screened Monday March 17 2008 on DVD projected at DRV-IN, Manhattan's only drive-in theater IMDbWiki
Steven Spielberg's first feature production, in which a seemingly driverless Peterbilt truck terrorizes Dennis Weaver's salesman on a California highway, is an object lesson in narrative efficiency and resourceful filmmaking, having been shot in only 16 days with a miniscule budget and edited in only three weeks for TV broadcast. The result was so wildly successful that the film was released theatrically in Europe with an additional 20 minutes of footage. The extra scenes, which include a telephone conversation with Weaver's wife and Weaver's internal monologue gratuitously expressing his anxieties, mostly detract from the brilliant simplicity of sci-fi legend Richard Matheson's script. While Weaver's David Mann fends for his life against several tons of metal on wheels, this machine is not nearly as relentless as the cinematic apparatus as employed by Spielberg, cutting across a panoply of angles and camera movements from which the truck is regarded every which way, such that its menace is amplified, even fetishized. To produce such claustrophobic suspense across miles of open road is no mean feat, a triumph of cinema applied to a minimal scenario. The visceral has always been Spielberg's primary domain, try as he has in recent years to apply it to lofty themes (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) or even to subvert its immediacy (A.I., Munich). Here, for better or worse, it's as pure as it can be.
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STEVEN SPIELBERG first made his mark with a film about a diabolical truck, a subject that would seem to have only limited possibilities. In fact, Mr. Spielberg's 1971 television film ''Duel'' took advantage of the very narrowness of its premise, building excitement from the most minimal ingredients and the simplest of situations. The theatrical version of ''Duel'' at the Manhattan Twin theater may contain a few extra close-ups of its leading man's nose, but otherwise it works as well on the wide screen as it did on the small one. Even without benefit of hindsight, ''Duel'' looks like the work of an unusually talented young director.
Mr. Weaver is the film's ostensible leading man, but his responses are seldom complex or surprising. The vehicles are the real stars of ''Duel,'' and whenever the chase is interrupted by the relatively primitive people on hand (at a truck stop and, in one particularly odd sequence, at a gas station run by a woman who keeps pet snakes, spiders and lizards), the film loses its momentum and becomes somewhat clumsy. The ending is abrupt, too, but the main impression left by ''Duel'' is one of talent and energy. Mr. Spielberg seemed, with this film, to be headed for bigger and better things. Sure enough, he was.
- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, April 15, 1983
Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg made their feature debuts at roughly the same age. Both finished products are extremely impressive and promised both boy geniuses long and fruitful careers (even if only one of them actually got his). But unlike Welles, Spielberg wasn't aware that he was making a big-screen theatrical debut.
Welles' Citizen Kane was specifically tailored to be a monster of a debut, while Spielberg's Duel was merely a run-of-the-mill TV movie of the week. But the young director put everything he had into the sparse script, by the great Richard Matheson, and turned it into a first masterpiece.
Even the director himself could not help drawing a connection to Welles. In one scene, he has Weaver repeat his famous line from Touch of Evil, "You've got another think coming!"
- Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid
Duel is remarkably sophisticated, given the constraints of a 16 day shoot and an imposed episodic structure to accommodate commercial breaks. European critics responded to its craft rather than its symbolism. One of Spielberg's strongest influences, David Lean, proclaimed this new talent; Dilys Powell's Sunday times review described Duel as 'spun from the very stuff of cinema'; and Francois Truffaut praised it for achieving the 'grace, lightness, modesty, elegance, speed' the New Wave had dreamt of. Its allusiveness and playfulness, while permitting Spielberg to flex stylistic muscles and demonstrate versatility, are consistently purposeful, pertinent and never gratuitous.
- Nigel Morris, The Cinema of Steven Spielberg, Empire of Light, 2007, Wallflower Press
The truck itself is a formidable beast: bulky, grimy, billowing exhaust fumes and sounding its horn, it would be threatening even if it wasn't trying to murder Mann. We never get a good look at the trucker, all we see of him are his arm as he waves Mann past (both times to potential doom) and his cowboy boots as he walks around the side of his vehicle. This adds to the air of paranoia and menace - we are never given a reason for the trucker's murderous intent.
Mann, on the other hand, is represented as weak: Weaver is nervous and sweaty, his voiceovers are panicky and desperate. The whole drama feels like a test of his manliness (or lack of it). In the scene at the cafe, after he has been run off the road for the first time, he has to take an aspirin, then grows to believe that the trucker is sitting amongst the cafe's customers with him. But when he picks a fight with the most likely suspect, Mann ends up cowering and beaten on the floor; he doesn't actually pick the right guy, either. In fact, nobody he goes to for help actually believes him or assists him, cranking up the tension all the more.
The chase scenes are superbly filmed, with the roar of the engines and fast cutting between the two opponents' vehicles as they speed through the dusty desert landscape. Details are added which make the action more exciting, whether it's the radio blandly playing country music while Mann's life is at stake, or the truck smashing through cages of rattlesnakes as Mann dives out the way. What could have been forgotten as just another TV movie became, in the hands of Spielberg and Matheson, one of the finest, most suspenseful, car chase films of the seventies.
- Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image
The minimalist plot means that the film is, apart from Dennis Weaver's impressively frazzled lead performance, virtually all Spielberg's, and the film works thanks to the tight grip of his shot selection and editing. His camera is as mobile as the vehicles it films: the first shot of the front of the killer truck, for example, comes at the end of a long, low overtaking pan from Mann's car up past all the wheels of the truck. Spielberg's compositions are very deep, with the truck often viewed through Mann's car, so that the sparring vehicles are arranged before us in the frame, not in the editing. The camera searches for the truck in Mann's rear-view mirrors, encouraging the audience, when the truck is not around, to likewise hunt for it in the corners of the frame. The film is almost too efficient: spare and machine-like, it is easier to admire than to actually like, and its self-conscious attempt to establish its hero as a symbolic everyman is somewhat laboured. (Weaver's performance establishes everything we need to know about him, without the voiceover or the needless phone argument with his wife to join the dots). Yet the fact that the subtext was there at all was evidence of an ambition greater than might normally be expected of a typical throwaway TV thriller. In his next two projects Spielberg would get the chance to flesh out the bare-bones thrills of Duel into films that were livelier, wider in scope, and less mechanical, proving that the airlessness of Duel was a product of format and project, not the temperament of the director.
- Steven Rowley, Senses of Cinema
The entire film comes with some often stunning camerawork. Spielberg and Jack A. Marta really get in there transforming the dust and oil begrimed, pollution-belching shape of the truck into something primal. The truck is first seen in a tire-level camera cruise that travels right down its length at wheel-level and subsequently sits under its slowly churning central axle or racing alongside its vibrating tires. Spielberg and Jack Marta generate such a sense of presence that a wheel waiting across the road, a puffing smoke stack, or the baleful omniscience of the truck's giant grille and headlights filling a rear-vision mirror or a back window, are eventually enough to convey the personality of the truck in themselves without seeing the whole.
