2021 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the all-time great TV movies, so now seems the perfect time for a look back at this seminal masterpiece.
Recently re-watching for the first time in many years I was once again blown away by Steven Spielberg’s debut feature film. Vividly I remember watching “Duel” countless times on TV throughout the 70s and 80s, and being totally mesmerised every single time, and not unsurprisingly was again. It is still without a doubt one of my favourite Spielberg movies, alongside “Jaws“, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind“, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial“, and “Jurassic Park“.
Spielberg burst onto the international scene with this ABC movie of the week that first screened on 13th November 1971 in the US. “Duel” is undisputedly an incredible, awe-inspiring achievement in film-making. 13 days of filming on location, including during that just over a month to complete the edit for the airdate. Due to its unprecedented success, nearly a year later it was released theatrically worldwide.
“Duel” is as relentless and terrifying now as it always was, and it is even more striking how wonderful the underrated Dennis Weaver was as David Mann, an “everyman” the audience can fully relate to. Undeniably it would not be half the movie it is, or as engaging without his measured, nuanced performance. No amount of credit to Weaver is too much. His magnificent portrayal has always been too easily overlooked, and is impossible not to see why in “Touch of Evil” he totally convinced Spielberg he would be perfect for the role. Although Spielberg wanted Weaver from the moment he was suggested, he was unbelievably not actually signed until the evening before shooting was to begin.
Spielberg was given an extremely low budget of $400,000, which in 2021 is just over $2,600,000, and a shooting schedule of just 10 days. Due to the incredible demands that stemmed from him wanting to not film on a soundstage, which he knew would not have worked, it ended up 13 days. To save time he had cameras set up along a stretch of road in order to get shots needed for multiple scenes in just one take. Cameras were turned 180 degrees and the vehicles driven in the opposite direction to achieve the multiple shots. To aid in accomplishing this Spielberg mapped out the entire journey of Mann and the truck driver on a drafting paper mural, with plot notes at various points, that stretched around an entire room, rather than create storyboards.
Spielberg was unable to view dailies (footage shot each day) because of the tight deadline to deliver the completed movie to the network, so had to rely completely on editor Frank Morriss that what was being shot was good footage. To Spielberg’s amazement he even went as far as creating sequences that were not filmed by editing together shots from other places in the film. Morriss deserves as much credit for the finished film as Spielberg.
It would be a shameful remiss to overlook the two astonishing stuntmen who contributed to the impressive action set pieces, and whose terrific work further elevates “Duel” to the status of a masterpiece. Weaver was justifiably proud he did most of his own driving, but he was magnificently backed up by stuntman Dale Van Sickel, an over 40 year Hollywood veteran, for some of the more dangerous manoeuvres and crashes. The truck driver was chillingly portrayed by one of Hollywood’s greatest ever stunt drivers Carey Loftin. His incredible driving and stunt skills were showcased in dozens of productions over nearly half a century. When he asked Spielberg what his motivation for terrorising Mann was he told him, “You’re a dirty, rotten, no-good son of a bitch.” Loftin replied, “Kid, you hired the right man.” Spielberg applauded Loftin’s extraordinarily safe handling of the truck that produced some of the most iconic sequences and images. Appearing to be driven at dangerous speeds through the twisting California roads, it was in reality never going above 30mph. To achieve an illusion of high speed a camera car specially made for “Bullitt” was used that lowered the camera to just 6 inches from the ground. To further accentuate the feeling of speed both vehicles were also shot against a background of cliffs and an upward angle of filming from the wheels
Originally clocking in at a mere 74 minutes, the TV version was subsequently expanded to 90 minutes for its theatrical release; the only version that has been available since the 1980s. There is a general consensus the TV cut is far superior, with none of the unnecessary padding out. However, I much prefer the longer version in its remastered form, yet still feel scenes of the family are extraneous to the narrative and detract slightly from Mann being totally alone on the open road and hence lessens the impact of his terror.
Astutely playing into primal fears, “Duel” can equally be viewed as a variation on the slasher movie, with the driver’s weapon being the monstrous and terrifying truck. Multiple number plates adorn the front that hints he had terrorised others in the past.
Spielberg has said he approached “Duel” in the style of a Toho monster movie, replacing Godzilla with an 18 wheeler tanker truck. However, numerous European critics found philosophical concepts in the film, but he considers it ‘High Noon’ on wheels.
Lean, stripped back, relentless, with tension never letting up for a single second. Even 50 years later it is a frighteningly immersive experience, due in no small part to Richard Matheson’s masterful screenplay based on his short story; underscored by the fleshing out of Mann from the very first. Matheson was actually inspired to write the original short story after a personal experience encountering a tailgating truck driver.
On a deeper level Mann being relentlessly pursued and terrified by the truck can be seen as a metaphor for bullying, and a victim fighting back, or taking back control of life through a terrible period. Spielberg said he related to the idea of the truck bullying the driver because it was similar to his childhood experiences of being bullied.
For many this is Spielberg’s best film, and it is hard not to disagree. The first showcasing of his film-making skill, and singular ability of ratcheting up suspense, tension, and horror better than any film-maker barring Hitchcock, his main inspiration and coincidently the first choice to direct “Jaws“.
Weaver when asked if he knew Spielberg would become an acclaimed and successful auteur replied if he had he would have adopted him.
“Duel” is justifiably regarded as one of the best TV movies and films ever made. The like of which we will never experience again.
Maybe in this its 50th Anniversary we will get a release with all the versions of this humanistic horror masterpiece that redefined the TV movie