Trucking hell as car driver faces his nemesis: Spielberg’s Duel at 50

Fifty years ago, the US television network ABC screened its latest Movie of the Weekend. Few viewers had high expectations, for these were often modest entertainments complete with B feature acting. However, the advertisements for Duel promised the story of a motorist being pursued across the desert by a homicidal gasoline tanker driver.

It was also the first film by a 24-year-old director named Steven Spielberg.  The script was by Richard Matheson, whose inspiration was a 1963 journey when he was a passenger in a car tailgated by a truck. The experience formed the basis of a short story published in the April 1971 edition of Playboy, where it caught the eye of Universal Studios.

Spielberg’s then secretary also read Matheson’s tale, and she thought it ideal for the young director. The result was a screen version budgeted at a mere 750,000 dollars, with a location shooting schedule of 14 days. Gregory Peck was the first choice for the protagonist David Mann, but the role went to Dennis Weaver, who had recently escaped playing straight man to a bear in Gentle Ben.

By 1971 the actor was famous as  Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud, but Spielberg remembered him from Orson Welles’s A Touch of Evil as the “snivelling neurotic cowardly” hotel night manager. As for Mann’s vehicular opponent, the art director arranged a casting session of trucks, and the one that most appealed was a Peterbilt 281 “Needlenose”. The other modern vehicles in the line-up looked too bland, but the 1955 tanker had a split windscreen, a high bonnet and a sense of personality.

In short, it perfectly fitted Spielberg’s brief of a villain that represented ‘Murder Inc’ on wheels. 

The sinister 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck that pursues the protagonist across the desertCredit: Everett Collection/Alamy

The Peterbilt was initially a member of the Union Oil fleet, and its 10.5-litre twin-turbocharged engine meant it could achieve 90mph. Universal further arranged for a second 1960 model to serve as a standby vehicle; this survives and currently resides in North Carolina. Finally, to ensure the truck appeared utterly malign, the crew regularly treated it to fresh coats of oil and dirt and garnished the grille with dead grasshoppers.

The production selected the protagonist’s car with equal care, and Duel used at least two Valiants; Plymouth enthusiasts will note the difference between a 1970 V8 and a 1971 225 cubic inch “Slant Six”. In addition, the red paintwork contrasted the desert landscape, while Mann’s company car denoted his previously mundane existence. Spielberg later noted the character was “typical of that lower-middle-class American who’s insulated by suburban modernisation”. 

Location work in California commenced on 13 September 1971. Weaver piloted the Valiant for over 2,000 miles and performed his own stunt work in the famed telephone booth scene. He was doubled by stuntman Dale Van Sickel for the more demanding moments, although the Plymouth hitting a cliff face at 50mph was unscripted, as he had momentarily lost control.

In addition, Spielberg ensured the truck driver’s face was never visible, the viewer seeing only the arms and boots of the great stunt arranger Carey Loftin of Bullitt fame.

Look behind you… Weaver’s Plymouth Valiant has companyCredit: Universal TV/Alamy

The final confrontation between Mann and the tanker proved a significant challenge. The Peterbilt needed to travel at 35mph towards the Cruzan Mesa cliff, and Loftin fashioned a “dead man’s clutch” – a length of rope anchoring the accelerator to the dashboard.

Unfortunately, it came loose, so the stuntman jammed himself against the cabin door and its frame and pressed the throttle as hard as possible. He made his escape just before the truck descended 300 feet. Accompanying the demise of the Peterbilt was a roar sourced from the 1954 science fiction film The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Spielberg subsequently reused this effect for the death of an irate shark; he observed that “Duel is basically Jaws on land”. Some years later, Universal TV recycled the footage in an episode of The Incredible Hulk entitled Never Give a Trucker an Even BreakDuel proved so popular that by March 1972 the studio decided it merited cinematic release in Europe.

Unfortunately, the film sans advertisements was too short for a main feature, so Spielberg filmed an extra 16 minutes, with a level crossing sequence and Mann encountering a school bus. The star vehicles were now a recent model six-cylinder Valiant and a 1964 Peterbilt 351, which is now missing, believed destroyed. 

The tension mounts as the Peterbilt pushes the Plymouth over the edge of a cliffCredit: Universal TV/Alamy

October 1972 marked Duel‘s British premiere on an obscure double bill with the Amicus horror film Asylum.

The gulf between Mann’s plight and MGB-driving psychiatrists, low-rent special effects and Richard Todd in a dreadful cravat was not so much vast as immeasurable. Fortunately, pressure from film critics meant the picture gained a proper West End release, and The Telegraph hailed it as a “very original and spooky motoring nightmare”. Meanwhile, some cinemagoers felt decidedly envious of Weaver’s character.

He may have feared for his life, but at least he did so in a company car with a radio and automatic transmission… Fifty years after its original release, Duel more than fulfils its director’s observation of “an exercise in paranoia”, for the Peterbilt selects the Valiant at random. Moreover, Spielberg shot none of the film on a sound stage and ensured the viewer never realised he used a limited number of secondary roads.

As for Weaver, he delivered the performance of his career, reflecting: “It’s hard to react properly to what’s going on around you when a camera is your constant travelling companion, right by your head.”  And perhaps the tanker’s most telling detail is its multiple licence numbers. This was standard practice at the time, as a haulier required a separate registration plate for each part of the USA in which they operated.

Alternatively, they represented the Peterbilt’s driver’s goal of destroying a car in every state… For new and used buying guides, tips and expert advice, visit our Advice section, or sign up to our newsletter here To talk all things motoring with the Telegraph Cars team join the Telegraph Motoring Club Facebook group here

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