- Richard Schieb
This is 1971; standard action movie tropes are absent, possibly because James Cameron is still a college student and has yet to invent them. Weaver doesn't utter a witty catch-phrase before dispatching the truck, the truck (though unsettlingly tagged as "FLAMMABLE") does not explode when it hits the canyon floor, and, most surprisingly, when it's dead, it's dead. These days, it would be de rigeur for the bloodied (and most likely, charred-faceless, since the truck would have become engulfed in an inferno of its own cargo) truck driver to make a sudden appearance, attacking Weaver with a pipe of twisted metal. A final mano-a-mano fistfight would ensue, and the truck driver would finally die. Or not. A post-Cameron villain has to die at least three deaths before really, really breathing its last. But this is 1971, and the movie just ends, with Weaver, carless and alone in the desert, sitting in the fading sunlight and absently tossing rocks down the cliffside at his defeated opponent. The credits roll over this image.
So that's the movie. Are there any Spielberg trademarks in evidence here? Some, to be sure. He likes wide lenses, allowing him to place the camera close to actors and still see a fairly wide sweep of background behind them. There are shots taken in rear-view mirrors that show up again, although with better understanding of their specific use as part of a film's grammar and storytelling, in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. There is a natural inventiveness in where he puts the camera; in a film in which probably 80% of the shots are of either Weaver's car, the truck, or both of them, cruising on a highway, Spielberg demonstrates a fluid ability to consistently add variety to the movie's visuals. In the early chase scene, the camera tends to stay in or around Weaver's car, and the shots of the truck are taken at a distance. Later on, the camera is sometimes lashed onto the top of the rig, or screams along the road, inches from its mammoth wheels.
There is a shot in the movie that follows Weaver as he walks into a diner and back into the men's room, perhaps the most elaborate single set-up in the movie, shortly followed by its reverse, of Weaver leaving the men's room, walking to the diner's window, and catching the reveal of the truck parked outside. (I'd have to watch it again to be sure, but I think there are cuts inside the men's room, and that it isn't all one long shot, just two long ones stitched together.) The camera starts this first tracking shot inside the diner, but the view is of Weaver walking outside, as seen through one of the diner's windows. Camera inside, Weaver outside, then he leaves the bright exterior and enters the darkened interior. Spielberg used this same move, perhaps a year earlier, in an episode of Columbo. (I remember watching this episode, thinking the director was doing some interesting things, and was happily surprised to see Spielberg's name pop up at the end credits.) It also calls to mind something at the other end of the spectrum, the maybe-famous shot from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) in which Mrs. Ryan, the title character's mother, sees the car approaching that brings her the devastating news that four of her children have been killed in combat. The camera sits in the darkened interior, while outside the car pulls up and the men get out. Here, though, the woman leaves the darkness and steps outside. It tells me that Spielberg is still playing with a visual idea that he was using as early as 1970.
- J. Robinson Wheeler
SOME SUBTEXT: While sweating it out in Chuck's diner, Mann whines to himself about how one simple thing can tear away the veneer of civilization and put a man "right back in the jungle," but the laws of Duel seem to have a more medieval origin. "Honor" plays a significant role: the protagonist is a man stuck in an early-seventies world where honor, specifically masculine honor, is under constant attack. His wife criticizes him for not defending her honor at a party, he whinges at the prospect of his mother coming to visit (a prospect that reduces him to a child), he gripes to a gas-station attendant that he's not the boss of his house, a caller on a radio show he listens to complains about how not having a job has removed his title of "head of family." (Family is a burden in Duel, a rarity in Spielberg's work, although not surprising in a movie made by a 21-year-old. 21!) When Mann(the extra "n" is for extra iNadequacy!)'s life is in danger, "real men" in cowboy boots glare pitilessly at him, old men laugh at him, he is made to sit by himself in the "pink section" of the diner, where he can barely muster the manliness to order the ultra-un-macho meal of a cheese sandwich and a glass of water. It doesn't help his case that Mann, as played by Dennis Weaver, with his tidy mustache, at times resembles a weak-jawed Burt Reynolds.
Balancing "honor" in a civilized world, of course, is "duty." Mann has a duty to his family, to his job, to the middle-class suburban society he represents. He's a Civilized Man, and his sense of duty is so great that, even after he suspects that his life is in danger, he still proceeds to his job appointment -- even after the truck has tried to shove his car into the path of an oncoming train and he's hours late for his appointment, Mann does not turn around and head home -- he grimly pushes ahead. Perhaps he feels his duty to his family is that great, or perhaps he decides he would rather be fighting for his life with a homicidal maniac than back home with his shrewish wife and burdensome kids.
The truck, of course, knows no honor at all. Its filth and smoke stand as a symbol of pollution, its size and aggression stand as symbols of everything that pushes Mann around and makes him feel small and helpless. To string all the symbols along, one could say that the tanker truck symbolizes the heartless, homicidal oil economy (cf There Will Be Blood) that created the middle class that Mann belongs to, and also created the automobile culture that allowed for the suburbs in which he lives so safely.
(Spielberg insists, by the way, that he was thinking of none of this while shooting Duel, and I believe him, but that doesn't mean that the meaning is not there. My guess is that the highly skilled direction belongs to the young director and the cultural symbolism comes from the writer Richard Matheson.)
- Todd Alcott
The greasy rig and its concealed driver represent the evil Halliburton and the corrupt Dick Cheney, respectively, and David Mann is the downtrodden proletariat...OK, I have not actually read that in some self-important leftist hack's analysis of Steven Spielberg's 1971 film, but I wouldn't be surprised if such drivel disgraced the screen of my fabulous 12-inch PowerBook G4 someday while I'm doing some "research" on the Internet. Duel is routinely and rightfully praised as a triumph of minimalist moviemaking, but it is also subject to endless interpretation. Every idiot seems to know the true meaning that lurks beneath the movie's 90 minutes of Peterbilt/Plymouth rivalry. But who gives a you-know-what?
Certainly not Spielberg himself. The Duel DVD that Universal finally released (after a process as drawn-out as the O.J. trial) contains an interview in which the filmmaker spends over 30 minutes recalling his memories of the movie. He explains that, when Duel was released theatrically in Europe in 1972, the erudite Europeans (smoking little cigarettes and wearing berets, no doubt) concocted all sorts of class warfare themes to explain conflict in the film, but Steve-o says that it wasn't his intention...
