coming up on TV: Steven Spielberg’s brilliant debut in DUEL

Dennis Weaver in Stephen Spielberg's DUEL
Dennis Weaver in Stephen Spielberg’s DUEL

Set your DVRs for Turner Classic Movies’ November 21 airing of Duel.  In 1971, some Universal exec hired 25-year-old Steven Spielberg to make some TV movies, the first of which was Duel.  This low budget suspense thriller foreshadowed Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the rest of Spielberg’s masterworks.

In the pre-cell phone era, Dennis Weaver plays a traveling salesman driving through an isolated desert mountain road when he becomes embroiled in road rage to the extreme – the driver of a tanker truck starts relentlessly hunting him down. This imposing 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck becomes every bit the scary monster as the Great White Shark in Jaws.

At the time, Dennis Weaver was one of America’s most familiar faces from his oft comic supporting role in TV’s iconic Gunsmoke, and he had just become a star in his own right with McCloud.  He is perfect here as an Everyman – right down to his Plymouth Valiant.

I don’t know whether TCM is airing the original 74-minute (TV) or the 90-minute (theatrical) cut, but both are just about perfect. When I saw this on TV in 1971, I wasn’t thinking about who the director was, I was just riveted to the story, terrified that Dennis Weaver wasn’t going to escape his fiendish nemesis.