Duel (1971)
April 15, 2016 7:32 AM - Subscribe

A business commuter is pursued and terrorized by the malevolent driver of a massive tractor-trailer.

Duel is a 1971 television (and later full-length theatrical) thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Richard Matheson, based on Matheson's short story of the same name. It stars Dennis Weaver as a terrified motorist stalked on a remote and lonely road by the mostly unseen driver of a mysterious tanker truck. (wikipedia)

• The script is adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story, originally published in Playboy magazine. It was inspired by a real-life experience in which Matheson 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. The short story was given to Spielberg by his secretary, who reportedly read the magazine for the stories

Duel was Spielberg's second feature-length directing effort, after his 1971 The Name of the Game NBC television series episode "L.A. 2017". The film's success enabled Spielberg to establish himself as a film director.

• 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 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.

• Though the car was carefully chosen – a red Plymouth Valiant – three cars were used in the filming. The original release featured a 1970 model with a 318 V-8 engine and "Plymouth" spelled out in block letters across the hood, as well as trunk lid treatment characteristic of the 1970 model; a 1971 model with a 225 Slant Six was also used. When the film was released in theatres and scenes were added, a 1972 model with a 225 Slant Six was added, with the "Plymouth" name on the hood as one emblem. All three cars were dressed with wheel covers available only to Valiant models, only in 1971.

• 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 then-current flat-nosed "cab-over" style of trucks because the long hood of the Peterbilt, coupled to its split windshield and round headlights, gave it more of a "face", adding to its menacing personality. Additionally, Spielberg said 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".

• The truck had twin rear axles, a Cummins NTC 350 turbocharged engine with a 5-speed main transmission and a 3-speed auxiliary transmission, making it capable of hauling loads over 30 tons and top speeds reaching 75-80 mph. During the original filming, the crew only had one truck, so the final scene of the truck falling off the cliff had to be completed in one take. For the film's theatrical release, though, additional trucks were purchased in order to film the additional scenes that were not in the original made-for-television version (the school bus scene and the railroad crossing scene). Only one of those trucks has survived.

• 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.

• Spielberg stated that he approached this movie in the manner of a Toho monster movie, replacing Godzilla with an 18 wheeler tanker truck.

• 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.

• The film received many positive reviews and is often considered the greatest TV movie ever made. On Rotten Tomatoes the film currently has a score of 87% based on 38 reviews with an average rating of 7.8 out of 10.)

• 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 common interpretation.

• The dinosaur roar sound effect that is heard as the truck goes over the cliff is also heard in Jaws (1975), also directed by Spielberg, as the shark's carcass sinks into the ocean. Spielberg has said that this is because he feels there is a "kinship" between Duel and Jaws, as they are both about "these leviathans targeting everyman." He has also said that inserting the sound effect into Jaws was "my way of thanking Duel for giving me a career."


This movie is a selection of the Shut Up And Drive! club.
posted by valkane (18 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Shut Up And Drive! will be screening this feature tonight, April 15, @ 9:00 pm ET. Click here to watch.
posted by valkane at 7:34 AM on April 15, 2016

It feels like a long time since we have had character actors/leading men like Dennis Weaver. He was such an odd, twitchy character. There was something about that that worked in all the westerns he was in -- and McCloud was basically a transplanted western -- but I loved seeing him in non-westerns, like this and Touch of Evil. In the latter, he's just deeply odd, and in this film he just flat out seems like he's having a nervous breakdown.

But it wasn't a showy weirdness, like, say, Crispin Glover. It was just his, and it was great.
posted by maxsparber at 8:10 AM on April 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

I watch the trailer for "L.A. 2017" just now, somehow I've never heard about it. Trippy, Spielberg should try something wild and outside his comfort range.

And now I feel like watching Duel, it freaked me out as a kid along with "The Car". Or maybe a Richard Matheson film festival.
posted by beowulf573 at 8:37 AM on April 15, 2016

Anyone around Jersey City interested in a gigantic (like 6' x 5') framed movie poster of this in French? Free to a good home, but you pick it up. MeMail me.
posted by whuppy at 9:33 AM on April 15, 2016

This was on Saturday afternoon UHF TV all the time when I was a kid (mid-'80s), and I watched it all the time. There was an aesthetic I couldn't place my finger on, but it was common to a lot of '70s films, I couldn't get enough of it, and it was all over Duel. When unfamiliar movies would appear on television, I would quickly determine they shared this aesthetic if -- yup -- lensflare was present. So I totally get J.J. Abrams.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:12 AM on April 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

So they shot in Agua Dulce but didn't shoot near Vasquez Rocks?
posted by infinitewindow at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2016

This freaked me out as a kid, too. It actually still does, and it's as a direct result of this picture that I actively try to drive on roads where trucks are not permitted even if it will take me longer to reach my destination. At the very least, I give trucks a wiiiiide berth on the highway and never try to pass them.