Perhaps one of the most overlooked and underrated elements of the production is Billy Goldenberg's unorthodox score. I don't intend any offense to Mr. Goldenberg, but to call it a musical score would be quite a misnomer. Rather than a having a soundtrack filled with traditional orchestral pieces, Goldenberg uses the orchestra's strings and combines them with exotic African instruments to create atmospheric sounds that reflect and amplify the tension of the movie...
Duel is an intensely visual film, and this duo holds primary responsibility for transforming Richard Matheson's masterfully-written story into an amazing cinematic vision. If Hollywood had some sort of an efficiency scale that weighed the amount of money spent against the quality of the film and its cultural impact, Duel would be off the charts. Imagining that the production of the movie cost Universal a mere $500,000 is difficult given the incredible result. A decade later, Spielberg directed E.T., and for that production, Universal shelled out over 20 times as much cash. Even if you adjust for the out-of-control inflation during the Carter era, E.T. was still 10 times more expensive to produce. Is E.T. 10 times the movie that Duel is? I don't believe so.
Perhaps the genius evident in the movie is actually dumb luck on Spielberg's part. Maybe the insanely rushed shooting schedule (less than two weeks) and tight budget forced the moviemaker to create a film that was just shaky enough and looked cheap enough to be suspenseful. Each frame looks as nervous as David Mann does when 20 tons of "souped-up diesel" is bearing down on him.
- Brian Troutman
The random victim here, David Mann, is perfectly portrayed by the well-known Dennis Weaver. Widely recognized for his role as TV's McCloud, a staple of NBC's "Sunday Mystery Movie," as well as his role as Tom Wedloe in TV's Gentle Ben, Weaver seems to step effortlessly into the skin of a less-than-capable character, that of a henpecked, socially impotent businessman. He's adept at communicating the feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, and internal turmoil a man confronted by the shame of his own avowed lack of masculinity must have. With little dialogue but concise body language, Weaver convincingly presents the anguish of what you might call the middle-class-medium-build-middle-aged-white-man's worst nightmare. His is a performance you won't likely forget.
And it would be unthinkable to overlook composer Billy Goldenberg's score here, which is appropriately jarring and frantic, non-melodic, unpredictable, and aptly suited to enhance the edgy tone of the film. Some might dismiss it as an irrelevant accomplishment and not worthy of much mention; yet listen closely and see if you hear themes and arrangements that would seem to reappear in later film scores like that of Jerry Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes or Fred Karlin's Westworld. The fact is the score here is an achievement to be noted, and unquestionably succeeds in propelling us deeper into David Mann's distress.
It's safe to say that Duel is the unimpeachable evidence of young Steven Spielberg's precocious filmmaking skills. Ambitious almost to a fault, 24-year-old Spielberg sidestepped all protocol (call it the naïveté of youth, if you will) when he contacted the film's producer, George Eckstein, and brazenly asked to direct the film. Further, after being given a preliminary nod but presented with guidelines for photographing the picture, Spielberg shot back that he would shoot the picture his way—on location (thumbing his nose at the prescribed "process shot" approach). Through a bit of wrangling, he got his way. Armed with just $375,000 and an impossible 10-day shooting schedule, the kid delivered. Wise and resourceful beyond his years, the upstart filmmaker positioned multiple cameras along the desolate two-lane highway in Mint Canyon, northeast of Los Angeles. With an eye for efficiency, Spielberg was able to capture five simultaneous "drive-by" shots with every pass of the embattled Valiant pursued by the marauding truck; the director essentially mocking the ridiculously stingy production schedule while still capturing a variety of evocative and effective shots.
Beyond his ability to meet the severe challenges posed by a low-budget, fast-track feature (it was due to air on national television just three weeks following the completion of filming), Spielberg also displayed an incredible "knack" for filmmaking, showing an enviable fluency in the language of film. Duel is usually described as a "minimalist" film (it has a relatively flat story arc and relies on just 50-or-so lines of dialogue), so Spielberg should be recognized for his innate ability to visualize and materialize a striking piece of work despite the trim nature of the elements at his disposal. Mind you, there's nothing minimal about Richard Matheson's original short story, or his adapted teleplay that fuels the edge-of-your-seat action here; Spielberg rightly acknowledges the impeccable construction of Matheson's script. By chance or by fate, Duel simply worked.
- DVD Verdict
See if you can spot Spielberg in the film. He is visible at least twice – once in the back of the car, and once in the reflection of the phone booths glass in a fetching red shirt.
- David Beamish, DVD Active
About the DVD
Being Speilberg's first film, they didn't hold back too much from this DVD. The image is quite tight and probably even better than it looked on TV those many years ago. Of course, its not the same as an anamorphic modern production would be, but it is more than acceptable. Colors are strong, contrast is very good. Subtitles are excellent as is the audio channels with 3 different options offered. Extras go on with three interesting featurettes (2 with Spielberg). This DVD has everything short of a commentary. Its hard not to give it high marks.
- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
For the purists out there, the film's original mono track is here in a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix . (In my opinion, it's always a good move to include the original sound mix.) The real treat, though, is the newly-mixed DTS 5.1 track, which practically runs you down and rolls you over. This is an incredibly well-managed track that lets you feel the rumble and roar of the tanker every time it bears down on or overtakes the struggling Plymouth. There's a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on board, too, but the DTS track offers a much fuller experience, and will make you jump at every blast of the air horn. Again, more terrific work by the production team here to deliver a near-perfect new track.
On this particular disc, though, there is an offense for which there is no exoneration. While many squabbles over this film can be dismissed as inconsequential, and the delay to DVD can be, somewhat grudgingly, excused, there is no excuse, no explanation, for the remix mishap that resulted in the much-vaunted "dinosaur roar" being lost in the two 5.1 tracks. While these remixes perform so much better than expected for the most of the film, the tanker's dying roars that we've come to love (the same repeated at the climax of Jaws) are missing. You'll find them in their original glory on the mono track (again, thank goodness for the inclusion of the original mix) but it's really quite disappointing that the sound engineers overlooked this glaring error. A sidebar discussion: see if you agree that the roar is the same that belonged to "Spot," the dragon under the stairs from The Munsters.
- DVD Verdict
Duel appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. To be sure, Duel looked like a TV movie from 1971, but the DVD's producers polished it up pretty well.For the most part, sharpness seemed positive. Occasionally I saw some mildly soft images, but those didn't occur with any frequency. Most of the movie looked acceptably concise and well-defined. No jagged edges cropped up, but grilles caused some light shimmering, and I also noticed some light to moderate edge enhancement at times. Print flaws remained minimal. Minor grain cropped up at times, and I noticed the occasional speckle here or there. None of these caused problems, and the movie stayed clean the vast majority of the time.
