new scenes, turning Duel into a 90-minute film. The new scenes were set at the railroad crossing and the school bus, as well as the scene of Mann talking to his wife on the telephone. A longer opening sequence was added with the car backing out of a garage and driving through the city. Expletives were also added, to make the film sound less like a television production.
Duel was released to VHS by Universal twice; first in 1982 under their MCA Videocassette Inc label and again in 1990, by which time the label's name had been changed to MCA Universal.
Duel was released on Blu-ray disc on October 14, 2014, as part of the eight-film box set Steven Spielberg Director's Collection. It was also released as a separate Blu-ray on May 5, 2015.
Duel received many positive reviews and is considered by some to be one of the greatest TV movies ever made. On the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, Duel currently has a score of 88% based on 41 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8 out of 10, with the site's consensus stating that "Duel makes brilliant use of its simple premise, serving up rock-solid genre thrills while heralding the arrival of a generational talent behind the lens". Television critic Matt Zoller Seitz in his 2014 book co-written with Alan Sepinwall titled TV (The Book) named Duel as the greatest American TV-movie of all time, stating that "Almost fifty years after its initial broadcast, this stripped-down, subtly mythic action thriller retains a good deal of its power".
Interpretations of Duel often focus on the symbolism of Mann and the truck. Some critics follow Spielberg's own interpretation of the story as an indictment against the mechanization of life, both by literal machines and by social regimentation. The theme of gender performativity in Mann's quest to prove his manhood is another interpretation several observers have noted. The film has been placed at #67 on The 100 Scariest Movie Moments on Bravo.
Over the years, Duel has developed a strong cult following and a reputation as a cult film.
Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival
The producers of the Duel documentary film The Devil on Wheels (documentary) have brought numerous participants in the 1971 Duel filming in front of the camera. Including Universal Television president, Spielberg mentor and financier of Duel Sid Sheinberg, Duel first assistant director James Fargo and Spielberg's first manager Mike Medavoy. As well as Billy Goldenberg, who was responsible for the music score, and Carol Kaye, the legendary bass guitarist who recorded parts of the music score. Filmmaker Kenneth Johnson, creator and producer of the television series The Incredible Hulk, reiterates his position on a dispute he had with Duel producer George Eckstein about reused scenes from Duel for the 1978 Hulk episode Never Give A Trucker An Even Break. Another focus of the documentary film is dedicated to the fan cult surrounding Duel. This is where the current owner and the two previous owners of the original Peterbilt truck used in the filming get their say. Furthermore, a fan is accompanied who visited all the shooting locations again and carefully recreated numerous camera settings from Duel on site. Part of these scenes is a visit to the owner of the surviving Chucks Cafe near Santa Clarita in the US State California. Finally, film critics and renowned book authors such as Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride and Steven Anwalt, author of the book Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career philosophize about Spielberg's intentions and interpret possible theories about the meaning of Duel. The documentary film is scheduled to be released in 2023.
I think when you make an action film, especially a road picture, it's the best way to work, because it's very hard to pick up a script and sift through five hundred words of prose and then commit them to memory.
Duel might almost have been a silent film, because it expresses so much through action and so little through the words that are here.
‘Duel‘ and ‘The Hitcher‘ were both named after the classic car movies, of course.