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Spielberg's 'Duel' was car-chase heaven and his first masterpiece

Before he was making blockbusters, he was making TV movies.

Top image: Universal

Before we were afraid to go in the water, we were afraid to even hit the highway. Four years before Jaws turned Steven Spielberg into a Hollywood hotshot, the director was demonstrating his knack for perfectly staged action and gripping suspense with Duel. It was his first feature-length film. He was 24 years old.

Richard Matheson, who had previously scared us away from air travel with his Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," adapted the script from his own short story. On the day of JFK's assassination, the horror writer was heading home from the golf course when he was tailgated by a tractor trailor. The experience inspired a tale about a vicious trucker, which first appeared in the pages of Playboy.   

In 1971, Spielberg had previously showed off his skills by helming the premiere episode of Columbo as well as a sharp installment ("LA 2017") of The Name of the Game. He shot Duel north of Los Angeles in the Sierra Pelona Valley. The production took 13 days — a little over its budgeted 10-day shooting schedule. The flick featured little dialogue, and was largely devoted to a massive Peterbilt 281 truck chasing a poor Plymouth Valiant down the Sierra Highway.

Spielberg pushed for Dennis Weaver to play the lead. Weaver was currently starring in McCloud, but the director was largely thinking back to that actor's work in Touch of Evil. There's a little homage to the Orson Welles classic in Duel, when Weaver repeats his line "another think coming."

Bits of Duel would pop up in other iconic works of the decade. The Incredible Hulk recycled footage of the truck for the episode "Never Give a Trucker an Even Break." The studio had every right, but the incident angered Spielberg and affected the way his contracts were structured going forward. The director himself used a tiny bit of his debut in Jaws. The animalistic roar heard (spoiler alert) as the truck plummets over a cliff was given to the giant shark.

In his commentary for the Duel DVD, Spielberg explained it was his "way of thanking Duel for giving me a career."

We're thankful for that as well.

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