Duel (1971 film)

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Duel (1971 film) poster.jpg
International theatrical release poster
Based on"Duel"
1971 short story
by Richard Matheson
Screenplay byRichard Matheson
Story byRichard Matheson
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Dennis Weaver
Music by Billy Goldenberg
Country of originFlag of the United States.svg  United States
Original languageEnglish
Producer George Eckstein
Production locationsLe Chene - 12625 Sierra Highway, Agua Dulce, California
Lancaster, California
Acton, California
Palmdale, California
Antelope Valley, California
10414 Bloomfield Street, Toluca Lake, Los Angeles, California
Highway 5, California
Indian Canyon Road, Acton, California
Saugus, California
Sierra Highway, California
16948 Vasquez Canyon Road, Canyon Country, California
Agua Dulce, California
Angeles National Forest
California State Route 14
Pearblossom, California
Sand Canyon, California
Sierra Pelona Mountains
South Broadway, Los Angeles, California
Universal Studios
Godde Hill Road, Palmdale, California
Agua Dulce Canyon Road, Agua Dulce, California
Downtown, Los Angeles
Soledad Canyon Road, Acton, California
Arcadia, California
Mystery Mesa, California 91350
Vasquez Canyon Road, Canyon Country, California
Cinematography Jack A. Marta
Editor Frank Morriss
Running time74 minutes (TV)
90 minutes (theatrical)
Production company Universal Television
Distributor ABC
Universal Pictures
Budget$450,000 (estimated)
Original networkABC
Picture formatColor
Audio format Mono
Original release
  • November 13, 1971 (1971-11-13)

Duel is a 1971 American action thriller film [1] [2] written by Richard Matheson, which is based on his own 1971 short story, also entitled Duel. The film marks the feature-length directorial debut of Steven Spielberg and was distributed by Universal Pictures.


Dennis Weaver portrays David Mann, a business commuter from California driving a Plymouth Valiant while on his way to meet a client. He soon finds himself chased by the mostly unseen driver of a rusted Peterbilt 281 who chases and terrorizes Mann after Mann overtakes him.

Originally aired as a television film as part of the ABC Movie of the Week series on November 13, 1971, Duel later received an international theatrical release in an extended version featuring scenes shot after the film's original broadcast. The film was critically acclaimed upon release for Spielberg's direction and it has since been recognized as an influential cult classic.


David Mann is a middle-aged salesman driving on a business trip. He encounters a dilapidated tanker truck in the Mojave Desert. Mann passes the truck but the truck speeds up and roars past him. When Mann overtakes and passes it again, the truck blasts its horn. Mann leaves it in the distance.

Mann pulls into a gas station and shortly afterward the truck arrives and 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.

The Peterbilt 281 tanker truck Dueltruckfront.jpg
The Peterbilt 281 tanker truck
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) being chased by the truck Duelweaver.jpg
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) being chased by the truck

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 but Mann nearly hits 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 crashes sideways into a fence across from a diner as the truck continues down the road. Mann then 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 the diner seconds later, indicating that its driver had never entered the premises.

Mann leaves the diner and soon 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. Shortly after, 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 him 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 phone booth, the truck drives into it, but Mann jumps clear just in time. The station owner cries out as the truck destroys her animals' cages. Mann 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 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. 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 crashes into a cliff wall, barely escaping being crushed by the truck. He manages to restart his car, then 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, as the driver sounds the truck's horn. Above the wreckage, Mann celebrates. He then sits at the cliff's edge and throws stones into the canyon as the sun begins to set.