(Then there was the time I watched Breakdown on DVD the night before undertaking a cross-country drive from SF to NYC on Interstate 40 and sat up all night in a panicked sweat. But that's a whole different story.)
posted by holborne at 12:26 PM on April 15, 2016

A question, btw: do we actually know the Weaver character is named "Mann" from the picture itself, or only from Matheson's story? I don't recall that we hear Weaver's name at any point during the picture.
posted by holborne at 12:28 PM on April 15, 2016

I always assumed he was just playing himself.
posted by maxsparber at 12:32 PM on April 15, 2016

Duel was Spielberg's second feature-length directing effort, after his 1971 The Name of the Game NBC television series episode "L.A. 2017".

Oh, this was originally a TV movie, right? Because I have been told all these years that Sugarland Express was Spielberg's first feature. So that might be his first actual feature, but was preceded by the TV version of Duel and L.A. 2017., right?

BTW, L.A. 2017 appears to have perfectly nailed the phenomenon of decrepit boomers still clinging to the 60s and crushing anything that gets in their way. The only real difference between that trailer and any Stones tour since the 90s is the Stones' higher budget and production quality.
posted by Naberius at 12:49 PM on April 15, 2016

He shot two more features before Sugarland Express, both TV movies: Something Evil, a horror film, and Savage, a political thriller.
posted by Iridic at 1:16 PM on April 15, 2016

Okay, I have a weird connection to this movie... 'L.A. Wacky Disc Jockey' "Sweet" Dick Whittington (who I worked for as a clerical assistant/on-air sidekick YEARS after this) was the Voice on the Car Radio for the first part of the movie and he didn't record any new voice-over work for it, they used actual tapes of his show including a couple live 'prank calls' he did in the early 70s when you could legally do so, plus an incoming call from somebody weirder than he was...
from IMDB:
Radio Interviewer: [discussing an amateur talent competition] So, what is it that you do, if I may ask?
Caller on Radio: I play meat.
Radio Interviewer: You play meat?
Caller on Radio: Yes, uh... meat. You know, beef, pork...
David Mann: [laughing] That's sick, man. That's sick.
And that's how I ended up "2 degrees of separation" from Stephen Spielberg and Dennis Weaver (who I've never actually met).

If FanFare runs long enough, you'll know how I got "2 degrees of separation" from Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, John Belushi, Goldie Hawn, Mel Blanc, Robert DeNiro, Roseanne and Chuck Norris (NONE of whom I've ever actually met)

Anyway, I remember seeing this when it first aired on ABC (again, YEARS before I worked for Whittington). Their "Movies for TV" productions were in a regular weekly "ABC Movie of the Week" 90-minute time slot (only 75 minutes minus commercials) and based on their success, the network added an "ABC Movie of the Weekend" on Saturdays. This was one of the first and one of the most highly rated.

And I read the story before I saw the TV movie. My father had gotten a subscription to Playboy from a troublemaking friend of which my mother did not approve, so she promptly tossed the safely-wrapped issues in the trash where teen-aged me was occasionally able to rescue them. And after getting bored with the naked ladies (it happens!) I actually read some of the articles and especially the fiction.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:26 PM on April 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't recall that we hear Weaver's name at any point during the picture.

Yeah, we do, he even spells his last name on the phone call to the cops. And there's a particularly important shot of his briefcase with his name monogrammed on it.

We just finished watching it, and hoo-boy, it was just as tense as I remember. Dennis Weaver was amazing. And Senior Spielbergo did turn in an impressive film. But as foop said: "We're gonna need a bigger car."
posted by valkane at 7:40 PM on April 15, 2016

I'm going to refer to the director as Mr. Greblieps from now on.

But I like the fact that in the first trailer for the movie he just did for Disney from the Raold Dahl story "The BFG", they never officially declare what "BFG" stands for... B.F.Greblieps?
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:22 PM on April 15, 2016

Literally my favorite movie ever. Terrified me as a child when Turner Network Television would run it. For years nobody understood what I meant when I said I wanted to watch the scary truck movie. Finally a catalog of VHS tapes arrived with screen caps of the movies. I found Duel and my quest had a name. I could never afford the $50 (IIRC) tape on my 25 cent allowance but I eventually bought a copy as a teen and began to appreciate Duel on a deeper level than a typical suspense film.
posted by Monochrome at 1:47 PM on April 16, 2016

Great flick. I always wondered why he didn't just hang out in the diner for awhile longer and try to figure out who it was through a process of elimination.
I've had the unfortunate experience of working odd graveyard shifts and if you do enough driving around on Friday and Saturday nights you find out there actually are people out there who have nothing better to do but to mess with (terrorize) other people with their car.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:34 AM on April 18, 2016

Fun trivia I never thought I would use: per the production art of Star Wars Episode I, E.T.'s race is the Grebleips (they appear in the Senate).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:37 PM on April 18, 2016

I never saw this as a kid, somehow. Kinda felt like a really long Twilight Zone episode, though with a gritter feel.

I knew we'd never meet the trucker, but given how heavily the first act hit upon emasculation and gender roles, and the name David Mann lol, I thought it would be pretty funny if the driver turned out to be a woman.

At least the truck isn't quite a superninja truck that can teleport around or do whatever. You gotta try maneuvers and then the monster does counter-maneuvers that seem reasonable. There's no point if the monster just can be anywhere and never has to adjust to your bullshit.
posted by fleacircus at 11:57 PM on September 17, 2023

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