CINEMA CLASSICS: Duel (1971)

New recruit Liam Brennan hits the road with Steven Spielberg’s spectacular calling card. 

Who made it?: Steven Spielberg (Director), Richard Matheson (Writer), George Eckstein (Producer), Universal TV.

Who’s in it?: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell, Lucille Benson, Carey Loftin.

Tagline: “The Killer’s Weapon – A 40 Ton Truck.”

IMDb rating: 7.7/10.

Travelling salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is driving across country to a business meeting, encountering an obstacle in the shape of a large and unsightly oil-stained truck, which is moving at a snail’s pace and expelling huge plumes of black smoke. David overtakes the giant rig, but moments later, the truck dangerously overtakes his small red Plymouth Valiant. Somewhat aggrieved yet still undeterred, he overtakes the rig for a second time. The truck protests by aggressively sounding off the first of many long, loud air horns. With the behemoth seemingly long gone, Mann stops at a gas station and the truck follows him once more, arriving moments later. David looks toward the truck with reserved caution, trying to get a look at the driver but all he notes is an elbow sticking out of the raised cab window, followed shortly after by a pair of tan-coloured cowboy boots walking ominously underneath the chassis.

David continues his journey and yet again the truck is back, once more blocking his progress. Tit-for-tat road rage continues for the next few miles until our increasingly frustrated protagonist sees the arm of the mysterious truck driver stretch out, waving on for him to pass. David takes the offer and accelerates to overtake, suddenly realising that he has been deliberately waved into oncoming traffic. Taking evasive action, he narrowly avoids a head-on collision. Shocked at the murderous behaviour of the truck driver, David concludes that the occupant is insane and makes a run for an unmarked side road, passing the truck at high speeds and accelerating away much to his delight. The delight is short-lived, however, as he sees danger approaching in the rear-view mirror. The truck is back and it looks angry!

From this moment on, we go on a journey with Weaver’s Mann, a terrified motorist being stalked and harassed by a maniacal highway killer whose weapon of choice is a forty-ton oil tanker. We share in his increasing paranoia, anxiety and sheer desperation as what should have been a routine business trip turns into a waking nightmare! The suspense continues to build up to Hitchcock proportions in a number of thrilling chases and set pieces, most notably the attack at the “Snakerama” gas station where David attempts to call the police before the bastard truck bursts through the phone booth. The killer is never identified; we only see the driver’s limbs, adding to the already great sense of mystery.

On November 13th, 1971, Duel first aired on the American television channel ABC as the Monday night “Movie of the Week.” The man tasked with bringing the story to the screen would be 23-year-old Steven Spielberg who, at that point, had only a few television credits to his name, most notably Rod Serling’s Night Gallery episode “Eyes” (1969) starring Joan Crawford, and the Columbo episode “Murder by the Book” (1971). The latter hadn’t even aired at the time. A short story in Playboy magazine was brought to his attention, which happened to be Richard Matheson’s Duel. Highly impressed and seeing the potential for a film, Spielberg discovered that the story had already been adapted by Matheson into a screenplay and was set to be a television movie. Spielberg approached television producer George Eckstein at ABC and enthusiastically asked to direct. Eckstein knew of Spielberg through Sid Sheinberg, an executive at Universal who is credited with discovering the talented youth, but was reluctant given his age and the fact he was gaining a reputation among ageing television crews who found his now-famous childlike enthusiasm somewhat overbearing. Eckstein, however, agreed to hire Spielberg as director after a successful meeting and a viewing of the rough cut of his Columbo episode.

The director went to work with a budget of $450,000 and was given ten days to complete the shoot, involving himself heavily in pre-production, which was unusual at the time on a television project. Spielberg was excited when Weaver’s name was mentioned to play the part of David Mann, having remembered his nervous performance in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). For the part of the main antagonist, Spielberg carefully chose the Peterbilt truck as it offered more visually, even resembling a face with a protruding snout. Billy Goldenberg would provide the score. He had already worked with Spielberg on Columbo. The music would be used sparingly, opting instead to carry the film’s dramatic scenes using sound effects and winning the production an Emmy Award in 1972. One problem facing Spielberg in prep was the insistence of the production manager, Wallace Worsley, that the film be shot on a soundstage using rear-projection to create a false background. The director refused, insisting on the need to shoot entirely on location. A compromise was made and it was agreed that if the production went behind schedule after six days, they would go back to the soundstage. The shoot would take a further three days to complete, but having already got “some great stuff,” Spielberg was allowed to continue.

On completion, Duel received excellent reviews which led to a theatrical release in Europe in the early part of 1973, with several scenes added which took the running time from 74 to 90 minutes. Spielberg shot the extra scenes at a later date, including a longer opening title sequence, a scene involving a school bus which is easily the most cinematic, and the addition of a telephone conversation between David and his wife which helps confirm that Mann is not the confrontational type.

Weaver’s performance is fantastic, brilliantly conveying a sense of growing paranoia that makes the viewer feel uncomfortable throughout, and Spielberg is equally brilliant in capturing that feeling on film. An example would be the diner scene. David staggers into Chuck’s Cafè panic-stricken and nauseous, and Spielberg’s handheld camera follows him face on into the bathroom in one continuous tracking shot. The unsteady nature of the shot expertly portrays the character’s emotions. Thinking the ordeal is over, David takes a seat and looks out the window noticing the killer truck parked outside, believing that his stalker is in the diner with him. The director ensures the suspense grows to bursting point. Having only seen the assailant’s footwear, he scans the area only to find several men wearing the same colour cowboy boots. Spielberg uses a series of shots from long to extreme close-ups to create a great sense of panic. You can almost feel the eyes on David as we hear the voice in his head contemplating his next move. It really drives home the nature of the character’s ordeal and sums up why Duel is such a great debut.

Duel is an extremely enjoyable and streamlined edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller that is as fresh today as it was in 1971. It opened doors for Spielberg that would later see him direct Jaws (1975) and the rest is history! If it was Jaws that set Spielberg on the path to greatness, it was Duel that gave him the opportunity.

Best Scene

Spielberg saves the biggest moment for last as the tension comes to a head. Ah, that’s better…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • According to Richard Matheson, he was inspired to write the original short story after an encounter with a tailgating truck driver on November 22, 1963, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
  • When Carey Loftin, playing the truck driver, asked Steven Spielberg what his motivation was for tormenting the car’s driver, Spielberg told him, “You’re a dirty, rotten, no-good son of a bitch.” Loftin replied, “Kid, you hired the right man.”
  • During the chase, a parked sedan resembling a squad car is seen, briefly raising Dennis Weaver’s hopes, but it turns out to be a service car for a pest exterminator named Grebleips… “Spielberg” in reverse.
  • Spielberg can be seen reflected in the telephone booth during the scene where David Mann is calling the police. During his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, Spielberg admitted that this was not an intentional cameo, but instead was a mistake. He went on to state that several similar mistakes were revealed when the movie received a theatrical release in Europe, with eighteen different occurrences where Spielberg could be seen because of the change in aspect ratio for theatrical release.

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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