Colors were neither great nor poor. When we considered the arid setting of most of the movie, it didn't lend itself to a dynamic palette, and rusty, faded tones dominated the tale. These were a bit bland but acceptably accurate and well-represented. As for blacks, these seemed pretty deep and firm, while the occasional low-light shots looked clean and smooth. You won't use Duel as a demonstration image, but it was solid given its age and origins.
- Colin Jacobson, DVD Movie Guide
Conversation with Director Steven Spielberg. This is it. This is as close as one might get to a full-fledged commentary track for Duel. In fact, it's almost better than a commentary. With the use of visual aids, and at a running time of over thirty minutes, this short segment is extremely informative about the collaborative process which brought Duel to the screen. From Spielberg's personal assistant who discovered the short story "Duel" in Playboy magazine, to Richard Matheson's teleplay which articulated events in great detail, Spielberg is quite humble in passing off some of the accolades, and giving credit where credit is due. This is far more than a rehash of clips from Duel. Spielberg shows the visual inspiration which led to Dennis Weaver as being the perfect fit as David Mann, as well as the storyboards which illustrate the ultimate path used in filming Duel on such a tight schedule. From the stunt team, to the lenses used, to the methods used to obtain certain shots, this conversation is technical enough to satisfy the film geeks in all of us. He even goes on to show some of the technical goofs which occurred in the transformation from the 1.33:1 standard TV aspect ratio, to the ultimate 1.85:1 theatrical film aspect ratio, (see above.) All of this is highly entertaining, and one of the better featurettes you will ever see on a DVD. Running time: 35:41.
Steven Spielberg and the Small Screen. (Video: 4:3) This short documentary shows how Steven Spielberg actually developed his directorial roots in television. While starting out as a self-claimed "snob" against TV, Spielberg was able to hone his craft by working on TV dramas such as Night Gallery with Joan Crawford, Marcus Welby M.D., Columbo (with writer Stephen Bochco,) and ultimately Duel. Spielberg is quite candid in his comments, and goes on to express which experiences were beneficial and which were not so helpful. He also explains the irony in that his use of theatrical film-like wide angle shots in television, is what ultimately got him noticed for film. Spielberg is an excellent speaker and he easily illustrates his progression and use of television as a launching pad for film. Running time: 9:27.
Richard Matheson: The Writing of Duel. (Video: 4:3) In what some may feel would be a simple story to put on paper, ("Truck chases guy. The End,") writer Richard Matheson does an admirable job of explaining not only the real-life events which led to Duel's evolution, but also the minor tweaks and touches woven in by Director Steven Spielberg. Very informative. Running time: 9:22.
- Mike McGee, The Digital Review
One very odd thing that's almost completely omitted from any of the interviews, and isn't mentioned in the brief production notes, is that the movie on the disc is NOT what people saw when the TV movie first aired. That print ran about 74 minutes, this is about 90 minutes. Well after the movie was completed, Universal decided to release it theatrically overseas, and so Spielberg, Weaver and the crew had to reassemble to shoot some additional sequences—and to somehow find another truck. The first one was hardly in condition to be used again. The added scenes include the one with the school bus and another in which the truck tries to push Weaver's car into the side of a passing train—these two scenes run consecutively. Also added was the scene in which Mann talks on the phone to his wife.
The movie has only a little voice-over narration of Mann's frightened thoughts; there was another cut of the film with a great deal more narration, but I don't know if that was intended for overseas release, or for a later American TV presentation. It's strange that apart from an offhand mention by Spielberg, there's nothing on this otherwise well-stocked disc about the various versions of "Duel."
- Bill Warren, Audio Video Revolution
This DuelFan Site boasts a number of interesting factoids about the film as well as the automobiles featured in the production:
Universal Pictures orginally planned 'Duel' to be a major motion picture. The studio wanted Gregory Peck to star in the film, but he passed up the role. Universal then decided to make 'Duel' a TV Movie.
Steven Spielberg was sneaking around the Universal Pictures mail room when he came across the script for 'Duel.' He loved the story so much that he begged management to let him direct the film. Universal complied with his request.
Steven Spielberg dropped out of film school to work for Universal Studios in 1969. He was frustrated by his first project, an episode for the show 'Night Gallery.' He then took a one year break from filmmaking and returned in 1970 by filming 'Duel'. Spielberg never finished his degree at film school.
'Duel' originally aired on the CBS network in 1971 as a Saturday Night Movie. The original film was only 74 minutes long. 'Duel' was rated extremely high by critics. Many beleive 'Duel' was responsible for making suspense films so popular in the 1970's. Soon after 'Duel', The Airport films, Spielberg's Jaws, and many more suspense films were released.
Following 'Duel's successful TV airing, Universal released 'Duel' overseas in 1973. Since the movie's 74 minutes was not long enough for moviegoers, Universal had Spielberg spend 2 days filming several new scenes. These new scenes turned 'Duel' into a 90 minute film. The new scenes were the railroad crossing, school bus, and David Mann's telephone conversation with his wife. Profainity was also dubbed in to make the film look like a major motion picture.
All the wreckage was removed and scrapped in 1971 after the film wrapped. The final crash sequence was filmed in Agua Dulce Canyon in Arizona. All the driving sequences were filmed on the Sierra Highway, Soledad Canyon Road, Agua Dulce Canyon Road, and Indian Canyon Road (the road to the finale).
TRIVIA: The pest-control car with the "Greblieps" sign on it (in the final action sequence) is "Speilberg" spelled backwards.
SURVIVORS: Chuck's Cafe is still standing. But it is now a french restaurant. All Plymouth Valiants in Duel were harmed (destroyed) in the filming of this movie. One of the diesel trucks still survives. Dennis Weaver's career highlights were probably McCloud, Duel and Gunsmoke. Steven Spielberg never amounted to much after Duel :)
David Mann's Plymouth Valiant
Year: 1970 Make: Plymouth Model: Valiant Custom Engine: Gasoline 318 cid V8 Price When New: $2800 Top Speed: 116 Mph Fuel Economy: 16 City/21 Highway 0-60mph: 8.0 seconds 1/4 Mile: 15.9 seconds @ 92 mph Body Style: 4 Door/6 Passenger Transmission: Column Shift TorqueFlite 904a 3 Speed Automatic
The Truck 'with some... some SOUPED UP DIESEL'
Year: 1955-1960 Series Make: Peterbilt Model: 351 Engine: Cummins NHBS Supercharged 6 Cylinder Diesel Price When New: $8900(estimate) Horsepower: 275 Gross @ 2400 RPM Top Speed: 90 Mph (estimated) Fuel Economy: 9 mpg city/11 mpg highway (unloaded) 0-60mph: 28 seconds (unloaded) 1/4 Mile: Do you really want to know? Its bad... Body Style: Conventional Cab/2 passenger Note: This truck was destroyed in the last scene of the film.
