Duel (1971 film)

Duel is a 1971 American action thriller film[1][2] written by Richard Matheson, which is based on his own short story. It is the feature full-length directorial debut of American director, producer, and screenwriter Steven Spielberg, and is distributed by Universal Pictures.

International theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Produced byGeorge Eckstein
Screenplay byRichard Matheson
Based on"Duel"
1971 short story (in Playboy)
by Richard Matheson
StarringDennis Weaver
Music byBilly Goldenberg
CinematographyJack A. Marta
Edited byFrank Morriss
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • November 13, 1971 (1971-11-13)
Running time
74 minutes (TV)
89 minutes (theatrical)
CountryUnited States

Dennis Weaver portrays David Mann, a business commuter from California driving a Plymouth Valiant while on his way to meet a client. He soon finds himself chased by the mostly unseen driver of a shabby Peterbilt 281 who chases and terrorizes Mann after Mann overtakes him.

Originally aired as a television film on 13 November 1971, Duel was later edited, extended, and released theatrically.


David Mann is a middle-aged salesman driving on a business trip. He encounters a dilapidated tank truck in the Mojave Desert. Mann passes the truck, but the truck speeds up and 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. Mann phones his wife, who is upset with him after an argument the previous night. The station attendant tells Mann he needs a new radiator hose but Mann declines the repair.

Back on the road, the truck catches up, passes then blocks Mann's path each time he attempts to pass. After antagonizing Mann for some time, the driver waves him past but Mann nearly hits an oncoming vehicle. Mann then passes the truck using an unpaved turnout next to the highway.

The truck tailgates Mann at increasingly high speed. Mann loses control and crashes into a fence across from a diner. The truck continues down the road. Mann enters the restaurant to compose himself. Upon returning from the restroom, he sees the truck parked outside. He studies the patrons and confronts one he believes to be the truck driver. The offended patron beats Mann and leaves in a different truck. The pursuing truck leaves seconds later, indicating its driver was never inside the diner.

Mann leaves and stops to help a stranded school bus but his front bumper gets caught underneath the bus's rear bumper. The truck appears at the end of a tunnel. Mann and the bus driver free his car and Mann flees. Shortly after down the road, Mann stops at a railroad crossing waiting for a freight train to pass through. The truck appears from behind and pushes Mann's car toward the oncoming freight train. The train passes, and Mann crosses the tracks and pulls over. The truck continues down the road and Mann slowly follows.

In an attempt to create more distance between him and the truck, Mann drives at a very leisurely pace as other motorists pass him. Once again, he encounters the truck which has pulled off to the side of the road ahead, intentionally waiting for Mann. He pulls out in front of him and starts antagonizing him again.

Mann stops at a gas station/ roadside animal attraction 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. The station owner cries out as the truck destroys her animals' cages. Mann jumps 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 the truck is waiting for him again down the road. Mann attempts to speed past but it moves across the road, blocking him. Mann seeks help from an elderly couple in a car, but they flee when the truck backs up towards them at speed. The truck stops before hitting Mann's car; Mann speeds past the truck, which begins pursuing. Mann swerves toward what he believes is a police car, only to see it is a pest control vehicle. The truck chases him up a mountain range. The radiator hose of Mann's car breaks and the car overheats. He barely makes the summit and coasts downhill in neutral as the truck follows.

Mann spins out and crashes into a cliff wall and barely escapes being crushed by the truck but manages to restart his car. He drives up a dirt road and the truck follows him. He turns to face the truck in front of a canyon. He locks the accelerator using his briefcase and steers the car into the oncoming truck, jumping free at the last moment. The truck hits the car, which bursts into flames, obscuring the driver's view. The truck plunges over the cliff, along with the car. Above the wreckage, Mann celebrates. He then 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.[3] 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.[3] In preparation for writing the story, he drove from his home to Ventura and recorded everything he saw on a tape recorder.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] The "Snakerama" gas station (now the Peppertree market) seen in the film also appears in Spielberg's comedy film 1941 (1979) as a tribute to Duel, with actress Lucille Benson again appearing as the proprietor. The cliffs where the truck crashes at the end are Mystery Mesa, off Vasquez Canyon Road.

Production of the television film was overseen by ABC's director of movies of the week Lillian Gallo.[6] The original made-for-television version was 74 minutes long with filming 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 and the school bus, as well as the scene of Mann talking to his wife on the telephone. 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.[4] 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.[7]

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".[8]

The truck as the villain

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.[9] In the DVD documentary, Spielberg observes that fear of the unknown is perhaps the greatest fear of all and that Duel plays heavily to that fear. Throughout the film, the driver of the truck remains anonymous and unseen, with the exception of three separate shots, where the stunt driver can be seen in the truck's cab, where his arm waves Weaver on into oncoming traffic, and where Weaver observes the driver's snakeskin boots. His motives for targeting Weaver's character are never revealed, but the truck had numberplates from every state. Spielberg says that the effect of not seeing the driver makes the real villain of the film the truck itself, rather than the driver.


