Story idea: Murderous truck chases man down rural highway.” These were the first words written (on the back of an envelope) after writer Richard Matheson was nearly run off the road by a truck ’n’ trailer on the day JFK was assassinated in 1963. From this hastily scrawled logline emerged perhaps the greatest TV movie ever made, and more importantly, a calling card for the world’s greatest filmmaker. Using unseen memorabilia from the director’s archive plus a brand-new interview with him, renowned Spielbergologist Steven Awalt tells the tale from its origins as a Playboy short story, to its instant-masterpiece status as a movie of the week, to its canonisation on the big screens of Europe. Like the film itself, it’s an economical, intelligent, unpretentious read, and brings the film alive.
In terms of backstage drama, the making of Duel is hardly the making of Jaws. Time and again Awalt is at pains to point out how Spielberg’s precocious organisational talent facilitated extraordinary results in little time (17 days) and on budget ($750,000). But Awalt does his best to mine the narrative for quirky details (the make-up session for the truck) while squeezing the juice from behind-the-scenes dramas: a vomit-inducing location helicopter ride, stunt driver Dale Van Sickel nearly totalling Mann’s banger, a near fist-fight in sound mixing. Through evocative writing and reminiscences from all the key players, Awalt does a great job of putting you in the desert on the shoot or on the recording stage laying down Billy Goldenberg’s score.
Yet the book is at its best in its close textual analysis, be it of Matheson’s short story (who knew Matheson toyed with the idea of giving Mann a co-traveller?) or Spielberg’s M.O.. Elsewhere it bombards the reader with cool trivia (Spielberg chased Gregory Peck for the lead role), peppers the story with sidebars that enrich the tale (the best concerns the Incredible Hulk episode that shamelessly recycled Duel’s truck action, much to Spielberg’s irritation), and offers a reprint of Matheson’s taut teleplay. Awalt makes the astute point that Duel is, at once, classic and overlooked. The book’s Peterbilt passion confirms the former and, hopefully, rectifies the latter.
Reviewed by Ian Freer