Here are 10 trivia facts about Steven Spielberg’s Duel from 1971, which originally appeared our Facebook page. There are hundreds of pieces of behind-the-scenes information about this movie. Please feel free to comment and add more trivia we might have missed.
1. This movie was shot in less than two weeks.
To be sure shooting costs were down to the bare minimum, corners were cut to keep the budget under $500,000 and the projected 10-day shooting schedule intact. Duel’s estimated final budget came in at about $450,000, but principal photography was actually completed in about 12 days instead. Steven Spielberg used this, his first feature film, as a benchmark for how fast he can get a film into the can.
2. The villain in the film has no speaking part.
Knowing that fear of the unknown is usually what scares people the most, Spielberg decided that the truck driver’s voice would not be heard nor his (her?) face ever seen by the viewer. The truckers’s eerie, almost supernatural presence is perhaps the most unsettling attribute of the movie.
3. A diner plays a role in the film.
Duel was shot on location in and around Agua Dulce, Acton, and Canyon County, California, and audiences may recognize scenes of Soledad Canyon Road and Angeles Forest Highway. There are landmarks from the movie that still remain, including Chuck’s Cafe, the diner where David Mann (Weaver) takes a break and surveys the patrons to try and figure out if any of them are the murderous truck driver. The actual building housing Chuck’s is now a French restaurant and can be seen on Sierra Highway.
4. Scenes from this movie later turned up in TV shows.
Nothing can irk an artist more than having his work “reworked” without his express permission. It’s no wonder, then, that Spielberg was upset when he discovered scenes from his movie Duel turned up seven years later as “stock footage” in an episode of The Incredible Hulk. However, no litigation was considered once it was realized that, when Duel was filmed in 1971, Spielberg’s contract with Universal had no language preventing the studio from reusing clips as they saw fit. His future contracts would all include such wording to insulate his other films from a similar fate.
5. The main star is best known for his leading role in a TV series.
Most folks in the 1970s knew Dennis Weaver from two iconic TV roles. On Gunsmoke, he portrayed Marshal Matt Dillon’s (James Arness) right-hand man, deputy Chester Goode, from 1955 to 1964. Later he was Marshal Sam McCloud in NBC’s “fish-out-of-water” 1970-77 detective series McCloud, in which a laid-back New Mexico lawman came to New York City to solve a case and wound up patrolling the steel canyons of Manhattan (a premise borrowed from Clint Eastwood’s 1968 feature Coogan’s Bluff).
Long before casting began on Duel, Spielberg saw Dennis’s superb acting ability in the 1958 film noir thriller Touch of Evil, and knew he wanted him for this movie. However, even though everything moved ahead as though Weaver was protagonist David Mann, he wasn’t actually signed until the day before production began.
Originally, when Duel was a telefilm and had not yet become a full-fledged theatrical feature, the budget had to kept down, and losing more than one 1955 Peterbilt oil truck was not an option. To add real drama to the actual filming, when a mechanical malfunction caused the truck to waver from its intended straight line of action, the driver–who was committed to another job the following day–did not halt the truck, but instead stayed in the driver’s seat, jumping out only at the last moment before the vehicle goes over a cliff. In the final production, viewers saw an unintended open door as the truck makes its fatal leap.
7. The original story behind the film first appeared in Playboy Magazine.
Richard Matheson’s script for the movie was adapted from one of his own short stories, also titled Duel, that had previously been published in Playboy Magazine. What’s more, it wasn’t a total work of fiction; Matheson was frightened by a real-life encounter with a tailgating trucker on November 22, 1963, a day that was already harrowing for the writer–as well as every other American–as it was the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Steven Spielberg’s then-secretary, whose job it was to read Playboy strictly for the stories, was the one who first spotted the piece and handed it over to her boss. However, it is truly a small world as Spielberg had already become a Matheson fan from the writer’s involvement in the Twilight Zone TV Series.
8. A Plymouth Valiant plays a role in the film.
Although the Plymouth Valiant has been seen in many movies and TV shows, it was carefully chosen for its part in Duel. It was revealed after the film’s completion that Spielberg was not as concerned with the make and model of the vehicle as he was with its color — it was important for the bright red automobile to stand out in long shots showing the desert highways. In the original TV version, Duel used two different Valiants: a 1970 model equipped with a 318 V-8 engine and a 1971 model with a 225 Slant Six. Then, when the director extended the film and needed additional scenes of the car, a 1972 model was used; continuity was preserved by all three cars having “Plymouth” in black letters emblazoned on the hood, and all three had the same Plymouth wheel covers.
9. This well-known film was a TV movie first, before being shown in theaters.
Duel was originally intended to be one of ABC’s “Movie of the Week” presentations, keeping the 74-minute running time in line for TV movies. However, once it aired, buzz was high and Universal decided to release it theatrically in overseas venues, which eventually led to some showings in the United States as well. Knowing 74 minutes wasn’t long enough for a feature film release, some new scenes were added stretching the film’s length to 90 minutes. Spielberg used his two-day scheduling allotment to weave a few of his ideas into reality and included new footage: Dennis Weaver’s phone call to his wife; the school bus scene; and the scene at the railroad crossing. Also, some of the dialogue was changed to offer a few choice “expletives” and thus disguise Duel’s “television roots.”
10. This was the first feature film for one of the most well-known film directors of all time.
Steven Spielberg already had some behind-the-lens experiences when he directed several short films in the late 1950s and early ’60s. He also did an uncredited stint as assistant director on the TV series Wagon Train before getting the opportunity at Universal to helm episodes of such series as Marcus Welby, M.D., The Name of the Game, and Columbo, as well as directing Joan Crawford in an installment of the pilot episode for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. By 1971 the studio rewarded the 25-year-old Spielberg with a major step-up, the feature-length Duel. Three years later, he would be in the director’s chair for his first big-budget film, The Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn, and the following year, he sent shivers up audience spines with the megahit thriller, Jaws. Becoming an international success, his fast-rising career insured Spielberg a spot as one of the most influential film directors of all time.
Now, fasten your seat belt for some scenes from the theatrical trailer for 1971′s Duel: