(director: Steven Spielberg; screenwriter: Richard Matheson/based on the story by Richard Matheson; cinematographer: Jack Marta; editor: Frank Morriss; music: Billy Goldenberg; cast: Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Cafe Owner), Gene Dynarski (Man in Cafe), Tim Herbert (Gas Station Attendant), Charles Seel (Old Man), Alexander Lockwood (Old Man in Car), Amy Douglass (Old Woman in Car), Shirley O’Hara (Waitress), Lucille Benson (Lady at Snakerama), Cary Loftin (The Truck Driver), Dale Van Sickle (Car Driver); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: George Eckstein; Universal; 1971)

“… ‘road rage’ taken to new heights of exploitation by ‘the boy wonder’.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A made for TV film (shot in 16-days for The ABC Movie of the Week) that was the first feature film directed by the 24-year-old college dropout Steven Spielberg (“The Sugarland Express”/”The Color Purple”/ “Jurassic Park”), who by sheer balls talked himself into a job at Universal and has never looked back since. There’s hardly any dialogue and only a slight story line, in this gimmicky but visually effective thriller that’s adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story (first appeared in Playboy magazine). Matheson said “he was inspired by an actual incident in 1963 in which he was terrorized on a Los Angeles freeway by a trucker.”

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a harried Southern California businessman, still smarting from a spat with his wife the night before when she felt he should have said something to the businessman who was coming onto her at a gathering. The milquetoast ‘everyman’ is on his way to a business appointment and acts assertive a day too late to cut in front of a fuel rig on a deserted stretch of the highway out in the ‘burbs (shot on location in Soledad Canyon). Mann, driving a Plymouth Valiant, soon finds himself threatened by the ten wheeler diesel truck, who dangerously tailgates him and then when Mann lets him pass the trucker slows down and won’t let him pass. The vengeful driver can’t be seen behind the shaded windshield, and during the entire film we only see that he’s wearing cowboy boots and has a hairy arm. Unable to get help and sinisterly followed by the soaped-up diesel, Mann after being harassed for a long time–at one point getting whiplash when forced off the road and then narrowly escaping when pushed onto an oncoming train–eventually fights back by driving his battered family sedan right at the waiting truck before jumping out. The smashup results in the death of the psycho driver and triumph for the beleaguered little guy who beat the mechanized giant at his own game.

It never impressed me as much more than a slickly made shocker that was heavy on keeping it tense anyway it could, while the slim story was padded with diverting road incidences that seemed like ‘road rage’ taken to new heights of exploitation by ‘the boy wonder.’ Civilization is supposedly under siege, in this cat-and-mouse game of not following the rules of the road and trying to take the law into one’s own hands–a sure sign that civilization is breaking down, as around every bend danger lurks in such a scary world.

Duel first aired on ABC on November 13, 1971 and, because it was so popular, a version that went from 74 minutes to 88 minutes with added violence and profanity was prepared by the studio for a theatrical release in 1983.