Stunt Truck Diesel (Truck #2 used in Railroad Crossing and Bus Scenes!) Year: 1962-1969 Series Make: Peterbilt Model: 351 Price When New: $11,040 (estimate) Horsepower: 320 Gross @ 2550 RPM Top Speed: 95 Mph (estimated) Fuel Economy: 8 mpg city/10 mpg highway (unloaded) 0-60mph: 25 seconds (unloaded) Body Style: Revised Cab/2 passenger Note: This truck was used in the Incredible Hulk episode exclusively. It still survives today. Features: Peterbilt changed their cabs in 1962, the second truck has the later cab. Also the second truck has a round fuel tank under the passenger door, while the first truck had a tool/battery box in that location. Further, the second truck had a different type of air cleaner. Also note, the trailer on the second truck had different wheel openings.
More About the Truck
Neil Losasso has been a fan of the movie Duel all of his life. He remembers how scary he thought the movie was when he was a kid. Years later, after finding out that there was a Duel truck still in existence, he began looking for it. After years of searching, he found it last year in George's yard, just sitting there, like it basically had done for 30 years. He climbed inside and pushed the button and low and behold, it fired right up. He was so excited! It took him about three seconds to decide that he wanted to buy it. Two weeks later, he sold his brand new, custom-ordered Harley to pay for the truck and trailer, which he now parks in the driveway of his home in Burbank, California. Thankfully, Burbank is a Hollywood-friendly town, so Neil doesn't get harassed much for parking it in his driveway. But his neighbors think it's pretty creepy – one even says that the truck is always "looking" at him and is sure it will someday roll down the driveway to come get him.With a background in the movie industry and trucking, Neil (42) is the perfect owner for this infamous rig. Growing up in and around Burbank and the San Fernando Valley, it was only natural for Neil to get involved in the television industry and become a stagehand. Getting acquainted with a lot of the drivers around the sets, Neil became more interested in trucking and got his Class A (Class 1 back then) in 1984. For a few years, he flip-flopped between television and trucking, taking jobs where and when he could find them. In 1988 he went to work for a ready mix concrete company in Burbank. He drove for them for eight years, until they went belly-up in 1996. After a couple years of hauling generators to movie sets, Neil went back to work at the studios and has been there ever since.
Neil always loved trucks and driving, but he hated the pressures and hassles of being a truck driver. As much as he loves trucks, he never wants to have to drive one to earn a living again. One of the reasons he loves driving the Duel truck around so much is because he drives it strictly for pleasure – like someone might drive a hot rod or classic car on the weekends. He gets a kick out of seeing people's reaction when they see it on the road and realize what it is.
Daniel J. Linss, Ten Four Magazine
Online memorial at Celebrities Remembered
From a feature article in TIME Magizine by Dave Pirie, 1978, as found in the Steven Spielberg Directory:
Film directors are not best known for their modesty or their tact. And to be signed by Universal Pictures to an exclusive seven year contract before turning 21 would be enough to turn most of them into monsters of the first kind.... But unfortunately life sometimes defies the bland character assumptions of the movies: Steven Spielberg turned out to be the most engaging and unassuming of film makers. His conversation is shy and thoughtful, warming especially to his first passion: movies. Spielberg made his earliest film at the age of 12 and you get the feeling that his child-like enthusiasm for the movies has - in complete contrast to someone like Bogdanovich - actually helped to isolate him from the usual neuroses of power.
Locked into the technical side of film from such an early age, he seems to enact his present eminence less like a superstar than a slightly absent-minded scientist - one so immersed in his own experiments that he is not too surprised to find more and more resources at his disposal. Unlike Orson Welles and other young prodigies who came to films via other media, Spielberg is essentially a pure film freak who has spent almost all his life absorbing popular movie culture. Consequently he needs no alibis.
But unlike so many other new American movie-makers Spielberg did not start off in film school. 'I began making a lot of films in high school. But I didn't go to film school, in fact I majored in English. At Long Beach State. I was actually just staying there so I wouldn't have to serve in Vietnam. If the draft had not been after me I probably wouldn't have gone to college at all. So over those four years I did almost nothing except movie-making. I was able to make enough money working in the cafeteria and doing odd jobs to be able to buy a roll of film, rent a camera from Burns & Sawyer and go out on weekends to shoot small experimental films...'
After raking together enough cash to make a short called 'Ambulance', Spielberg hawked it through Universal, where people knew him as a kid who was always hanging around.
'I had met a lot of people. None of them were willing to help me. Matter of fact I couldn't get a producer to sit down and look at anything. The toughest thing to do was to get someone to sit down and look at your work. But I knew some of the editors from hanging around the editing rooms and one day I met a man called Chuck Silvers in the hall. And I showed him a few of my films. He did take the time to see them. He was very nice to me. He got the film to the head of Universal Television. And eventually this man summoned me to his office. He was sitting there in his French provincial office overlooking Universal. Just like a scene out of "The Fountainhead". And he said "I'd like you to work here under contract. Start in the TV area, and then maybe branch out and do a feature." It was all very vague. So I signed a seven year contract without consulting an agent.'
Not yet 21, Spielberg was put to work straight away on the pilot for what would become the TV series 'Night Gallery': 'It was a very macabre story starring Joan Crawford. I read the script and I said. "Jesus, can't I do something about young people?" And he said: "I'd take this if I were you." I was so frightened that even now the whole period is a bit of of a blank. I was walking on eggs. I was told not to change one word of dialogue or they'd have me. They'd put sprocket-holes up and down my sides. And I had no idea I was telling a story. To me it was just a menu of shots. It was a memorandum of things to do that day. It was only when I saw the show years later that I suddenly discovered the story I was telling.'
After this traumatic initiation, Spielberg was repaid by not being asked to do anything else for at least a year. His contract was suspended: 'I was regarded on the Universal lot as a folly, a novelty item, bric-a-brac for the mantlepiece. Something to joke about at parties. I even left Universal for a year. And then finally I got back into television on a series called "The Psychiatrist". I guess I was 22 then and they felt I was old enough to direct television. So the ice cracked and I got in. And I did "Marcus Welby" and "The Name of the Game" and "Colombo", and this and that until "Duel" came along.' 'Duel' was the remarkable made-for-TV movie based on a short story by Richard Matheson about a man fighting an anonymous truck. Released in Europe as a theatrical feature, it established Spielberg in many critics' eyes as a cool and brilliant handler of hardware, perhaps even an unconscious visual poet of the technological society.
