David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a middle-aged businessman driving to an appointment in his Plymouth Valiant. On a two-lane highway in the California desert, he encounters a faded and grimy tanker truck, a Peterbilt 281, traveling slower than the speed limit and expelling thick plumes of diesel exhaust. Mann passes the unsightly truck which promptly roars past him and slows down. Mann passes the truck a second time and is startled when it issues a long air horn blast.
Mann soon finds himself in a bizarre cat-and-mouse game with the truck, which follows him into a gas station. While at the station, Mann makes a phone call to his wife who is a bit annoyed with him for not confronting one of their friends at a recent party who was making a pass at her. Mann argues that the friend had had too much to drink and did not require that kind of overreaction. His wife’s anger cools but she chides him for always being one who tends to avoid confrontation. The gas station attendant also tells him that Mann needs a new radiator hose, but Mann puts that off for the moment.
After Mann returns to the highway, the truck begins tailgating him. When he allows the truck to overtake his Plymouth, the truck slows and soon begins blocking Mann’s path each time he attempts to pass the truck. At one stage the truck driver waves at Mann, indicating that he can overtake. But as he does so, he almost collides with an oncoming vehicle. Mann discovers an unpaved turnout next to the highway and uses it to race ahead of the truck. The truck pursues Mann again, this time chasing him at speeds of over 90 miles per hour (140 km/h) down a mountain road and bumping him several times until the Plymouth goes off the road in front of a diner.
Mann enters the diner (Chuck’s Cafe) to compose himself. After returning from the men’s room, he is shocked to see the truck parked outside the diner. Mann studies the diner patrons carefully and begins an inner monologue in which he contemplates the driver’s motives and second guesses his decision to sit helplessly in the diner. Most of the patrons sitting at the bar give Mann the impression of malice, but when one leaves, appearing to approach the tanker, he instead drives away in a pickup truck. Mann looks around again trying to single out a patron, and when he thinks he has, he decides to confront him. The man he approaches, however, is angered at Mann’s accusations and engages in a fist fight. After the fight is broken up by the cafe owner, the man abruptly leaves the diner in a livestock truck. As it turns out, the tanker’s driver had never entered the diner and suddenly drives off before Mann can get a look at him.
Mann leaves Chuck’s Cafe and stops to help a stranded school bus. But his front bumper becomes caught underneath the rear of the bus. The truck appears at the end of a tunnel. Mann panics, manages to free the Plymouth and flees, but then is puzzled to see the truck helping the bus get moving. At a railroad crossing, the truck quietly approaches Mann’s car from behind and starts pushing the Valiant towards a passing freight train. The train passes by just in time and Mann crosses the tracks and pulls off the road. The truck passes him by and disappears. Mann stops at Sally’s Snakerama Station to telephone the police. But the truck roars up and slams into the telephone booth as he tries to make the call. Mann jumps clear just in time. The truck proceeds to destroy Sally’s Snakerama while Mann jumps into his car and speeds away. Mann then hides behind an embankment off the road and sees the truck pass by, apparently without noticing him. After a long wait, Mann heads off again but is dumbfounded to see that the truck is waiting for him just around the bend. Mann stops his car and attempts to get help from an older couple in a car that is cruising by. They think he is crazy and refuse to listen – until they see the truck themselves, fleeing when the truck backs up towards them at increasing speed. Mann returns to his car. The truck eventually allows him to pass by and a high-speed chase begins. Mann races up steep grades, putting some distance between himself and the truck. However, on the long, winding upgrade his Valiant begins to seriously overheat when a radiator hose fails, crippling the vehicle (earlier at the gas station he was warned of weak radiator hoses by the attendant, which Mann shrugged off) and the truck quickly gains on him. Mann barely gets over the summit and then coasts down the other side in neutral with the truck bearing down on him.
Going downhill somewhat uncontrolled, the Plymouth spins out and impacts against a rock wall. The truck heads toward the damaged, crippled car as Mann resumes and drives up a dirt road and faces his opponent on a large hill overlooking a canyon. He places his briefcase on the accelerator and drives his vehicle head-on into the truck, leaping from the car at the last second. The driver is unable to stop in time after hitting the car (which bursts into flames, partially obscuring the truck driver’s view) and the truck then plunges over the edge of a cliff into the canyon below, completely destroyed. The truck finally beaten, Mann laughs hysterically in triumph then sits down, exhausted, and waits in contemplation as the sun sets, throwing stones over the cliff as the credits silently appear.
 The truck as the villain
In the DVD documentary, Spielberg observes that the fear of the unknown is perhaps the greatest fear of all and that Duel plays to that fear. Throughout the film, the driver of the truck remains anonymous and unseen, with the exception of separate shots where his arm waves Weaver on into oncoming traffic, and another shot where Weaver observes the driver’s snakeskin boots. In the final scene, a partial view of inside the cab shows a little more of the driver as he vainly attempts to halt the truck before it plunges over the cliff. The driver’s motives for targeting Weaver’s character are never revealed. Spielberg says that the effect of not seeing the driver makes the real villain of the film the truck itself, rather than the driver.
Philosopher Graham Harman has noted the “virtually nameless characters overshadowed by their larger-than-life modes of transport” and the ironic symbolism of the name David Mann, a painter of chopper motorcycle art, and associated with the life of the biker/bike builder/artist who lives through, or is shaped and controlled by, his machines, and of course the original David, a mere man, who defeats a giant.
