Review of “Duel” (1971)

trailer from YouTube

This is our latest Saturday pizza and bad movie offering, Duel, a TV movie adapted from a 1971 Richard Matheson short story of the same name. The extended theatrical release is what’s generally available now. Duel was Steven Spielberg’s feature directing debut.

We watched it with Svengoolie.


David Mann (Dennis Weaver) drives his red Plymouth Valiant through the desert of California to meet a business client. He must arrive on time because the client is leaving the next day. Showing up late could cost him the account. On the way, he passes a slow-moving 1955 Peterbilt semi that’s seen better days. The truck overtakes him and drives slowly in front of him. When David passes him again, the truck blasts its horn, startling David.

Later, David pulls into a gas—a service—station (kids, ask your grandparents) where an attendant (Tim Herbert) fills his tank and checks under his hood. The attendant advises him he needs new radiator hoses. David dismisses the notion. Hmmm….

“You’re the boss,” the attendant says.

The Peterbilt pulls into the gas station. The driver gets out on the far side, so David sees only his jeans and boots as he walks around his truck and kicks a tire. Mann calls his wife (Jacqueline Scott) from a public phone (kids, ask your grandparents) to discuss an argument they had the night before. They don’t come to a conclusion, but she tells him, “Just be on time.”

David leaves, figuring whatever was going on with the truck driver is over. When he sees the truck in his rear-view mirror, he waves it on. The truck passes him, then slows down. David sees a “passing lane ahead” sign and decides to bide his time. However, when the passing lane appears, the truck swerves across both lanes, making it impossible for David to pass.

Could it be this guy is something more than an jerk? Could it be that he’s trying to (gulp) kill David?


This film won and received several nomination for excellence. I can see why. It is a study in escalating tension. When David stops to ask for help, he’s laughed at. No one believes him, and the viewer begins to wonder: is the truck real?

Duel won a Primetime Emmy in 1972 for Sound Editing and received a nomination for (I’m not making this up) Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for Programming – For a Special or Feature Length Program Made for Television Entertainment. The Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival awarded the 1973 Grand Prize to Steven Spielberg for this movie. He also won the Taormina International Film Festival 1973 Best First Film award. In 1972, Duel received a nomination for Best Movie made for TV.

The viewer and David see little of the antagonist. We see only a few hints: boots kicking tires, a hand waving David on  before an oncoming car nearly hits him, hands and arms shifting gears. We know no more of him than we do of Grendel. We don’t know—but can only guess—that the driver was irritated by David’s passing him initially. But why the psycho reaction? Certainly, he doesn’t hunt down and kill everyone who passes him… or maybe he does?

Dennis Weaver is believable as the hunted man, with tensions at home with his wife and pressure to make this business meeting. Before things get hairy, he listens to talk radio. At the time, it could be silly, if not vapid, entertainment but not the white supremacist recruitment tool it often is currently.

The pursuit scenes are fast-paced and engrossing. How will David get away? Will he? Yet these are interspersed with enough relief the tension is not overwhelming. David becomes increasingly desperate. Just when he thinks he’s safe, he’s deeper in trouble.

Yet the movie is hardly flawless. In one shot, when David is in a phone booth, the viewer can briefly see the reflection of a camera.

Now, with all its technical expertise, and the awards and nomination it received from professional organizations, the only question remains, did I enjoy it? I have to give it a qualified sorta. I read the short story and found it, with its slightly different ending, to be more enjoyable than the movie. Many people disagree with me, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed the film adaptation. I don’t have major gripes. It just felt long. The short story got to the point quicker.

I could not find this available for free download, but it is available for sale for rent.

Title: Duel (1971 TV movie)

Directed by
Steven Spielberg

Writing Credits
Richard Matheson…(screenplay)
Richard Matheson…(story)

Cast (in credits order)
Dennis Weaver…David Mann
Jacqueline Scott…Mrs. Mann
Eddie Firestone…Cafe Owner
Lou Frizzell…Bus Driver
Gene Dynarski…Man in Café
Lucille Benson…Lady at Snakerama

Released: 1971
Length: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Rated: PG

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

6 thoughts on “Review of “Duel” (1971)

  1. I have not seen this movie but it reminded me of a scene from a Swedish vacation family drama called “At least we were lucky with the weather”. In it the father of the family had to pass an unhelpfully driven 18 wheeler on more than one occasion. The family almost died. Trucks can be a pain in the rear end as well as very dangerous, especially when the driver decides to use the truck as a weapon. I’ve been in a situation myself where I succeeded in angering a truck driver (his driving was awful so I gave him the finger). The next thing I know he is chasing me and trying to run me off the road. I called the police. Hopefully they got him. However, I think dueling with truck drivers is such a common experience that this movie could send chills down the spine on most of us.

    1. WOW. What an awful experience. Matheson (who wrote the original short story) said the story was based on a real-life incident. He and a friend (?) were dangerously tailgated by a truck. On a lighter note, good title for the Swedish movie.

      1. When I rode a motorcycle, I did my best to stay out of the way of 18-wheelers. I knew I was hard to see and could easily be hit without doing the truck much damage.

    1. I don’t remember McCloud. My husband remembers this movie. I never saw it. I still liked the short story better, but I can understand the movie reaching a wider audience.

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