And he said "I'd like you to work here under contract. Start in the TV area, and then maybe branch out and do a feature." It was all very vague. So I signed a seven year contract without consulting an agent.
But Spielberg talks with unexpected penetration about the film's implications:'The hero of "Duel" is typical of that lower middle-class American who's insulated by suburban modernisation. It begins on Sunday: you take your car to be washed. You have to drive it but it's only a block away. And, as the car's being washed, you go next door with the kids and you buy them ice-cream at the Dairy Queen and then you have lunch at the plastic McDonald's with seven zillion hamburgers sold. And then you go off to the games room and you play the quarter games: the Tank and the Pong and Flim-Flam. And by that time you go back and your car's all dry and ready to go and you get into the car and you drive to the Magic Mountain plastic amusement park and you spend the day there eating junk food. Afterwards you drive home, stopping at all the red lights, and the wife is waiting with dinner on. And you have instant potatoes and eggs without cholesterol, because they're artificial - and you sit down and you turn on the television set, which has become the reality as opposed to the fantasy this man has lived with that entire day. And you watch the primetime, which is pabulum and nothing more than watching a night-light. And you see the news at the end of that, which you don't want to listen to because it doesn't conform to the reality you've just been through primetime with. And at the end of all that you go to sleep and you dream about making enough money to support weekend America.
'This is the kind of man portrayed in "Duel". And a man like that never expects to be challenged by anything more than his television set breaking down and having to call the repair man.'
From the opening of the Senses of Cinema Great Directors bio of Spielberg, by Stephen Rowley:
You're on to a much safer bet liking someone like Martin Scorsese, whose genius shows up in all the fully approved forms – plowing a lonely course outside the studio system, obsessively burrowing down into an identifiable subset of obsessions, tearing films from his breast like chunks of his own flesh – than you are liking someone like Spielberg: devoid of visible self-destructive impulses, alighting on film after film as if giving his imagination an aerobic workout, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another… if that guy also turns out to have been the most talented filmmaker of his generation, then what, frankly, was the point? What was the point of all those hours passed in the dark confines of the art house, boning up on Ukrainian cinema, watching the unwatchable? But there you go. What can you do. If you have to point to any one director of the last twenty-five years in whose work the medium of film was most fully itself – where we found out what it does best when left to its own devices, it has to be that guy.
– Tom Shone, Blockbuster
A quick shot of anti-elitism is almost a necessary prelude to a serious critical appreciation of Steven Spielberg. He is, in box-office terms, the most successful director ever, and there are few things quite so damaging to the reputation of an artist than extreme popularity. The sheer success of Spielberg's way of making movies, starting with his second theatrical feature Jaws in 1975, has led to a lasting critical wariness that has impeded the recognition of him as a truly great filmmaker. This has been complicated by the complex issue of what the influence of Spielberg (along with his occasional collaborator George Lucas) has done to the state of the cinema. There can be no doubt that concern about the creative and business models Hollywood embraced following Spielberg's Jaws and Lucas' Star Wars has coloured the view of Spielberg's work. In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind articulates the standard charge:
… Lucas and Spielberg returned the '70s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-'60s Golden Age of movies… They marched backwards through the looking glass, producing pictures that were the mirror opposites of the New Hollywood films of their peers. They were, as [Pauline] Kael first pointed out, infantilizing the audience, reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.
It is a sweeping damnation, with an element of truth mingled in with the unfair generalising, and it requires a more detailed rebuttal that can be indulged in here. Yet it needs to be mentioned, as variations on this kind of argument have shaped views of both Spielberg's place in film history, and his artistic merit, from early in his career. What such an approach forgets is that the typical pre-Jaws audience wasn't sitting with a martini glass in hand soaking up McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) and Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973). Instead, the list of the ten top grossing films of 1974 includes such exemplars of irony and aesthetic self-consciousness as The Towering Inferno, Blazing Saddles, Earthquake, Benji, Young Frankenstein and Airport 1975. Before Jaws there were, as always, good films and bad films, and a few of the good films made a lot of money, as did a lot of the bad or mediocre ones. (If any movement was snuffed out by Spielberg, it was Irwin Allen disaster movies.) Spielberg didn't ruin the cinema, and as such his popularity should not be held against him.
Those who have praise for Spielberg tend to emphasise his technical virtuosity and natural directorial flair, but even this recognition has often been double-edged: implicitly or explicitly, the accompanying suggestion is that his films lack substance and maturity. As Pauline Kael put it in her prescient review of Spielberg's first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974):
He could be that rarity among directors – a born entertainer – perhaps a new generation's Howard Hawks. 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.
It is the kind of backhanded compliment that has forever dogged Spielberg. Yet while Hawks was retrospectively endowed critical respectability by the magic wand of auteurism, Spielberg – a more interesting and skilful director – has been engaged in a three decade long struggle for artistic validation. In this quest, Spielberg has taken on more “adult” subject matters, and many of these films – most notably Schindler's List (1993) – have been impressive. Yet he should never have needed to wage such a fight. The films from Spielberg's first, most interesting period of creative activity (from Duel in 1971 to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984) alone represent a remarkable body of work, and he has followed that with another two decades of interesting and varied projects. His films have done what Hollywood cinema has always sought to do – thrill, uplift, scare, delight – more consistently than anyone's. Unless we are willing to dispense with all our recognised masters who worked wholly or largely with genre material (the Hawks, Donens, Hitchcocks, and so on) this should be enough, and that he has also done so much else besides simply makes the point inarguable. It is well past time to give Spielberg his due.
From Henry Sheehan's essay "The Peter Panning of Steven Spielberg"
The "Panning of Steven Spielberg" ran as a two-part series in consecutive issues of Film Comment in 1992, part one in the May-June issue and part 2 in the July-August issue. I don't see any reason to back off either the general premise – that an analysis of Hook reveals Spielberg's central preoccupations in his films up to that point – or the individual analysis of movies. With one exception; I believe now I was far too harsh on E.T. Viewing it again recently, I found it much richer than on its first release. I believe you could extend the more general analysis, though, through to Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. Unfortunately, since then, Spielberg's work has been strikingly banal, except for the fascinating A.I. Whatever hope that engendered, though, was quickly dashed by the crudely mechanical and cold Minority Report...The romance between Steven Spielberg and most of the country's film critics officially fell apart this past Christmas, affections irrevocably alienated by Hook. That was the only sour note in the film's release, since it went on to earn unimaginably large heaps of money. And it points to one of the anomalies of Spielberg's career. By far the single most powerful and influential filmmaker in Hollywood, he has always been considered artistically marginal, even by his fans (and certainly by his peers, who annually refuse to give him any awards). Critical praise for Spielberg tends to start out in purely cinematic terms, then leap the rails into more generalized pop-cult appreciation. Enthusiasm for the uplift of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the kinetic force of Raiders of the Lost Ark gives way to gingerly admissions that, in and of themselves, the films "didn't really amount to much." Spielberg's vaunted connection with the American temper, it is explained, was the source of his importance. Like those of Elvis and comic books, the director's champions always seek validation in the cultural marketplace.
