Dennis Weaver

Duel

1971

Universal Studios

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Produced by George Eckstein

Written by Richard Matheson

Before we get into the actual review a brief history lesson: The Made-For-TV Movie is a phrase you don’t hear much these days but it was used all the time back in the 1960’s and especially during the 1970’s when ABC, CBS and NBC who at that time were The Big Three of programming got into the business of producing their own movies specifically made for a television audience and tailored for 90 minute prime time broadcast television viewing slots. Which meant that no longer did they have to rely on movies they purchased from Hollywood movie studios. Now all three networks had their own special movie night but the one that most people remember is the “ABC Movie Of The Week” which aired from 1969 to 1976 on Tuesday nights. ABC had other movies nights such as their Sunday Night Movie but those were generally theatrical features. And of course there was the long-running and classic “The 4:30 Movie” which had an opening credit that was so popular it eventually was adopted as the opening for all of ABC’s late night movies:

And then of course there’s the opening for The Tuesday Night Movies itself:

Now, yes, most of ABC’s Tuesday Movie Of The Week’s movies were forgettable, disposal entertainment.  Many TV series such as “The Six Million Dollar Man” “Alias Smith and Jones” “The Immortal” and “Starsky and Hutch” made their debut as 90 minute pilot films here. And then you had a whole truckload of movies that are still remembered and indeed have become legendary in pop entertainment culture. “The Love War” “Brian’s Song” which is still hailed today as one of the best football movies ever made and a movie that guys unashamedly admit they cry when they watch it. “A Cold Night’s Death” which is a movie that screams to be remade. “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” starring Elizabeth Montgomery. “Get Christie Love!” “Bad Ronald” “Haunts Of The Very Rich” And then there’s the movie we’re going to talk about now: DUEL, which along with “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” comprises The Holy Trinity of Made-For-TV horror movies.

DUEL is a Made-For-TV Movie with the most interesting history of any Made-For-TV Movie. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story originally published in Playboy. The movie was only Steven Spielberg’s second feature-length directing job and the movie proved to be such a critical success and ratings hit that Universal asked Spielberg to spend a couple of days filming additional scenes and it was then released to theaters overseas where it played to sold-out audiences. Then, amazingly, Universal released DUEL theatrically in some venues here in the United States. This was an unheard of event back in those days and Universal was rewarded with DUEL going on to make a very respectable profit in its limited U.S. theatrical run.

But it’s no surprise to me why the movie has gone on to earn the reputation it has. Next to “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” DUEL is probably the best known Made-For-TV Movie of all time and rightly so. It’s a white-knuckle thriller that taps into the deepest fear of any motorist on the highway. I know that for me, DUEL is a movie that represents one of my worst nightmares. A movie like “Saw” doesn’t scare me at all because there is zero chance of me being forced to play some bizarre game by a hyper-intelligent serial killer. But there’s every chance I can innocently piss off some maniac behind the wheel of a truck and without meaning to find myself engaged in a life or death battle on a highway.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) starts out his day peacefully enough. He’s a salesman, driving on his way to an important business meeting. In a wonderful bit of characterization, during a phone conversation with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) we learn that David actively works at avoiding confrontation, a personality trait that greatly factors into what happens to him during the course of his horrifying day.

During his drive he encounters a tanker truck driving slower than the posted speed limit. David passes the truck and thinks no more of it. But after a stop at a gas station he is passed by the same truck which gets in front of him and again slows down. David again passes the truck and the truck’s driver (who we never see) appears to take umbrage with this as he first tries to trick David into a collision with another vehicle. The truck’s driver continually ups the ante of this deadly game, chasing David down the highway, trying to push his vehicle into the path of a passing freight train. As this long day goes on, David cannot escape the fact that the driver of the truck is trying to kill him and if David wants to survive he is going to have to stop running and confront his unseen enemy.

And eventually it does come down to just David and the truck driver. David cannot convince anybody he meets along the road that this man is trying to kill him. Taken from a psychological point of view, the truck represents David’s fear of confrontation that is relentlessly pursuing him, forcing him to make a stand and fight for what his important to him. In this case: his life.

But you can throw that psychological stuff out the window. Taken purely as a horror movie, DUEL delivers on every level. Dennis Weaver gives an Academy Award level performance. He’s on screen for the entire running time of the movie and he is just flat out terrific. He is never less than totally convincing as this perfectly regular guy caught up in a situation way over his head, caught up in a deadly road game with a serial killer and no idea of how he’s going to survive.

So should you see DUEL? Absolutely YES. DUEL is an absolute masterpiece of suspense on all levels. You can see echoes of Spielberg’s later work on “Jaws” in this movie and the story by Richard Matheson is so tight it hurts. I’ve provided a link below where you can watch the complete movie on YouTube. If you’ve never seen DUEL before, do yourself a favor and watch it right now. Enjoy.

