This cult-classic and Spielberg’s second feature-length film as Director – Duel is one of the first movies I remember having seen and it made a lasting impression. It is renowned as one of the greatest made-for-television films ever made. The script was adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story and 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 – the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The story was given to Spielberg by his secretary, who told him that he should apply to be the director.
While traveling through the desert for an appointment with a client, the businessman David Mann from California passes a slow and old tanker truck. The psychotic truck driver feels offended and chases David along the empty highway trying to kill him.
Much of the movie was filmed in and around the communities of Canyon Country, Agua Dulce, and Acton, California. 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. 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. Spielberg observed that fear of the unknown is perhaps the greatest fear of all and that Duel plays heavily to that fear. The effect of not seeing the driver makes the real villain of the film the truck itself, rather than the driver.
This is ‘road-rage’ at its most potent. It’s such a simple movie plot, but its feel and cinematography lends more to a Paris,Texas-esque European cine-scope of America. There’s a great scene where Mann stops at a roadside diner and tries to analyze his situation. At that point in time anyone could be the villain-the guy eating a sandwich, the guy with cowboy boots having a soda, or even the woman standing by the exit. But we never know. This is Spielberg’s breakthrough movie. He has surpassed it with projects such as “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “ET,” but Duel is a very well made-unconventional film that achieves its objective.
Trivia (spoiler alert):
*The dinosaur roar sound effect that is heard as the truck goes over the cliff is also heard in Jaws (1975), as the shark’s carcass sinks into the ocean.
*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.”
1. Duel (1971 film) – Wikipedia