Duel was an ABC movie of the week originally aired in November 1971. It was Steven Spielberg’s first crack at directing a movie, and he really delivered. It was filmed on location in thirteen days and the final product feels more like a feature film than a made-for-television movie. The camera work is impressive. There are several beautiful low-angle moving shots on the highway and an impressive freehand, documentary-style, scene shot in a truck stop.
The story is relatively simple—a salesman traveling a California highway passes a slow moving tanker truck. The driver of the tanker takes exception, and the rest of the story unfolds as the truck chases David Mann (the salesman) along the narrow two-lane highway. The driver of the truck is never revealed, which creates a sense of broad-based terror as the antagonist actually becomes the truck.
Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay, based on his novelette, and it is a taut and linear tale of a normal man trapped in a situation where only he can save himself. It is a little Alfred Hitchcock, and a whole lot Richard Matheson. The film is faithful to the novelette, but there are a few additional scenes and an extension of one—the truck stop scene was lengthened and improved over the story. Dennis Weaver—playing David Mann—creates an anxiety that is realistic; I saw a whole lot of myself in his reactions and behavior.
The original television version was released in a 90-minute time slot. The actual film clocked in at around 73-minutes, but it was lengthened to 90-minutes and released as a feature film in Europe. The current DVD is the 90-minute version, and my understanding is that Spielberg extended a couple scenes and added one. I haven’t seen the original version, but I really can’t imagine that it was any better than the longer theatrical version.
Duel is worth seeking out. The DVD is priced at around $10, and it is worth every penny. It also includes two lengthy interviews with Spielberg, and one with Richard Matheson. The original novelette should also be read. In fact, read it and then watch the film. It is available in two current editions: Duel: Terror Stories and Richard Matheson: Collected Stories, Vol. 3.