The car was carefully chosen, a red Plymouth Valiant, although three cars were used in the actual production of the movie.[10]

The original release of Duel featured a 1970 model with a 318 V-8 engine[11] 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.[12] 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. All the Valiants were equipped with a TorqueFlite automatic transmission.

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.[4]

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.[4] 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".[4] For each shot, several people were tasked to make it uglier; each successively adding oil, grease, fake dead insects and other blemishes.[9]

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.[9] 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 scene where David telephones his wife, 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, roof mounted horn position, brake lines between the tractor and trailer, mud flaps on the back of the twin rear tyres and a support shelf for the air conditioning unit, 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 wasn't used.[13]

Apart from a few mechanical differences, visually the trucks have differences too. The older Peterbilt 281 is generally more beat up, it has more dents and bumps. While the Peterbilt 351 has less wear and tear and straighter edges all round. The Peterbilt 351 has been weathered slightly darker, and with more of a rust effect. It also has a Peterbilt makers badge on both sides of the bonnet nose, the Peterbilt 281 seen in the film does not carry these badges. [14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

Use of Sound

Throughout the film, there is very little dialogue given to Matheson's character, David Mann and absolutely none whatsoever to the antagonistic truck driver, instead, as stated in his post-film documentary, Spielberg wanted to let the vehicles and setting "speak" for themselves. Duel, being filmed on a tight schedule and based on a short story, needed to fill in the 75 minute time space for the television debut, therefore the film was centered on the visuals and menacing audio. There was a break, however, in the silence and heavy roar of the two vehicles after the initial chase scene when Mann had crashed into a fence post just outside of Chuck's. Mann went inside to use the restroom and the audience was now introduced to his inner thoughts while he was simultaneously washing up from the crash. This diegetic use of sound was explained by Spielberg as Mann wanting to "physicalize" and "emote" his feelings, giving the audience an intimate relationship now with Dennis Weaver's character. The use of sound, or lack thereof, was a tactic used by Spielberg to "keep the audience in suspense" throughout the entirety of the film, a trait that he said he was inspired to use from Alfred Hitchcock. According to Spielberg, "sound has to fit like a glove...it makes everything scarier", which was applied towards the end of the film when Mann is asleep at the wheel but he is awakened at the sound of what appeared to be the truck, but was revealed to actually be a passing train, giving the audience the anxiety that this was going to be a major turning point. Along with the natural sounds kept in the film, Steven Spielberg also incorporated a minimal score, composed by Billy Goldenberg.


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.[17][18] 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 the 18th highest-rated TV movie of the year with a Nielsen rating of 20.9 and an audience share of 33%.[19]

It was eventually released to cinemas in Europe and Australia; it had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States, and it was widely praised in the UK. The film's success enabled Spielberg to establish himself as a film director.[4]


Critical response

The film received many positive reviews and is often considered one of the greatest TV movies ever made.[20][21] On the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, Duel currently has a score of 88% based on 41 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8 out of 10, with the site's consensus stating that "Duel makes brilliant use of its simple premise, serving up rock-solid genre thrills while heralding the arrival of a generational talent behind the lens".[22] Television critic Matt Zoller Seitz in his 2016 book co-written with Alan Sepinwall titled TV (The Book) named Duel as the greatest American TV-movie of all time, stating that "Almost fifty years after its initial broadcast, this stripped-down, subtly mythic action thriller retains a good deal of its power".[23]

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.[24] The theme of gender performativity in Mann's quest to prove his manhood is another interpretation several observers have noted.[24][25] The film has been placed at #67 on The 100 Scariest Movie Moments on Bravo.[26]

Over the years, it has developed a strong cult following and a reputation as a cult film.[27][28]



Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival

  • Grand Prize: 1973[29]


  • Outstanding Achievement in Film Sound Editing: 1972[30]

Golden Globe

  • Best Movie Made for TV: 1972[31]


  • Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for Entertainment Programming – For a Special or Feature Length Program Made for Television: 1972[32]

Saturn Award

  • Best DVD Classic Film Release: 2003[33]

References in other works

In computer games

  • In Grand Theft Auto V, a random encounter is based on the film.
  • In Hard Truck: 18 Wheels of Steel, the "Rusty" truck was based on the truck from Duel.
  • In Hidden Folks, in the Suburb-level, one of the hidden characters the player is tasked with finding is Driver Dave, who is tailgated by a crazy truck driver on one of the streets.

