Bruce Fretts
November 08, 1991 AT 05:00 AM EST

One bright afternoon on a remote stretch of desert highway, a traveling salesman in a red Plymouth Valiant passes a 10-ton tanker truck. Bad idea. The truck driver turns out to be a madman who, oblivious to all known rules of road etiquette, does everything in his power-drive to run the salesman down.

This was the simple but harrowing plot of Duel, the ABC Movie of the Weekend for Saturday, Nov. 13, 1971. Dennis Weaver (McCloud) played the beleaguered motorist, but the TV movie’s real star was its director, Steven Spielberg, then a mere 23, who was making his first full-length film. Mounting his camera on every part of the truck, switching to Weaver’s frenzied glances in the rearview mirror, and using rapid intercutting, Spielberg created one of the most brilliant exercises in visceral suspense ever seen on the small screen.

At the time, the precocious director was two years into his long-term contract with Universal TV, which had signed him on the strength of his short film Amblin’. Spielberg had directed an episode of Night Gallery and a Columbo mystery when the studio assigned him Duel. The movie was shot in 16 days for $350,000, and Weaver put more than 2,000 miles on the car during filming.The reviews and ratings were good, but Duel found its greatest audience during its theatrical release in Europe. There the movie broke box office records and won film-festival awards. Among its admirers was Spielberg’s idol, British director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), who said, ”I knew that here was a very bright new director.”

Duel‘s success gave Spielberg the opportunity to direct theatrical features. In 1974, he debuted with The Sugarland Express, a funny, tragic tale of life on the lam. Then he read a book called Jaws, about ordinary men pitted against an insatiable killing machine, a great white shark. ”I kept thinking, ‘This is Duel,”’ he later told a reporter. ”’A very wet Duel.”’ A new era in moviemaking — an era of boyish imagination, visual panache, and big-budget smashes — was about to begin.

Time Capsule
Nov. 13, 1971
Frederick Forsyth’s political thriller The Day of the Jackal topped the best- seller list, and John Lennon’s ”Imagine” envisioned a world without borders. Moviegoers could watch Frank Zappa’s surrealist 200 Motels, while stay-at-homes tuned in to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

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