Forgotten Favorites: 1955 Peterbilt 281 – Duel

The Car: 1955 Peterbilt 281
The Movie: Duel
The Driver: Unknown

Before there was Bruce (in case you didn’t know, the shark from Jaws isn’t actually named Jaws), there was the the truck. Bruce is one of cinema’s most iconic killers, a seemingly nigh unstoppable monster that will stop at nothing when it comes to feasting on humans. But what many may not know is that Jaws wasn’t director Steven Spielberg’s first tango with an unstoppable monster.

Jaws may have been Spielberg’s first theatrically released feature film, but technically his first directorial at-bat (assuming you don’t count the alien invasion movie he made for $500 at age 17) was with the 1971 made-for-TV movie Duel, and it feels in several respects like a sort of dry run for Jaws.

For the uninitiated, Duel is about David Mann (Dennis Weaver), an average man with an average job who drives an average car. He’s driving through the California hills one day when he is suddenly and seemingly without reason the target of a relentless stalker: a massive gasoline tanker truck. Yes, we occasionally see the driver’s arm and a cowboy boot or two, but for all intents and purposes it might as well be the truck itself that is out to kill David. It isĀ an unstoppable force of nature, a beast that is relentless in its pursuit of the pretty in its sights. It is practically elemental in the way it maneuvers through its environment as David desperately attempts to escape.

Dennis Weaver is the movie’s headlining actor, but it’s the truck that is really its star. Spielberg reportedly spent a substantial amount of time looking for just the right truck. He went with a 1955 Peterbilt 281. One might think that a lumbering, brown metal gasoline tanker truck would be a fairly generic vehicle, and yet this one is never lacking in personality. Some of that is due to its aesthetic, but some of it’s due to the small flourishes Spielberg emphasizes. My favorite detail in particular is the collection of license plates tagged onto the truck, like bones on a hunter’s necklace or notches on a fighter pilot’s plane. The driver of this truck may be faceless, but it seems he’s been choosing and pursuing victims for a while.

It’s also the way Spielberg shot the movie. The vehicles rarely broke 35 miles per hour during filming, and yet David’s car and the tanker never feel lacking for speed or momentum. Spielberg shoots the tanker specifically in such a way that it feels like nothing in the world could slow its rampage. As a character, it looks and feels every bit as soulless, vicious and unstoppable as the shark would in his next film. It’s a fairly remarkable accomplishment.

Spielberg has become the king of blockbuster filmmaking, with almost no equal when it comes to making films of sweep and scope. And yet when I think about films like Jaws and especially Duel, I wonder what the Spielberg of today would make were he to impose the minimalist restrictions he faced when making this. Regardless, while Jaws is undoubtedly the better film, he still gave us one of the most unsung monsters in film with Duel.

*Image courtesy Universal Pictures

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