It's natural that Spielberg has been defined as much by his weakness as by his strength; what's striking is that rarely has a filmmaker so often had one confused with the other. Not only Spielberg's box-office preeminence but much of his critical reputation was solidified by a series of glib, manipulative thrill rides that slyly used the cover of "entertainment" to downgrade the expressive possibilities of the cinema. Spielberg dared anyone to bring intellect to bear on his work by launching preemptive strikes of easy irony, monumental sentimentalism, and stylistic virtuosity. Too often, however, even these minor virtues have been lacking, replaced by mere kitsch and panicky technique. Thus, so dubious a venture as Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its sideshow tricks and moral evasions, was hailed not just by hordes of cash-wielding ticket-buyers but also by susceptible commentators willing to substitute a self-serving nostalgia for a cooler regard of history, filmic and otherwise.
How much more gratifying, then, that over the last five years, starting with Empire of the Sun, Spielberg has been embarked on a rapid, if largely unheeded, rise to artistic maturity, an ascension that reached its culmination in Hook. Here, for the first time, Spielberg pulled together the many different thematic strands, visual motifs, and character types that had been haphazardly scattered through his first 15 years of work, and patterned them into a rich, coherent whole. He came to terms with the nature of his material in a profound way and produced a work of astonishing beauty and eloquent resonance. With Hook, Spielberg establishes himself not just as a mere commercial force but as a major artistic personality and a legitimate aspirant to greatness.
To fully recognize the achievement of Hook, one must go back over the whole of Spielberg's career, a trip made considerably easier simply by first recounting Hook's story. For in fragments, that story is the story of nearly every Spielberg film.
The figure most consistently to be found throughout the Spielberg oeuvre is Peter, the boy/man, whose origins in the director's work stretch back as far as 1971's Duel. In that remarkable debut – a TV movie that was released theatrically in Europe – Dennis Weaver plays a businessman hitting the road the night after he disappointed his wife by refusing to challenge a friend to a fistfight over a perceived insult. Out on a desert highway, he somehow arouses the homicidal ire of a trucker, who – while remaining unseen to Weaver, and the audience, throughout the film – repeatedly tries to run him off the road. As the two duel across the sand blown asphalt, Weaver's increasingly frantic and teary office worker fails at a succession of male heroics: most notably, when he can't help a busload of school kids stranded along the highway (although the trucker can and does), and in another scene when he gets slapped around by some beefy coffee-stop patrons after he has provoked a fight.
After Duel, the other Spielberg protagonists quickly fall into line: Clovis Poplin (William Atherton) of Sugarland Express is a convict henpecked into escaping from a minimum-security prison; en route to rescuing his baby son from unworthy adoptive parents, he soon has a caravan of police trailing along the road behind him. Amity police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), in Jaws, goes shark-hunting with the piratical Quint (Robert Shaw) only after he has failed to stand up to the local mayor and proved unable to protect his own son from a roving giant shark. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss's Roy Neary is a harassed husband and father who runs away from his family and ends up traveling off in a floating island of a spaceship populated by pint-sized, childlike aliens.
Even the barely organized 1941 has a Peter Pan figure in the person of Bobby DiCicco's Wally, the kid who can dance but can't cut it as a soldier. Indiana Jones is the Peter Pan figure par excellence, stammering and off-balance in front of classroom Juliets, but brave and deadly in far-off lands. E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial is the Peter Pan story told from the point of view of a Lost Boy (Henry Thomas's Elliott), with the wrinkled/diminutive, old/young E.T. figuring as Peter, while government scientists (like those in CE3K) fulfill the pirates' role. And Spielberg's vignette in Twilight Zone – The Movie, about a gaggle of senior citizens who become children one magical night, features one ex-oldster who elects to stay a kid and goes flying out a bedroom window, a la you-know-who.
Despite Spielberg's attempts to break with his past work and do something "adult," even The Color Purple – which caps a portion of the director's career – bears evidence of Pan in the person of Danny Glover's Mister Albert. For all his cruelties to his wife, Mister is treated as a child by his father and bossed around by his lover and, eventually, even by the wife herself.
Persistence of vision is one thing; clarity, something else again. From the very beginning Spielberg displayed extraordinary raw talent, particularly an ability to compose in depth that echoed past Hollywood masters. In Duel he harnessed these gifts and turned a genre project – and a TV genre project at that – into a pictorially striking contemplation of man, machine, and landscape. The vast blankness of the California desert becomes a claustrophobic nightmare: Weaver the quarry finds nowhere to run, whereas the truck(er) finds endless warrens in which to hide. Distant perspectives hold no hint of respite, but suggest myriad threats of torment. Weaver's neurotic performance effectively translates the metaphysicalized environment into human terms.
An account of how Steven Spielberg broke into Hollywood
Quotes from the They Shoot Pictures Spielberg page:
"As America in the 1990s moves slowly away from the Reagan era, will Spielberg find new materials and adult themes, or will he seek continuing refuge in tried and true formulas? And will those formulas continue to work? And finally, will Spielberg manage to successfully mediate his apparent dual interests - being a modern day mogul in the style of Walt Disney or Cecil B. De Mille as well as being a respected artist whose work requires no apology?" - Charles Derry (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"In bringing a distinctly personal sensibility to the traditional genres of mass entertainment, Steven Spielberg rapidly became the most commercially successful director in cinema history. While it is impossible to deny either his Midas touch or his extraordinary technical proficiency, it has nonetheless become increasingly clear in recent years that he is perhaps more at home with sentimental 'family' fodder than with more sophisticated material." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)
"One of the most famous Hollywood directors, Steven Spielberg has an intuitive sense of the hopes and fears of his audience. This quality and his showmanship have made him one of the greats, in the league of Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Capra, and Alfred Hitchcock." - Ronald Bergan (Film - Eyewitness Companions, 2006)
"One of the things Henry Hathaway told me is that you just have to know what you're doing every single minute of the day. His advice was: even if you don't know what the hell you're doing, pretend you do." - Steven Spielberg (Directing the Film, 1976)
"A lot of the films I've made probably could have worked just as well 50 years ago, and that's just because I have a lot of old-fashion values." - Steven Spielberg
from an interview by Paul Riordan
Richard Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey on February 20, 1926. As a child, he'd already started off on a writing career, and had several stories and poems published in a local paper, The Brooklyn Eagle. His interest in fantasy also showed up early on, and his first professionally published story, "Born of Man and Woman," appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. After penning a number of fantasy, horror and science fiction stories, as well as several novels, Matheson launched his screenwriting career with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN in 1957, and a few years later, became the third most frequent contributor of teleplays to Rod Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE (after Serling himself and Charles Beaumont). Like Sci-Fi Master Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson has produced numerous works in a variety of genres.
