David Mann is a middle-aged salesman driving on a business trip. He encounters a tanker truck on a two-lane highway in the Mojave Desert, traveling below the speed limit and expelling sooty diesel exhaust. Mann passes the truck, but the truck then 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. Through the space beneath the truck bed, he sees the driver is wearing cowboy boots. Mann phones his wife, who is upset with him after an argument the previous night. The gas station attendant refills Mann's car and mentions that it needs a new radiator hose, but he says he'll get it fixed later.
Back on the road, the truck catches up, passes, and blocks Mann’s path each time he attempts to pass. After antagonizing Mann for some time, the driver waves him past. However, when Mann attempts to pass he almost runs into an oncoming vehicle. He realizes the truck driver tried to trick him into a crash, so he passes the truck using an unpaved turnout next to the highway and taunts the driver as he speeds past.
The truck tailgates Mann at high speeds, forcing him to increase his speed to avoid being rear-ended. Mann finally drives his car off the road and collides with a fence opposite a diner. The truck continues down the road, and Mann enters the diner to compose himself. Though he assumes the truck driver's road rage has been satisfied, upon returning from the restroom he sees the truck parked outside. He studies the diner patrons and confronts a man wearing the same cowboy boots he saw on the truck driver. Offended, the driver strikes Mann and drives away in a different truck. The pursuing truck leaves seconds later, indicating its driver was never inside the diner.
Mann leaves the diner and stops to help a stranded school bus, but his front bumper becomes caught underneath the bus's rear bumper. The truck appears at the end of a tunnel. Mann panics, frees his car by jumping on the hood while the bus driver puts the car in reverse, and flees. To Mann's slight chagrin, the truck starts the bus by giving it a push-start to get it moving. Shortly afterward, Mann is stopped at a railroad crossing when the truck pushes his car toward a passing freight train. After the train passes, Mann crosses the tracks and pulls over. The truck continues down the road and Mann follows.
Mann stops at a gas station to call the police and replace his radiator hose, but when he steps into the phone booth, the truck drives into it. Mann jumps clear just in time, However, the truck also drives into some glass cages, featuring wild animals, where Mann barely escapes from getting bitten by a rattlesnake. The lady, who runs the station cries out in horror as the truck destroys her cages and potentially killing some of the animals that lived in them. He gets 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 finds the truck waiting for him down the road. Mann attempts to speed past, but it moves across the road, blocking his way. Mann seeks help from an older couple in a car, but they flee when the truck backs up towards them at speed. The truck stops before hitting Mann's car and the driver waves him past. At one point, Mann finds a black-and-white car. Thinking that it is a police car, he skids to a stop, only for him to realize that it is a pest control vehicle. He speeds off and the chase continues. The truck chases him up a mountain range. The radiator hose of Mann's car breaks, causing the car to overheat. He barely makes the summit and coasts downhill in neutral as the truck bears down on him. However, a sign states that trucks have to use low gear the next twelve miles and the truck driver is forced to slow down, allowing Mann to gain speed.
Mann's car cools off enough to allow him to drive up a dirt road and the truck follows him. He turns to face his opponent on a hill overlooking a canyon. He places his briefcase on the accelerator and steers toward the oncoming truck, jumping from the car at the last moment. The tanker hits the car, which bursts into flames, obscuring the truck driver's view. The driver realizes it's too late and honks one final time at Mann, before the truck plunges over the cliff, killing him. Above the wreckage, Mann jumps up and down, laughing with glee and relief. Physically and mentally exhausted, he sits at the cliff's edge and throws stones into the canyon as the sun sets.
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. 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. In preparation for writing the story, he drove from his home to Ventura and recorded everything he saw on a tape recorder.
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 and suggested he apply to be the director. 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. The "Snakerama" gas station seen in the film also appears in Spielberg's comedy film 1941 (1979) as an homage to Duel, with actress Lucille Benson again appearing as the proprietor.
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.
Production of the television film was overseen by ABC's director of movies of the week Lillian Gallo. The original made-for-television version was 74 minutes long and its filming was 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, school bus, and the telephone booth. 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.
Spielberg lobbied to have Dennis Weaver in the starring role because he admired Weaver's work in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Weaver repeats one of his lines from Touch of Evil, telling the truck driver in the cafe that he has "another think coming." This phrase is commonly misstated as "another thing coming", as Weaver's character did in Touch of Evil.
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".
The car was carefully chosen, a red Plymouth Valiant, although three cars were used in the actual production of the movie. The original release of Duel featured a 1970 model with a 318 V-8 engine and "Plymouth" spelled out in block letters across the hood, as well as trunk lid treatment characteristic of the 1970 model; a 1971 model with a 225 Slant Six was also used. 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.
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.
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. 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". For each shot, several people were tasked to make it uglier; each successively adding oil, grease, fake dead insects and other blemishes.
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 only had one truck, so the shots of the truck falling off the cliff had to be completed in one take. For the film's theatrical release, though, two additional trucks were purchased in order to film the additional scenes that were not in the original made-for-television version (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, was later destroyed in another movie production. Only one of those trucks has survived, a 1960 Peterbilt 281 that was kept and prepared as a back up truck for the 351 truck, but went unused.
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.
The 1960 Peterbilt 281 truck was purchased several times. It is currently owned by a truck collector and is on display at Brad's Trucks in North Carolina.
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. 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 eventually released to cinemas in Europe and Australia; it had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States, while it was widely praised in the UK. The film's success enabled Spielberg to establish himself as a film director.
The film received many positive reviews and is often considered one of the greatest TV movies ever made. On Rotten Tomatoes the film currently has a score of 87% based on 39 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7 out of 10.).
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. The theme of gender performativity in Mann's quest to prove his manhood is another interpretation several observers have noted.Awards
Avoriaz Fantastic Film FestivalGrand Prize: 1973
EmmyOutstanding Achievement in Film Sound Editing: 1972
Golden GlobeBest Movie Made for TV: 1972
EmmyOutstanding Achievement in Cinematography for Entertainment Programming – For a Special or Feature Length Program Made for Television: 1972
Saturn AwardBest DVD Classic Film Release: 2005