Duel At Diablo

1966

United Artists/MGM

Directed by Ralph Nelson

Produced by Fred Engel and Ralph Nelson

Written by Marvin H. Albert based on his novel “Apache Rising”

DUEL AT DIABLO is one of those westerns that when I mention it even to fans of westerns I get a blank look and a “say wha?” It’s one of those movies that appear to have been long forgotten even though it stars three of the best loved and most popular actors to have worked in Hollywood: James Garner, Sidney Poitier and Dennis Weaver. But even fans of those stars seem to have never heard of the movie and that’s truly a shame because DUEL AT DIABLO, while not a masterpiece of the genre is a damn good western for a number of what I believe to be strong reasons and we’ll get into those after a summary of the plot:

Army scout Jess Remsberg (James Garner) while on patrol out in the desert comes across the hideous remains of a man brutally tortured by the Apache.  On the trail of those Apaches Remsberg rescues a woman from them. Not only is Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson) not grateful to be rescued she actually was looking for those Apaches for reasons that will become quite important to the plot later on. Remsberg returns Ellen to her husband Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver) who is more upset that the horse his wife had taken is dead than anything else.

But Remsberg has his own problems to think of as he finds out from his old friend Lieutenant Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers) that his Comanche wife was murdered and scalped. McAllister doesn’t know who did the killing but he knows where there is a man who can point Remsberg in the right direction. But he won’t tell Remsberg the name until he agrees to scout for him. McAllister has to escort a unit of twenty-five inexperienced soldiers green as Christmas trees to Fort Concho and McAllister badly needs Remsberg to help him get them there. Once at Fort Concho, McAllister agrees to give Remsberg the name of the man. Willard Grange goes behinds McAllister’s back to get permission to accompany the unit to Fort Concho with his supply wagons.  This doesn’t make McAllister happy at all but the guy who’s really pissed off is Toller (Sidney Poitier) a veteran of the 10th Calvary Buffalo Soldiers who was contracted to provide forty horses to the army. Toller has only broken half of the wild horses and he won’t be paid for the other twenty unless he goes with the unit and breaks the horses on the way.

Once the unit gets on the move they quickly find themselves in one hell of a mess. The local Apache chief Chata (John Hoyt) has gone on the warpath and the unit must pass right through his territory. He targets the unit as one of Grange’s wagons is filled with ammunition and because Ellen Grange has the one thing he cares the most about: his grandson, the child Ellen Grange had with Chata’s son when she was held captive by the Apache.  Ambushed by the Apache, the badly outnumbered and inexperienced soldiers must somehow hold out at Diablo Canyon while Remsberg attempts to evade the Apache and ride to Fort Concho to get help before they’re wiped out.

DUEL AT DIABLO has a lot of selling points that I think make it worth your time to watch and here’s number one: we’ve got three of the most likeable actors in Hollywood. They’re all known for playing easy-going guys full of warmth, charm and with strong moral and ethical souls. Not in this picture. Garner, Poitier and Weaver play three men who are hard, brutal, violent and in a lot of ways downright unpleasant. Matter of fact, in the first thirty minutes of the movie Garner, Poitier and Weaver threaten to kill one or the other at least once and there’s a tense moment later on when Poitier and Weaver face off for a gunfight. I recently watched the movie a few days ago and I don’t think I can recall a single moment where any of them even so much as smiles. It’s a radical departure for them as actors and I enjoyed watching the three of them enjoying playing against type. Especially James Garner. If you had never considered him a badass before, you will after seeing this movie. I really like his look in this movie. From start to finish he’s unshaven, sweaty and appears to have not taken a bath in weeks nor does he appear to give a damn.

DUEL AT DIABLO also may be the first American western where elements and style of the growing Spaghetti Western genre were being used. Like Spaghetti Westerns, there’s nobody in this movie who is entirely good or bad. We understand why everybody is doing what they’re doing or acting the way they do even if we don’t agree with it or like it. The locations, set design and photography are very much like Spaghetti Westerns as well as the violence which is really brutal at times. We’re not talking Sam Peckinpah level slaughter here but it is a harshly realistic depiction that I don’t think one expects to see in a pre-“The Wild Bunch” American made western.

What else did I like? I like how Toller’s ethnicity was never pointed out or made an issue. Even though McAllister and Toller don’t get along it’s due to their differing opinions on how things should be done, not because Toller’s a black man. I like how Ellen Grange and Scotty McAllister have distinctive accents. All too often I hear movie fans complain about characters having accents and I think that’s a highly insensitive and downright ignorant to say. Especially when it comes to Westerns where I’m betting you couldn’t walk twenty feet in any direction without hearing half a dozen different accents as everybody and their mother were coming to America to make their fortune. Having character with accents in Westerns reminds us that this is a country of immigrants. Something that we all need to be reminded of once a while. I also liked the music score which also sounds more like a score you’d hear in a Spaghetti Western.

So should you see DUEL AT DIABLO? Absolutely. The movie has excellent performances and a great story. Right from the start when a huge, bloody Bowie knife slashes a X through the United Artists logo, DUEL AT DIABLO is promising it’s not like your usual Western. And it delivers on its promise.

103 minutes