April 18: Vroom — A movie mostly about cars.
Man, no matter who Dennis Weaver is battling — a Manson-like family against his RV-using vacationing clan (Terror on the Beach), the ghost of his dead daughter (Don’t Go to Sleep) or straight-up Peruvian snow (Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction) — I’m always on his side. He has an everyman quality that is so endearing. no matter how rough TV movies make his existence.
In Duel, the ABC Movie of the Week series for November 13, 1971 — and later an international release in theaters — he’s just a businessman in a Plymouth Valient who upsets the driver — never seen — of a 1955 Peterbilt 281 18-wheeler. It sounds so simple, but that’s what makes it work. There’s little dialogue in the movie with the car and truck pretty much speaking for themselves, as was the intention of its director, a young Steven Spielberg, making his first full-length film after working in series television on shows like Night Gallery, The Name of the Game, Marcus Welby, M.D., Columbo, Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law and The Psychiatrist. Universal signed him to several TV movies, which include Savage and Something Evil before he left TV behind and made The Sugarland Express and the film that would cement his status, Jaws.
Spielberg requested Weaver, as he loved him in Touch of Evil, and even has him use a line from that Orson Welles movie, as he tells the truck driver that he has “another thing coming.”
If you see a version with swearing and more talking, that’s because Universal paid the director to pad it for theatrical release. As for that sound — it seems like a dinosaur — that the truck makes when it dies, it’s the same sound as the shark at the end of the blockbuster Spielberg would later make. He’s said that there is a kinship between the two movies, which are about monsters threatening normal people and the sound effect being used again was “my way of thanking Duel for giving me a career.” It comes from the 1957 movie The Land Unknown.
The other reason this works so well is because of the script by Richard Matheson. He based it on a real story from his life, as a truck tried to run him off the road after a round of golf with Jerry Sohl on the day that JFK was killed. He tried to sell it as a movie for eight years before selling it as a short story to Playboy, where it was published in April 1971. Spielberg said of him, “Richard Matheson’s ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay for Duel. For me, he is in the same category as Bradbury and Asimov.”
If you liked this story, so many other Matheson tales have been made into movies: Icy Breasts is his story Someone Is Bleeding, plus there’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes, Ride the Nightmare (filmed as Cold Sweat), The Beardless Warriors (filmed as The Young Warriors), The Comedy of Terrors, The Legend of Hell House, Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time), What Dreams May Come, “Prey” which is the “Amelia story in Trilogy of Terror, numerous episodes of Night Gallery and The Twilight Zone, “Steel” (filmed as Real Steel), the “No Such Thing as a Vampire” chapter in Dead of Night, plus the scripts for The Beat Generation, House of Usher, Master of the World, The Pit and the Pendulum, Burn Witch Burn, Tales of Terror, The Raven, The Devil Rides Out, Jaws 3-D, The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, Dying Room Only, Scream of the Wolf, The Box and so many more. His most filmed story is I Am Legend, which was made as The Last Man on Earth, The Omga Man, I Am Aomega and I Am Legend. He really made his mark in the world with stories that will last forever.
I would dare say that Duel is in the top three of all made for TV movies of all time.