American Odyssey Presents: Thoughts From The Road

Jul 19, 2017 by Nick Staff on The Nickelodeon Blog

Nickelodeon staffer Joshua Rainwater on how Spielberg’s 1971 thriller Duel, in which a salesman is pursued by a malevolent trucker, became one of his favorite late night movies.

Duel plays Thursday July, 20 at 10:30 as part of the Nickelodeon’s American Odyssey summer series.

Duel was the first horror film I saw as a child. My father suggested it when I was having a sleepover at age 12 and though my preteen friends were less than impressed I was enthralled. I sank deeper into my seat every time I feared that I would finally see the maniacal face of the truck driver. It was a TV movie by a then-rookie director, shot in 13 days, without a star attached — and yet without ever having seen Jaws or Jurassic Park I was sure it was a masterpiece.

Spielberg was working in television when his secretary Nona Tyson passed him an issue of Playboy magazine featuring Richard Matheson’s short story “Duel.” Matheson was already well-known by TV fans for penning “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” (one of the most iconic episodes of the Twilight Zone). Spielberg became obsessed with the story and its key theme: an average man up against unstoppable forces (the theme would later shape the narratives for Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even Poltergeist.) Upon its completion, the TV movie was affectionately received, laying the foundation that I believe gave Spielberg the confidence to pursue more ambitious projects. He recalls: 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.” For me – it was entertainment, escapism and a little bit of terror.

At the core of Duel, Spielberg explores one of the most basic of human emotions: fear. As a 12 year old, the idea that another person could turn against me for no apparent reason was frightening and by the film’s end, thrilling and occasionally comedic. In one scene, the film’s protagonist narrowly escapes death as the truck driver smashes the phone booth where he is attempting to make a call. In a fit of panic he calls out to a nearby shop proprietor “Lady, you have got to call the police!” to which she responds “With what? That’s the only phone I got!” A master of tone, Spielberg made me laugh through my dread, showing me at age 12 that sometimes the only thing to fear is fear itself. That idea was more complexly explored later in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. but Duel remains a wonderful harbinger of things to come and a great 1970s road movie. As the protagonist explains in the European edit of the film: “I remember the simple days. The days where you could drive down the road without fear of angering another driver. Now, life moves too fast.”

1. Zoetrope: All-Story: An Introduction to Richard Matheson’s “Duel”, Vol. 8, No. 1