In film

  • The dinosaur roar sound effect that is heard as the truck goes over the cliff is also heard in Jaws (1975), also directed by Spielberg, as the shark's carcass sinks into the ocean. Spielberg has said this is because he feels there is a "kinship" between Duel and Jaws, as they are both about "these leviathans targeting everyman." He has also said that inserting the sound effect into Jaws was "my way of thanking Duel for giving me a career."[4] The sound effect originated in the 1957 B movie The Land Unknown.
  • The anime film Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo (1978) parodies Duel by depicting a chase scene whereby lead characters Arsène Lupin III, Daisuke Jigen and Goemon Ishikawa XIII, driving in a red Austin Cooper, are pursued by a giant Kenworth W900 sent by the film's villain, Mamo, to eliminate them.[34]
  • The truck from Duel is seen in the film Torque (2004) and causes a biker to wipe out shortly after a red four-door Valiant had driven past the bikers.
  • The horror anthology film Nightmares (1983) featured a segment very similar to Duel, though with overt supernatural elements.
  • In Fire Down Below (1997), the scene where Taggart is chased and nearly run off the road before luring the truck to ram his truck off of a cliff is directly inspired by Duel.
  • The Barcelona-based Spanish filmmaker Enric Folch crowdfunded the documentary film The Devil on Wheels.[35] The documentary centers the development of Duel.[36][37]
  • The film Joy Ride (2001) is heavily influenced by Duel and contains many direct references. In one scene a similar model truck menaces the protagonists, but the driver is revealed to be harmless.
  • The film Monster Man (2003), starring Eric Jungmann, features a large truck terrorizing the occupants of a red car, though the makes and models differ, and unlike in Duel, the driver's face is shown.
  • The film Wrecker (2015), starring Drea Whitburn and Anna Hutchison, is almost a shot-for-shot remake of Duel.
  • It was remade in Malayalam as Overtake, which was a box office disaster.
  • The film Throttle (2005) has a scene featuring a Dennis Weaver lookalike driving a red Plymouth Valiant as an overt reference to Duel.

In music

  • The image of the truck pushing the Plymouth over the cliff is seen on the cover of the album Smokin' Taters! by Kentucky-based band Nine Pound Hammer.
  • The Swervedriver song "Duel" from their album Mezcal Head was named after the film.[38]
  • In David Lee Roth's (1994) music video "She's My Machine", the truck appears several times as a green tanker truck.

In print

  • The Mr. Monk book Mr. Monk on the Road features a similar sub-plot in which Adrian Monk, driving a rented RV, is pursued by a truck like that from Duel, which meets a similar end, although the truck driver's motive is known.
  • In the third part of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Stardust Crusaders, the Wheel of Fortune chapters have various references to the movie, as the protagonists must deal with an assassin controlling a car (which resembles a Plymouth).
  • In 2009, writers Stephen King and Joe Hill decided to honor Matheson's classic with an homage prose story titled "Throttle." In time, this was turned into a four-issue miniseries called "Road Rage". IDW Publishing gave both "Duel" and "Throttle" two issues each to find a new audience with their comic book adaptation. "Road Rage" #1 was released to the public on Feb 15th, 2012.[39]

In television

  • In the Rockford Files Season 1 episode "The Dark and Bloody Ground" (1974 September 13) A mysterious truck driver wearing dark glasses tries to run Jim off the road in a compact car, just like in Duel, using its sounds and filming location of Palmdale, California for Parker, Arizona.
  • Stock footage from Duel appears throughout The Incredible Hulk first-season episode “Never Give a Trucker an Even Break” (1978 April 28), with small amounts of new framing footage featuring the Duel truck.[40] Spielberg was “not too happy about it”, according to Matheson.[41]
  • In the Red Dwarf Series 8 episode "Only the Good...", Arnold Rimmer claims that a scar on the right side of his neck resulted from a friend's attacking him with the video case from the film Duel.
  • The opening scene of the Transformers: Prime episode "Nemesis Prime" pays homage to Duel.
  • The one-hour special Tiny Toons' Night Ghoulery features a parody segment of the film named "Fuel" with Calamity Coyote.
  • The Bob's Burgers season four episode "Christmas in the Car" contains numerous references to Duel when Bob is terrorized by a candy-cane shaped truck.
  • In the television murder mystery series Murder, She Wrote episode "The Cemetery Vote", Jessica is traveling along a country road as a passenger in a station wagon when they are chased and rammed by a large powerful truck covered in mud with the driver invisible behind a mud-caked windshield.
  • It was the movie of the week for the Svengoolie program on November 5, 2016, his first airing of the film.[42]
  • In the Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated episode "The Secret of the Ghost Rig", the final chase between the Mystery Machine and the Ghost Truck parodies to that of the film.


