Saturday, August 23, 2014

Steven Spielberg Blogathon - Duel

Steven Spielberg's Duel is a 1971 made-for-TV movie, starring Dennis Weaver as a traveling salesman who is terrorized by a psycho in a tanker truck on a lonely stretch of highway. Duel first aired as an ABC Movie of the Week on November 13, 1971. Originally the film ran 74 minutes. Later, Spielberg shot additional scenes to make it 90 minutes for theatrical release in Europe and Australia. This longer version had a limited theatrical release in the U.S and is what is available on DVD (Duel is coming to Blu-Ray as part of a set of 8 Speilberg movies in October).

Hard to choose a single image from the film,
but this one about sums it up.
The script by Richard Matheson is from a novelette he wrote for Playboy magazine. It was based on a real incident that happened on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Matheson and a friend were tailgated and pretty much run off the road by a crazy truck driver. To write the teleplay, Matheson took a road trip to Ventura County, California, bringing a tape recorder to record things that his character might see on the road. Matheson's script never revealed the identity of the truck driver, and Spielberg embraced the idea. Keeping the truck driver anonymous almost made the truck the villain, and not the driver. 

The film was shot in 13 days (3 days over the 10-day shooting schedule), an incredible feat for a movie shot entirely on location. Spielberg was under a lot of pressure to shoot it in the studio, but he knew that the car and truck shots would look fake if he didn't film them on real highways. He was able to speed up the process by doing things like having three cameras on the side of the road film Dennis Weaver's car and the truck go by. Then move all the cameras to the other side of the highway and have the car and the truck come back the other direction. The result would be that the vehicles still moved the same direction across the screen as needed but because the angle was different it looked like a completely different stretch of road. This approach gave him time to spend on the more complicated shots in the film.

Having just rewatched Duel. I was surprised that there was as much time where Dennis Weaver is not driving. You remember mostly him driving, and the huge truck looming. There is a fairly long sequence in a roadside diner where Weaver tries to figure out who the truck driver is, and even though Weaver is in no immediate danger, you're absorbed in his stress as he tries to isolate the psycho from the normal lunchtime patrons. Other sequences have Weaver trying to stop and get help or wait out the truck. On the DVD, there's a great making of feature, where Spielberg talks about how he was trying emulate Hitchcock and not let the audience off the hook, and he does this perfect. Every time Weaver comes up with a way of dealing the situation, something happens to force him back in the car where the truck awaits.

The film is shot an edited brilliantly, mixing low angle moving shots of the truck and Dennis Weaver's car with close ups of Weaver, the rear view mirror, and speedometer. Billy Goldenberg's musical score is less a score and more a mix of staccato experimental musical noises punctuating what is happening on the screen. Finally, Dennis Weaver is great. He starts out just a normal guy going about his life, but descends to near madness by the ordeal he has to endure. This is incredible movie, taking a realistic situation, turning it on its head, and executing on it as well as possible.

My history with Duel

I'm not sure exactly when I saw Duel the first time. I'm not sure whether I saw it when it first aired in November 1971 or later as a rerun.  Doing the math, I would have been 9. I know I saw it on TV, but 9 seems a little young, 10 or 11 makes more sense. I do know I wasn't very old. All I know was that at the time, McCloud was a pretty cool show, and it had the guy from McCloud. I do remember that all of my brothers and my sister were out, and my parents were in the other room reading, so I was very young, watching this insanely intense movie all by myself. 

I remember just thinking that Dennis Weaver was in it, and it should be fun. Man, did I not know what I was getting myself into. At the time, the scariest thing I had ever seen in my life was, Alfred Hitchcock's, The Birds. I don't know whether I can say that Duel was scarier than The Birds, but I do know that it made me squirm way way more. It was the first time I ever remember having that much anxiety over a film. Maybe The Birds was scarier, but Duel was a hundred times more intense. I guess it comes down to, The Birds you could talk yourself out of it. Your whole life, you had seen birds, and never once did they attack anyone, much less thousands of them mass against humanity. But a big huge truck, you saw that every time you left the house.

That was my first experience with Duel, alone, 10-years-old in the living room of my parents house. I didn't think about the film after that. Maybe if I ever go through analysis, they'll discover I repressed it. I know I never saw it again until much much later. Years later, when I saw another very intense movie by the same director, Jaws, I didn't associate it with Duel. At that age, I don't think I really knew what a film director was. 

All I know is that it didn't come up again until I was in college, at my Mom's house talking to my stepfather. At the time they had just rereleased a bunch of Hitchcock movies, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry. Naturally, I was really into Hitchcock at the time, and he mentioned a movie, that Steven Spielberg had done as a made-for-TV movie, where Dennis Weaver is terrorized by a guy in a tanker truck. It all came flooding back to me. I remember my reaction being something like, "Oh God, I remember that. I saw it when I was like, 10. It was so good."

Fairly soon afterwards, they ended up renting it so I could watch it. I couldn't afford a VCR in college. Well, you know how sometimes you see something as a kid and then you see it as an adult and it doesn't hold up to what you remember. You go, "What the heck was I thinking?" So not the case here. It was every bit as intense as it was when I was a kid. Just as it was when I watched it a couple of days ago. The intervening years, advances in film-making technology, better special effects, do nothing to take the edge of this great film.

The fact that Duel remains largely unknown is something of a tragedy. It ranks among the best films of one of the greatest directors of his or any generation. If you haven't seen it, you really must. It's every bit as good as any film Steven Spielberg has ever made.


Check out the other posts in this weekend's Steven Spielberg Blogathon at the event's co-host's sites: Outspoken and FreckledIt Rains... You Get Wet, and Citizen Screenings.


  1. God, I love this little film with the big thrills. Great contribution, Chris. Well done!

  2. Thanks, just got done read your contribution.Michael just post, about the Spielberg segment in the pilot of the Rod Serling's, Night Gallery:

    I'm sure I've seen it before, but now I need to go back and watch again.