The script is adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story, originally published in Playboy magazine. It was inspired by a real-life experience, in which Matheson was tailgated by a trucker on his way home from a golfing match with writer friend Jerry Sohl, on the same day as the Kennedy assassination. The short story was given to Spielberg by his secretary, who reportedly read the magazine for the stories.
Duel was Spielberg’s feature-length directing debut, soon after a well-received turn directing a segment of the anthology television series Night Gallery. Initially shown on American television as an ABC Movie of the Week installment, it was eventually released to cinemas in Europe and Australia, and had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States. The film’s success enabled Spielberg to establish himself as a competent film director.
Much of the movie was filmed in southern California‘s “Canyon Country,” in and around Agua Dulce, California and Acton, California. In particular, sequences were filmed on 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, a place where David Mann abruptly stops for a break. The building, since 1980 housing a French restaurant called Le Chene, is currently still on Sierra Highway.
The original made-for-television version was only 74 minutes long and was completed in 13 days (3 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 Duel overseas in 1972, especially in Europe. Since the TV movie’s 74 minutes was not long enough for theatrical release, Universal had Spielberg spend 2 days filming several new scenes. These new scenes turned Duel into a 90 minute film. The new scenes were the railroad crossing, school bus, and David Mann’s telephone conversation with his wife. Also a longer opening sequence was added with the car backing out of a garage and driving through the city. Expletives were added to make the film sound like a major motion picture.
In the Archive of American Television website, Steven Spielberg is quoted in an interview given by Dennis Weaver as proudly saying: “You know, I watch that movie at least twice a year to remember what I did”
The car was carefully chosen, a red 1971 Plymouth Valiant with an underpowered engine. Its red color was also intentional; Spielberg didn’t care what kind of car was used in the film, but wanted it to be a red car to enable the vehicle to stand out in the wide shots of the desert highway.
Steven Spielberg had what he called an “audition” for the truck, where he viewed a series of trucks to choose the one for the film. He selected the older 1955 Peterbilt 281 over the then-current flat-nosed ‘forward control‘ style of trucks because the long hood of the Peterbilt, coupled to its split windscreens and round headlights gave it more of a ‘face’, adding to the menacing personality. In addition, Spielberg said that the multiple license plates on the front bumper of the Peterbilt subtly suggested that the truck is a serial killer, having “run down other drivers in other states.” For each shot, several people had the task to make it uglier, adding some “truck make-up”. The shots of the truck are done in such a way as to make it seem “alive” in terms of its attack on Mann.
During the original filming, the crew only had one truck, so the final scene of the truck falling off the cliff had to be completed in one take. For the film’s theatrical release, though, additional trucks were purchased in order to film the additional scenes that were not in the original made-for-TV version (i.e., the school bus scene and the railroad crossing). Only one of those trucks has survived.
Stock footage of both vehicles was later used in an episode of the Universal-produced TV series, The Incredible Hulk, entitled Never Give A Trucker An Even Break.
The truck is on display at Brad’s Trucks in North Carolina 
The film received many positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes the film currently has a “Fresh” score of 86% (2009).
References in other works
- Footage of both vehicles was later used in an episode of the Universal-produced TV series, The Incredible Hulk, entitled “Never Give A Trucker An Even Break,” much to Spielberg’s dismay.
- The dinosaur roar sound effect that is heard as the truck goes over the cliff is also heard in Jaws, also directed by Steven Spielberg, as the shark’s carcass sinks into the ocean. Spielberg has said that 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.”
- In 2009, Stephen King and his son Joseph Hillstrom wrote the short story Throttle as a homage to Richard Matheson‘s Duel. Throttle is available both in the short story collection He Is Legend and on the audiobook Road Rage (which also includes Stephen Lang‘s reading of Duel).
- In the British TV sitcom Red Dwarf, series 8, episode Only the Good…, Arnold Rimmer mentioned that he was attacked with the video case of this movie.
- Scenes of Duel were used in the music video for Bedroom Rockers – “Drivin’“
- The film was parodied on a Halloween special of Tiny Toon Adventures – itself produced by Spielberg.
- Steven Spielberg referenced this movie several years later in his wartime comedy 1941 when he has John Belushi’s character land a fighter-plane at the location of Sally’s Snakeorama garage – Lucille Benson fittingly returns for this scene.
- ^ Harman, Graham (2006). Rollin, Bernard E.; Mommer, Kerri & Gray, Carolyn M.. eds. Harley-Davidson and philosophy: full-throttle Aristotle. Open Court Publishing. pp. 123–124. ISBN 081269595X, 9780812695953. http://books.google.com/books?id=NrsfTreAPfwC&pg=PA123. “Here [in Easy Rider] we have a familiar theme in modern art: virtually nameless characters overshadowed by their larger-than-life modes of transport. […] Perhaps even more to the point is Steven Spielberg’s early film Duel, in which the driver of the homicidal truck is reduced to a white t-shirt and disembodied signaling arm, while the truck itself persecutes a milquetoast character with the almost laughably symbolic name of ‘David Mann.'”
- ^ a b c d e f Duel: Special Edition DVD (2005)
- “Le Chene French Cuisine”. lechene.com. http://www.lechene.com/. Retrieved 2009-01-09.
- Homepage www.stlouisdumptrucks.com
- ^ 
- ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0f6hGinHFE
- 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).