Cinema Slueth – Duel

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation:  A sinister tale of unpredictable road rage that introduced Steven Spielberg as a film maker to the audiences and executives all over the film world. And just like that a genius is noticed.

Duel is a 1971 American action-thriller television film Directed by Steven Spielberg, Produced by George Eckstein and released by Universal Television. Oddly the lead cast in this movie are mainly two – Dennis Weaver and the semi-truck driven by the mostly-unseen driver. It is based on the 1971 short story of the same name by Richard Matheson originally published in Playboy magazine, who also wrote the screenplay for the film.

David Mann (portrayed by Dennis Weaver), a middle-aged salesman is driving through Mojave desert in California to meet a client. Unfortunately he angers a dilapidated tanker truck driver by overtaking him, and ends up being chased by the truck driver across the Mohave desert.

I had watched this movie on TV sometime in 2005 or 2006, and literally was scared of overtaking any semi-truck for a while. One of my brothers had a similar experience with a semi-truck when he was in Iowa, thankfully he had a cellphone to call 911 and come away unscathed. So that’s why this movie weirdly has a place in my head even though it is scary for me.

The movie was originally released as part of ABC Movie of the Week series in the 70s. Later it got it’s own theatrical release because of the popularity it gained, and had extended features too. It also put Spielberg on the map of film making. The movie Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel aired was the extended European cut.

Dennis Weaver who played the only protagonist David Mann showed his frustration of a salesman’s job and driving through a hot desert very effectively. I could feel the heat of the sun on his forehead while I was watching the film. For his stunts though Dale Van Sickel played the role.

Similar to the experience my brother had, the writer Matheson also had a tailgating by a truck driver on the day JFK was assassinated. He wrote his experience into a story after several failed attempts to make it a TV series.

Just as the movie’s poster announces, it is indeed the most bizarre murder weapon ever used. A villain is not a person but a thing, albeit controlled by a person, is very unique and  the most scariest part in the film. The film conveys the fear of unknown to the audience. And also the motive is never clear just that the truck driver is hell bent on chasing Weaver’s Mann to death.

Additionally the truck has multiple license plates on it’s front bumper. Spielberg subtly suggests that this was not the first time the trucker had chased other drivers to their deaths, thus making him a serial killer.


Dennis Weaver and other supporting cast have very minimal dialogues, while the truck driver has none. The little background music was more oppressive and menacing, but mostly there was lack of music or dialogues that added to the fear. Spielberg allowed the vehicles to talk and create the fear. Don’t forget the menacing face-like front portion of the truck as well. In fact David Mann and Mrs. Mann are the only characters in the film that have real names.

Another aspect you see is that Spielberg subtly projected the irony of machismo in the film starting with Weaver’s name David Mann. The truck chasing Mann could be interpreted as the truck goading Mann to really man up and do something rather than be meek.

The entire movie was filmed on location. It has become a cult classic since, and has inspired several movies, episodes of several TV shows, and even songs for artists or referenced in their music videos.

A one hell of a ride the viewers go through along with the protagonist. A sinister tale of unpredictable road rage that introduced Steven Spielberg as a film maker to the audiences and executives all over the film world. And just like that a genius is noticed.

Spoiler Alerts:

Movie Trivia:

  1. This was Spielberg’s second feature-length directing effort. His first one was the episode “L.A. 2017” for the NBC Television series The Name of the Game, which had aired in 1971.
  2. 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 Chêne since 1980.
  3. This movie inspired a series of movies titled “Joyride” under the horror film genre. I watched the 2014 film Joy Ride 3: Roadkill, the third and final installment of the series. Although I watched it on Netflix, it still scared the hell out of me.
  4. The 1978 Japanese animated sci-fi adventure action comedy film The Mystery of Mamo parodies on Duel.
  5. The 2015 Canadian horror film Wrecker is almost a scene – to – scene remake of Duel.
  6. Although we don’t see the truck driver, other than his hand or boots, the role was played by Carey Loftin, a famous stunt coordinator.
  7. The phone number Dennis Weaver dials to call his wife at the gas station is not the standard “555” movie prefix but, at the time, a valid number.
  8. During the chase, David sees a parked sedan resembling a squad car. but it turns out to be a service car for a pest exterminator named Grebleips.. “Spielberg” in reverse.

Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

  1. The opening and closing credits show the year as MCMLXXII which translates to 1972, but the movie was released in 1971.

2. David’s sunglasses appear and disappear all through the movie.

3. When David hits the car to the fence, his glasses get skewed up. But in the later scene his glasses are all right again.

4. David tells the passerby that the truck driver chased him down the mountain nearly 90 miles an hour, but we see a few moments earlier that the car’s speedometer was 100 miles an hour.

5. The café patron’s beer glass gets filled between scenes without being served.

6. Steven Spielberg can be seen reflected in the telephone booth during the scene where David is calling the police.

7. The driver’s door on the truck is open when it is plummeting over the cliff. This could be considered that the driver escaped and a potential sequel, but in reality stunt driver Carey Loftin had to guide the truck to the edge and jumped out only moments before it went over. He attempted to slam the door shut just before jumping but was unsuccessful and it swung wide open; there was never any possibility of a do-over so it had to remain in the film. Spielberg did show blood dripping inside the cab of the wreckage which clears any doubts of having a sequel.

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