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C&L's Sat Nite Chiller Theater: Spielberg's 'Duel' (1971)

Who knew that a 1971 TV movie about a big rig chasing a Plymouth Valiant would become an international sensation and launch the career of one of our greatest directors?

I remember turning on this 1971 ABC Movie of the Week film when I was a youngster and being scared out of my wits. Little known TV director Steven Spielberg, who had just directed an episode of Columbo, turned this Richard Matheson story into an international hit. The sound effects and editing were quite extraordinary at the time and Dennis Weaver portrayed the man on the run perfectly.

(Usually I go with something more in the Chiller Theater mold, but when I found Duel online I had to post it tonight.)

Steven Awalt wrote about the making of the movie in his book "Steven Speilberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career" and here's a snippet:

Eckstein was in a crunch to find a director, since ABC had carved out time in its November sweeps schedule for "Duel". Once he saw Spielberg's rough cut of "Murder by the Book," he knew he'd found his choice. He called Spielberg back to his office, gave him Matheson's teleplay, and told him to read it and to come back with his ideas of how they would shoot the picture. Spielberg read the script with great interest.

"I was intimately familiar with the work of Richard Matheson because I was a complete, obsessive-compulsive "Twilight Zone" follower, and so I knew of his work on the "Twilight Zone" and some of his really great episodes of that."
The story of "Duel" drew Spielberg in personally on a couple of levels.

"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. . . . 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."

Read more about this story excerpt here.

I rented the DVD recently and the extras are incredible to listen to.


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