Dagger-14-plain.pngAppears only in the 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. [3] 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. [3] In preparation for writing the story, he drove from his home to Ventura and recorded everything he saw on a tape recorder. [3]

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. [4] 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 Chene since 1980. [5] 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. [6] 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. Following Duel's successful TV airing, Universal released the film overseas in 1972. 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.[ citation needed ]

Spielberg lobbied to have Dennis Weaver in the starring role because he admired Weaver's work in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil . [4] 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. [7]

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". [8]

The truck as the villain

Matheson's script made explicit that the unnamed truck driver, the villain of the film, is unseen aside from the shots of his arms and boots that were needed to convey the plot. [9] 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. Throughout the film, the truck driver remains anonymous and unseen, with the exception of three separate shots, where the stunt driver can very briefly be seen in the truck's cab, where his arm waves Weaver on into oncoming traffic, and where Weaver observes the driver's snakeskin boots. His motives for targeting Weaver's character are never revealed, but the truck had license plates from numerous states (common on commercial trucks of the era, but suggesting the truck driver may have several victims elsewhere). 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 terrifying sound effects as the truck plunges to destruction have a supernatural feel, implying a possible diabolic presence.


Comparison of the two different trucks used in filming The two different trucks used in filming. .jpg
Comparison of the two different trucks used in filming

The car was carefully chosen, a red Plymouth Valiant, although three cars were used in the actual production of the movie. [10]

Comparison photo of the two trucks used for filming. .jpg

The original release of Duel featured a 1970 model with a 318 V-8 engine [11] 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. [12] When the film was released in theaters and scenes were added, a 1972 model with a 225 Slant Six was added, with the "Plymouth" name on the hood as one emblem, and no longer masked by aluminum foil. All the Valiants were equipped with a TorqueFlite automatic transmission.

Peterbilt 281 and Peterbilt 351..jpg

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. [4]

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. [4] 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". [4] For each shot, several people were tasked to make it uglier; each successively adding oil, grease, fake dead insects and other blemishes. [9]

The truck had twin rear axles, a CAT 1674 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. [9] 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, the school bus scene and the railroad crossing scene).

One of these, a 1964 Peterbilt 351, virtually identical to the original truck except for its air intake, roof mounted horn position, brake lines between the tractor and trailer, mud flaps on the back of the twin rear tyres and a support shelf for the air conditioning unit, was later destroyed in another movie production. The other truck, a 1961 Peterbilt 351, has survived. [13] It was kept and prepared as a backup for the 1964 truck, but wasn't used. [14] It has changed ownership several times and is currently owned by a truck collector, on display at Brad's Trucks in North Carolina. [15]

Apart from a few mechanical differences, the trucks also exhibited visual differences. The older Peterbilt 281 had more dents and bumps, while the Peterbilt 351 had less wear and tear and straighter edges all round. The Peterbilt 351 was weathered slightly darker, with more of a rust effect. It also has a Peterbilt maker's badge on both sides of the bonnet nose, while the Peterbilt 281 seen in the film does not carry such a badge. [16]

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. [17]

Use of sound

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 fill in the 75-minute time space for the television debut, therefore the film was centered on the visuals and menacing audio. There was a break, however, in the silence and heavy roar of the two vehicles after the initial chase scene when Mann had crashed into a fence post just outside of Chuck's. Mann went inside to use the restroom and the audience was now introduced to his inner thoughts while he was simultaneously washing up from the crash. This diegetic use of sound was explained by Spielberg as Mann wanting to "physicalize" and "emote" his feelings, giving the audience an intimate relationship now 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. [18] [19] 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%. [20]

It was eventually released to cinemas in Europe 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. [4]

Duel was released on Blu-ray disc on October 14, 2014, as part of the eight-film box set Steven Spielberg Director's Collection. [21] It was also released as a separate Blu-ray on May 5, 2015. [22]


Critical response

The film received many positive reviews and is considered by some to be one of the greatest TV movies ever made. [23] [24] 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". [25] Television critic Matt Zoller Seitz in his 2016 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". [26]

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. [27] The film has been placed at #67 on The 100 Scariest Movie Moments on Bravo. [28]

Over the years, Duel has developed a strong cult following and a reputation as a cult film. [29] [30]



Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival



Golden Globe


Saturn Award

References in other works

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In film

In music

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