From The Best of Richard Matheson
Steven Spielberg’s first full-length standalone feature – 1971’s Duel – anticipates his 1977 blockbuster Jaws in its story of a regular man menaced by a relentless, inhuman antagonist. Both were based on literary antecedents but, in part due to the source material, Duel is leaner, faster, and in many ways more punishing than the better known cinematic shark tale. The story of a travelling salesman headed for San Francisco who enters into a potentially fatal game of cat-and-mouse with a marauding, 40-ton truck that seems intent on killing him, the movie resembles Richard Matheson’s story in its claustrophobic atmosphere and its general refusal to allow its recipient – viewer or reader – any room to catch a breath.
The name of the protagonist in Matheson’s story is Mann – a not-so-subtle indication that the character is meant to represent a kind of everyman. (In a supplementary interview included on the 2004 Collector’s Edition DVD, Matheson acknowledges the obviousness of this move.) Spielberg’s film – the teleplay was also written by Matheson – gives the salesman a first name: David. This subtle act of identifying the protagonist makes the story less universal and more specific, though both Spielberg and Matheson must have realized that the mere fact of casting Dennis Weaver in the role would have this effect by definition.
More interesting is the decision to further anonymize the malevolent driver of the vehicle that repeatedly attempts to run Mann off the road. In Matheson’s story, the trucker is given the name Keller, which Mann notices written in all caps on the door of the cab. There is another obvious element here, which Matheson makes explicit in his story, in the chime between the words “Keller” and “killer.” The story also allows Mann a brief, glancing glimpse of the driver’s face, something that is also absent in Spielberg’s film. Giving the driver individual identifiers – a name and a face – renders him less anonymous and, therefore, somewhat less frightening than the utterly faceless, nameless villain in the movie. Matheson seems to recognize this. In his story, he writes: “It was strangely comforting to know the man’s intentions definitely again. That plus the knowledge of his face and name seemed, somehow, to reduce his stature. Before, he had been faceless, nameless, an embodiment of unknown terror. Now, at least, he was an individual.”
Matheson’s teleplay, in collaboration with Spielberg, pushes the narrative farther than the author felt comfortable taking it in print. By completely anonymizing the driver, the adaptation ensures that the viewer – like Mann himself – has no touchstone by which to rationalize or normalize his experience. Spielberg points out that this has the ancillary effect of elevating the truck itself to the position of principal villain in the tale.
Here is Matheson’s description of the truck from the story’s opening pages:
It was a huge gasoline tanker pulling a tanker trailer, each of them having six pairs of wheels. He could see that it was not a new rig but was dented and in need of renovation, its tanks painted a cheap-looking silvery colour. Mann wondered if the driver had done the painting himself. His gaze shifted from the word FLAMMABLE printed across the back of the trailer tank, red letters on a white background, to the parallel reflector lines painted in red across the bottom of the tank to the massive rubber flaps swaying behind the rear tires, then back up again. The reflector lines looked as though they’d been clumsily applied with a stencil. The driver must be an independent trucker, he decided, and not too affluent a one, from the looks of his outfit. He glanced at the trailer’s license plate. It was a California issue.
What the story does that the film is incapable of doing is put the reader in Mann’s head with access to his thoughts. Mann decided the trucker must be an independent contractor; he glances at the license plate; his gaze shifts from the word “flammable” to the unevenly painted reflector lines. In the story, we see what Mann sees and we are privy to his thoughts and determinations about his experience. In the film, we remain outside the character’s head, which paradoxically results in an even more terrifying experience. This is augmented by the visual representation of the truck, with a combination of grille, fender, and headlights working in tandem to give the vehicle something resembling a face.
In the DVD feature, Matheson states that he originally conceived “Duel” for the screen. The inspiration for the story came from a tailgating incident on the day John F. Kennedy was killed. Matheson thought that the unnerving experience of being followed too close on a highway was great fodder for a movie and tried unsuccessfully to interest studios in the idea. It was only then that he decided to turn the concept into a story, which he ended up selling to Playboy magazine.
The resulting work, like most of Matheson’s fiction, is cinematic in its approach and approximates – as much as possible – a visual presentation on the page. This is unsurprising in one respect: in addition to his stories and novels, Matheson is best known as a regular writer for the Rod Serling anthology television series The Twilight Zone. Matheson was almost conditioned to think in terms of shots and cuts and close ups. “Duel” exploits this effectively, using the empty desert roads to great effect and zeroing in on the corrosive dichotomy between the lone figure in the car and his relentless, homicidal enemy.
“Duel” was also the last story Matheson wrote. “I didn’t realize it at the time but the theme of my stories is one man against insuperable odds,” he says. “I didn’t know it at the time. And by the time I wrote ‘Duel’ I did know it. And I thought, well, this is it. This is the ultimate of one man facing some terrible opposition. And so I stopped writing short stories then. And I never wrote any more.”