The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 1

An Introduction to Richard Matheson's "Duel"

by Steven Spielberg

An Intro to Duel

I first encountered Richard Matheson’s “Duel” in 1971 while I was earning my stripes as a journeyman television director at Universal. Anxious to break into feature films, I was developing my own ideas when my secretary at the time, a lovely woman named Nona Tyson, suggested a short story she had come across in a magazine she was reading. Expecting her to present me with an article from Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, I was surprised when she handed me the April issue of Playboy. Only after she assured me her interests were in the printed fiction did I take Nona’s suggestion and read “Duel.”
           I had been a fan of Richard Matheson’s work before “Duel,” and as a reverent follower of the Twilight Zone, I knew Richard from his brilliant contributions to that series, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” While I expected a well-written and gripping narrative, nothing prepared me for the relentless, unforgiving force I encountered. The most frightening aspect of the story for me, and a device put to chilling use in the screenplay for Duel as well, was the fact that this maniacal truck driver went unseen the entire story. By limiting him to a waving arm out the window or a pair of boots seen under the truck, Richard shrouded this Grendel of gridlock in mystery, and pushed the truck itself to the forefront as the antagonist of the story. Equally disturbing was the seemingly random selection of Mann’s car among all those on the road, a chilling notion even in today’s road rage–filled society. 
           I knew this was just the kind of project I was looking for, and was pleased to discover that Richard himself had already written a screenplay for the story and that it was set to be an ABC Movie of the Week. I met with the producer in control of the project and had a chance to read Richard’s script. After a professional courtship over the course of several meetings pitching my ideas and all but begging for the opportunity, I was told I had the job.
           Duel marked the culmination of my work on the small screen and required all the tricks one can learn directing episodic television on limited time and money. We cast Dennis Weaver as the hapless Mann, and a highway-busting eighteen-wheeler in what has to be one of my more memorable casting sessions. The art director had lined up seven different semis for me to choose from, and I picked the Peterbilt because the cab looked like a face.
           We shot the film over twelve or thirteen days on the highways in Pearblossom, Soledad Canyon , and Sand Canyon near Palmdale, California, just north of Los Angeles. My excitement for the project and youthful exuberance carried me through the tight schedule, and Duel is still a personal benchmark for how quickly I can shoot a film. In my hotel room I had an overview drawn up of the highways we were using and plotted how to shoot the entire seventy-four-minute film on a mural that covered three walls.
           After Duel aired on television here in America, I went back and expanded it into a feature that was released in Europe. Over the years, I have always enjoyed hearing the various interpretations of the story and the film. Many critics in Europe found esoteric and abstract concepts throughout the film and saw Duel as a study of the class struggle in America. For me it was High Noon on wheels.

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