In addition to his classic SF novels, I AM LEGEND and THE SHRINKING MAN, Matheson has written horror novels (HELL HOUSE), westerns (JOURNAL OF THE GUN YEARS, BY THE GUN, etc.), mystery/suspense novels (FURY ON SUNDAY, SOMEONE IS BLEEDING, RIDE THE NIGHTMARE) and romantic fantasies (BID TIME RETURN, aka SOMEWHERE IN TIME, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME). He also penned a nonfiction work on metaphysics, THE PATH, and a World War II novel, THE BEARDLESS WARRIORS. Matheson's film scripts and teleplays likewise run the gamut, and have included a serious film about alcoholism (THE MORNING AFTER), several Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (HOUSE OF USHER, PIT AND THE PENDULUM), comedies (THE RAVEN, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS) and such suspense/terror classics as DUEL, THE NIGHT STALKER and TRILOGY OF TERROR. Matheson's forays into science fiction include a number of short stories, several teleplays, and the aforementioned novels, I AM LEGEND (1954) and THE SHRINKING MAN (1956).
MATHESON: I was playing golf with a friend of mine (Jerry Sohl) on the day President Kennedy got shot, and we stopped playing the game in a state of distress over the assassination, and we were driving home through this mountain pass. This truck tailgated us through the entire canyon, and we both got enraged at him, and at the assassination and everything, and it struck a vivid chord in my mind. I wrote the idea on the back of an envelope, and then seven years later, I wrote a novelette on that story, which I sold to Playboy magazine. And then some producer at Universal decided that it would make a good movie. I didn't think it could be made into a 90 minute movie. But once I got started, it wasn't difficult. I had to actually do some cutting.
I think Steven Spielberg is a very good director. I didn't work closely with him. I met him once when he was shooting out on a highway, in the café, and I was told they just picked him off their staff at the last moment. They hadn't planned to have him in the beginning, and because he was out and away from the studio, they wouldn't really know what he was doing, and as a result of which, he had more freedom. The director, really, is like a traffic controller. They have created this mystique about the "auteur", which is total nonsense. They can be very skillful interpreters, and add - that's what I think Spielberg did in DUEL. He followed my script very closely, but he added to it, and that's what I think a director can do. A director can't do anything if he doesn't have a good script, as witness 1941, and I don't even think CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was that good. With a good script, he's a superlative director. He's got a wonderful eye.
In August 1978, after ITV showed an episode of seemingly innocuous comic book adaptation The Incredible Hulk — apparently, you won't like him when he's angry — the station's switchboard was jammed with irate viewers. Rather than moaning about the poster-paint green prosthetics or Bill Bixby's balsa wood acting, the indignation arose because the episode had purloined a wealth of car chase footage from Steven Spielberg's Duel which the channel had screened earlier that year.
In retrospect, it was a pretty dumb idea to plunder from Duel. Built on a skilful ebb and flow axis of surprise and suspense, it has few rivals when it comes to sustaining an action agenda throughout the full running time. To be sure it's a slender story — mild-mannered suburbanite David Mann is chased along desert highways by a malevolent truck — but the film thrives on the lean meanness of its (road) rage against the machine. Not only is the vehicle never ascribed a simplistic motivation (like the shark or velociraptor of future Spielberg hits, it simply exists to kill) but the driver is never ever revealed. Tension and terror, not characterisation and plot, are what matter here.
The genesis of Duel can be traced to celebrated sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, author of The Shrinking Man and regular contributor to the Twilight Zone. Shortly after the JFK assassination Matheson and writing partner Jerry Sohl were driving through a narrow canyon when a truck began tailgating them with reckless abandon. "Partially we were terrified," the screenwriter recalled, "and partially infuriated, turning our rage about the Kennedy assassination into rage at the truck driver. We were screaming out of the window but the truck driver's window was closed and he couldn't hear it. My friend had to pull up, skidding onto one of these dirt places in the road. In the writer's mind, once you survive death, you start thinking of a story."
With the subsequent yarn published in Playboy, the resulting movie adaptation is a masterclass in how to shoot and cut a car chase. Plotting the action and camera placements on a map that Spielberg fashioned stunning variations on the cat and mouse theme, pepping up the pursuit with bizarro camera angles (big close ups of Mann captured with a telephoto lens) and sound effects (the truck's heavy duty rumble, the car's pathetic engine whine) all knitted together into stunning editing patterns.
If the casting of Mann was vitally important — Spielberg approached Gregory Peck, Dustin Hoffman and David Janssen before Universal closed down the shooting of McCloud to free up Dennis Weaver — perhaps more crucial was the casting of the truck. Presented with a line-up of vehicles, Spielberg opted for a Peterbilt gasoline tanker truck, partly due to its strangely human aspect suggested by a small snout at the front and two ear-like hydraulic tanks by the doors. Over the meagre 16-day shoot, the stunt drivers — Bullitt's Carey Loftin in the truck, Dale Van Sickle in Mann's red Valiant — put the pedal to the metal, achieving top speeds of 135mph, while Spielberg emphasised the pace and scale of the vehicles by placing the camera low to the road.
The compositions are amazingly dynamic and diverse, but so is the tone. From the black humour of Mann mistaking a train horn for a blast from the truck to his paranoia at a roadside diner trying to guess the identity of his tormentor; from the full-on spectacle of the truck chasing Mann around a snake farm, to the strangely beautiful finale, Duel is a far more protean experience than it had any right to be. Extended from 73 minutes on TV to 90 minutes in the cinema, some of its best moments are only viewable in the theatrical version: the POV shots from the bonnet of Mann's car, which skilfully chart his journey from suburbia to sticks; the truck's attempts to push Mann in front of a train, the darkly comic moment in which the truck comes to the aid of a school bus after Mann has been unable to help them.
The big screen version also features one of the greatest faux pas in recent movie history — due to the change in screen shape, glimpsed briefly but clearly in Mann's rear view mirror is a youthful Steven Spielberg directing from the back seat. He is not the only one undertaking the ride of a lifetime.
A made-for-TV movie that proved so remarkable it received a theatrical release (first in Europe, then 10 years later in the US), Spielberg's calling card is as distinctive a piece of visual storytelling as you're ever likely to see.