“Road Rage” Spielberg-style


I’m not sure if the term “road rage” had been coined in 1971, but I remember learning about it as a boy watching the psychological-thriller Duel, which was the first commercial film directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Yesterday I wrote about Mystery Mesa, where the killer truck plunges off a cliff at the film’s conclusion. Today, we will take a look at some of the other sites used in the film around the Santa Clarita Valley.

Duel is a simple story about a traveling salesman, played by Dennis Weaver, who is stalked in his red 1971 Dodge Valiant by a huge rusty gasoline tanker truck. The driver of the truck is never seen, and the motive for the chase is never made clear.

Steven Spielberg was only twenty-five when he made the film, which was created as a made-for-television movie, but also had theatrical releases overseas and in a limited number of venues in America. It was based on a story written by science-fiction and fantasy author Richard Matheson, who got the idea when he experienced road rage from a truck driver on the day that JFK was assassinated.

Most of the film was shot over thirteen days around the Acton area of the Santa Clarita Valley, far from the urban encroachment of Los Angeles (at that time). Dennis Weaver was Spielberg’s choice for the role, but he only was able to sign the actor the night before filming began.

Since 1971, much of the open desert has been covered with tract housing, but a few of the locations still look much as they did back then. The tunnel used during the school bus scene is near Acton on Soledad Canyon Road. Nearby is Le Chien, a French restaurant on Sierra Highway north of Canyon Country, which was known as Chuck’s Café in the film. It was here that Weaver’s character confronts the man he believes to be the driver.

The gasoline truck used in the film was a rusty 1955 Peterbilt 281 which carried license plates from several states to subtly imply that the trucker had killed other drivers previously. It was destroyed at the film’s conclusion when it tumbled down the face of Box Canyon at Mystery Mesa in Canyon Country, which is visible from Vasquez Canyon Road. For the film’s theatrical release, additional scenes were shot which required the acquisition of additional trucks. At least one of the vehicles still exists in a private collection in North Carolina.

The roar that the truck makes when it tumbles over the cliff was later incorporated into Spielberg’s film Jaws, during the death of the shark. As the director later stated, it was “my way of thanking Duel for giving me a career.”

(THIS JUST IN: I found this great web site that has most of the filming locations of DUEL. Check it out here.)

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About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

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