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Steven Spielberg's Duel: A Viewer's Guide

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You don't know Steven Spielberg unless you know Duel, his 1971 made for TV cat (truck) vs. mouse (car) classic. Rev up then for a cut out and keep guide to the shots, cameos, in jokes and bits of interest that mark out the director's calling card to the big leagues.

Steven Spielberg: Director's Collection Blu-ray box set available to order now.

Duel Viewer's Guide

1.32 The TV movie of Duel opens with David Mann driving his red Valiant down a desert road, the car framed ominously through barbed wire. When the movie was released theatrically (this is the version available in the Steven Spielberg’s Directors Collection), Spielberg dreamt up a kind of prequel opening: taking the POV of the car grill, the camera reverses out of a garage into a suburban neighbourhood. A series of shots plot a journey through a busy city onto the open freeways. The titles appear in a tunnel.

Duel Viewer's Guide

4.56 Mann listens to a prank call to the Census Bureau with the DJ pretending to be a hen-pecked house husband stuck in a marriage for 25 years and therefore unsure if he should say he is the man of the house on the form. The DJ is Dick Whittington (honestly), a well-known radio personality. It is the first time we get a sense of a male in crisis, a motif that plays out across the whole film.

Duel Viewer's Guide

5.11 Spielberg purposely chose Mann’s car to be red to give it standout against both the earthy backgrounds and the rust of the killer truck.

Duel Viewer's Guide

6.09 The low-angle shots of Mann’s car and truck were achieved with the camera car invented for the Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt. It was only 6” off the ground and allowed Spielberg to capture thrilling off the chain action.

Duel Viewer's Guide

7.38 The back of the truck clearly reads ‘FLAMMABLE’. Yet when the truck goes over the edge of a cliff, it doesn’t explode into a ball of flame. The studio were incensed that Spielberg didn’t deliver on the promise of a big explosion yet the director held firm for a slower more lyrical demise of the truck.

Duel Viewer's Guide

9.33 To get exactly the right vehicle for Mann’s tormenter, Spielberg hosted a “casting session” with various trucks. The winner, The 1955 Peterbilt, won out because the director felt it had the qualities of a human face: a lengthened front end (nose), black windows (eyes), tanks on the side door (ears) and a bumper (a mouth).

Duel Viewer's Guide

14.00 Written by producer George Eckstein, this is another scene created especially for the theatrical version. Early in his trip, Mann stops off to get gas and phone his wife from a Laundromat, the latter accusing him of cowardly behaviour as he failed to stand up for her after she was “practically raped” at a party the night before. As well as playing into the theme of teetering masculinity that has been building as a subtext, it also reveals Spielberg’s early visual fascination with frames within frames, as Mann is perfectly centred in the little round window of a dryer as a woman sorts her laundry in the foreground.

Duel Viewer's Guide

17:47 As the truck waves Mann towards an oncoming car, this is the first musical cue heard in the body of the film (a bizarre motif plays over the Universal logo). Yet this comes not from John Williams but Billy Goldenberg, a Universal contract composer who scored most of Spielberg’s TV work. Spielberg initially sent him the script for his first feature, The Sugarland Express, but Goldenberg’s tardy response saw Spielberg move onto another composer and the ultimate director-composer relationship was born.

Duel Viewer's Guide

25:27 If The Incredible Hulk episode ‘Never Give A Trucker An Even Break’ looked familiar to Spielberg, it is because the show pilfered footage of Duel’s truck chase without Spielberg’s knowledge — one of the shots “borrowed” was the car crashing into fence. Spielberg ensured that future contracts demanded no other films or TV shows could “borrow” footage from his work.

Duel Viewer's Guide

27:14 Chuck’s Café still exists today but is now a French restaurant.

Duel Viewer's Guide

27:21 The scene in which David Mann enters Chuck’s Café, walks through the restaurant into the restroom and back out again, was done in one long take. The shots lasts two minutes and 45 seconds and goes in and out of four locations, all in the days before Steadicam.

Duel Viewer's Guide

50.18 Added for the theatrical edition, this scene where Mann stops to help a stranded school bus only to be outdone by the kindliness of the killer truck is a blinding moment of black humour. Spielberg returned to the drama of a stalled school bus in Always.

Duel Viewer's Guide

51.55 This heart-stopping moment where the truck shunts Mann’s car onto an oncoming train is another addition to the theatrical edition. Writer Richard Matheson took umbrage at the scene, feeling the only car-truck contact should come at the end where the truck careers over the cliff.

Duel Viewer's Guide

56.32 The gas station owner/snake farmer Sally is played by Lucille Benson, a film and TV actress best known for her role in sitcom Bosom Buddies starring a young Tom Hanks. Eight years later, Spielberg cast Benson again in a similar role filling up John Belushi’s P-40 Warhawk in 1941.

Duel Viewer's Guide

57.48 This might be Duel’s most iconic image: a truck bearing down on a man locked in a telephone box. To achieve the shot safely, flags were planted out of shot to give stunt truck driver Cary Loftin the last possible point he could abort the stunt if Dennis Weaver failed to get out of the box. Also if you look closely, you can see Spielberg’s reflection in the glass of the booth.

Duel Viewer's Guide

1.01.28 Mann is asleep in the car. We see something moving in the background but hear the sound of the truck approaching. Mann jumps up to the wheel, only to be relieved that it is a freight train barrelling by. Filming on the fly, the film crew were confronted by a railroad representative who demanded to see the shooting permits. Assistant Director Jim Fargo ran interference for the director leading the jobsworth on a wild goose chase for non-existent paperwork allowing Spielberg to get the shot. Spielberg, for his part, admits that laying the sound of the truck over the train was a barefaced cheat.

Duel Viewer's Guide

1.07.56 Mann flags down an elderly couple to ask for help. The couple are played by Alexander Lockwood and Amy Douglass. Six years later, Spielberg recast the pair as a stoic couple in the face of an army helicopter in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

Duel Viewer's Guide

1.12.46 The car-truck chase zooms past a pest control car with a man scurrying to get out of the way. On the side of the van is painted GREBLIEPS — i.e. Spielberg backwards.

Duel Viewer's Guide

1.25.15 As the truck pushes the car over the cliff and falls off itself, the action is accompanied by an attenuated roar taken from the 1954 Universal monster movie The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Spielberg liked the effect so much he replayed it for the death of the Great White Shark in Jaws.

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