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
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.
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.
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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