  1. "Spielberg's brilliant feature debut is a textbook example of what an ambitious and talented young director can do with modest resources". Cinephiliabeyond.org. I think when you make an action film, especially a road picture, it’s the best way to work, because it’s very hard to pick up a script and sift through five hundred words of prose and then commit them to memory.
  2. "Spielberg's Duel, Four Wheel Combat". The New York Times. April 15, 1983. Duel might almost have been a silent film, because it expresses so much through action and so little through the words that are here.
  3. "Richard Matheson: The Writing of Duel". Duel Collector's Edition (DVD). 2004.
  4. Duel: Special Edition DVD (2005)
  5. "Le Chene French Cuisine". lechene.com. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  6. "Lillian Gallo, Pioneering TV Producer, Dies at 84". The Hollywood Reporter. June 18, 2012. Retrieved June 26, 2012.
  7. Wertheimer, Linda (January 5, 2013). "Another Think Coming? Scrutinizing An Oft-Misused Phrase". NPR. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  8. "On starring in the TV movie Duel". Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation. Retrieved August 15, 2010.
  9. "A Conversation with Steven Spielberg". Duel Collector's Edition (DVD). 2004.
  10. "The Truck from the Movie Duel". autofoundry.com. October 1, 2014. Retrieved August 12, 2017.
  11. "The Truck from the Movie Duel". autofoundry.com. October 1, 2014. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
  12. drivetribe.com
  13. "Fan site for trucks used in film". Retrieved September 3, 2011.
  14. https://archive.org/details/DUEL71ABCTV
  15. Jackson, Kathi (2007). Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 18.
  16. "The Surviving Duel Truck". Archived from the original on March 17, 2010. Retrieved September 3, 2011.
  17. Jon Burlingame, pp. 297-298, TV's Biggest Hits: The Story Of Television Themes From "Dragnet" To "Friends", Schirmer Books, 1996, ISBN 0-02-870324-3
  18. "Intrada Soundtrack Forum • View topic - INTRADA Announces Billy Goldenberg's DUEL".
  19. "Made-For-TV Movie Rankings". Variety. January 25, 1972. p. 81.
  20. "The Best Made-For-TV Movies of All Time". February 7, 2012.
  21. "The 15 Best TV Movies Of All Time1. Duel (1971)".
  22. "Duel (1972)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  23. Sepinwall, Alan; Seitz, Matt Zoller (September 2016). TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time (1st ed.). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing. p. 372. ISBN 9781455588190.
  24. Gordon, Andrew (1989) Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg
  25. Moscovitz, Jean-Jacques (2012) Letter from a Psychoanalyst to Steven Spielberg
  26. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_100_Scariest_Movie_Moments
  27. http://www.thedevilonwheelsmovie.com/
  28. http://davidmann.tripod.com/main.html
  29. "IMDB 1973". Retrieved October 4, 2014.
  30. "Emmy 1972". Television Academy. Retrieved October 4, 2014.
  31. Golden Globe 1972 Archived November 24, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  32. "Emmy 1972". Television Academy. Retrieved October 4, 2014.
  33. Steven Spielberg: A Biography ISBN 978-0-313-33796-3 p. 107
  34. Toole, Mike (2012). The Mystery of Mamo (Why Mamo Matters). Discotek Media.
  35. ""The Devil On Wheels" Doc to Celebrate Steven Spielberg's 'Duel' - Bloody Disgusting!". March 4, 2015.
  36. "Duel Doc Devil on Wheels Drives to Kickstarter - Dread Central". March 4, 2015.
  37. "Documentary The Devil on Wheels Pays Tribute to Spielberg's Duel - Dread Central". February 13, 2015.
  38. Thill, Scott (June 16, 2011). "Space-Walking Through Swervedriver's Sci-Fi Sonics". Wired. Retrieved March 4, 2016. ‘Duel‘ and ‘The Hitcher‘ were both named after the classic car movies, of course.
  39. "Road Rage #1".
  40. Brother Bill (March 6, 2015). "Spielberg's Duel (1971) and The Incredible Hulk (1978)". The Haunted Closet.
  41. Matthew, Bradley (2010). Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works. p. 70.
  42. "Svengoolie".


  • "Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career" by Steven Awalt, Rowman & Littlefield (2014).
  • The Complete Spielberg by Ian Freer, Virgin Books (2001).
  • Steven Spielberg by James Clarke, Pocket Essentials (2004).
  • Steven Spielberg The Collectors Edition by Empire Magazine (2004).
  • The Steven Spielberg Story by Tony Crawley, William Morrow (1983).
  • Duel by Richard Matheson, Tor Books Terror Stories Series (2003).
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