Duel is a 1971 television film about a terrified motorist (played by Dennis Weaver) on a remote and lonely road being chased and stalked by the unseen driver of a tanker truck. It was written by Richard Matheson, based on his own short story, and directed by Steven Spielberg in his feature film directing debut.
The script is adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story, originally published in Playboy magazine. It was inspired by a real-life experience, in which Matheson was tailgated by a trucker on his way home from a golfing match with friend Jerry Sohl, on the same day as the Kennedy assassination. The short story was given to Spielberg by his secretary, who reportedly read the magazine for the stories.
Duel was Spielberg's feature-length directing debut, soon after a well-received turn directing a segment of the anthology television series Night Gallery. Initially shown on American television as an ABC Movie of the Week installment, it was eventually released to cinemas in Europe and Australia, and had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States. The film's success enabled Spielberg to establish himself as a film director.
Much of the movie was filmed in and around the communities of Canyon Country, Agua Dulce and Acton, California. In particular, sequences were filmed on Sierra Highway, Agua Dulce Canyon Road, Soledad Canyon Road and Angeles Forest Highway. Many of the landmarks from Duel still exist today, including the tunnel, the railroad crossing and Chuck’s Café, a place where David Mann abruptly stops for a break. The building, since 1980 housing a French restaurant called Le Chene, is currently still on Sierra Highway.
The original made-for-television version was 74 minutes long and was completed in 13 days (three longer than the scheduled 10 days), leaving 10 days for editing prior to broadcast as the ABC "Movie of the Week". Following Duel's successful TV airing, Universal released Duel overseas in 1972, especially in Europe. Since the TV movie's 74 minutes was not long enough for theatrical release, Universal had Spielberg spend two days filming several new scenes. These new scenes turned Duel into a 90-minute film. The new scenes were the railroad crossing, school bus, and David Mann's telephone conversation with his wife. Also, a longer opening sequence was added with the car backing out of a garage and driving through the city. Expletives were added to make the film sound less like a television production.