Thursday, December 5, 2019

Last year Will Shiers went to New Mexico in search of the Convoy filming locations. In this two-part series, he now heads to Southern California to discover where Steven Spielberg’s Duel was shot.

“All I did was pass this stupid rig a couple of times and he goes flying off the deep end. He has to be crazy.”

I’m sitting at the level crossing in Acton, California, waiting for two miles of freight train to slowly trundle past, when I notice a Ram pickup truck in my rearview mirror. It’s massive, menacing, and it’s creeping ever closer. But what’s really alarming me is that I’ve spotted the same truck several times today already. Is it following me? What do I do?

The hot desert sun is reflecting in the truck’s windshield, completely obscuring the driver’s identity. I contemplate getting out of the car and tackling the driver, but decide it’s probably best to stay put. I’m sweating profusely now, and my knuckles turn white as I grip the steering wheel for dear life. There’s no sign of an end to this train, and the truck is edging closer. Its aggressive black grille is filling my entire mirror now, and even with my windows closed I can hear the 6.7-litre Cummins Turbo Diesel engine growling. The driver blips the accelerator, presumably trying to intimidate me, and it’s working too. He does it again, for longer this time, and the engine’s growl becomes a fierce roar.

Photo: Shoulda replaced that radiator hose…

Am I about to be pushed under the passing train? The fear of the unknown is unbearable... Truth be told, there isn’t actually anything to worry about. I’m in Southern California searching for the filming locations used in Steven Spielberg’s classic trucking movie Duel, and the Ram is just a prop for the video I’m making. Having failed to get hold of a Peterbilt, I called a friend in the Fiat Chrysler press office and asked if I could borrow the fiercest looking pickup truck on the press fleet – and he certainly delivered. The Ram 3500 Laramie Crew Cab 4x4 Long Box is one aggressive-looking vehicle. They might as well have designed the grille to look like a clenched fist!

My day starts at 10414 Bloomfield Street, Los Angeles, a residential street that’s just a spitting distance from the famous Hollywood sign and many of the film studios. This is the house that the film’s main character David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver) lived in, and you see him backing out of the garage in the opening scene of the movie. Armed with a screen grab and the truck’s sat nav, I assume locating the house will be easy. But what I don’t count on is the fact that it has recently been levelled, and replaced with an entirely new house. I finally recognise it from the tree on the sidewalk.

Photo: All that’s recognisable from our hero’s house in 2019 is the tree on the pavement.

David’s 1970 Plymouth Valiant Custom then heads through downtown Los Angeles and onto Route 14. I follow his exact journey. The road has barely changed, but the traffic has. It’s far heavier than it was 47 years ago, and most of the Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs have been replaced by anonymous Japanese hybrids. By the time the credits have finished David is in the desert, well on his way to an early morning meeting. What could possibly go wrong? This was Steven Spielberg’s first-ever film, and the cinematography is wonderful. He purposely chose a red car so that it would contrast with the barren desert scenery, which it does beautifully. My Ram stands out too, dwarfing just about everything else on the road.

“Come on you miserable fat-head, get that fat-ass truck outta my way.”

Photo: Today the famous gas station is a bank.

This is the point where we meet the true star of the show – the 1950’s Peterbilt 281. Like the Ram, the Pete had a Cummins under the hood (although experts will tell you that it’s a Caterpillar you can hear in the movie). Apparently Spielberg was given a choice of five trucks, and opted for the bonneted Pete because he thought it had a human face. Most of the movie is shot in and around Santa Clarita and Acton, which are just a 30-minute drive from Los Angeles. While the towns have grown in 47 years, the scenery between them is exactly the same. It’s hard to believe that this rugged canyon landscape exists just 20 miles from Los Angeles. Spielberg wanted the identity of the psychopathic truck driver (played by Carey Loftin) to remain a mystery throughout, because he rightly believed it would add to the suspense. But, if you pause the movie at exactly 7:43 you’ll get a rare, albeit very brief, glimpse of him in an overtaking scene.

“Yeah, where have I heard that before...I’ll get one later.”

Photo: The Ram looms large…

My next stop is 3620 Smith Avenue, Acton, the gas station/ laundromat where David stops to fill up. By now the game of cat and mouse is well under way, and he’s unnerved when the tanker pulls in. The driver gets out, but all we see of him are his boots, kicking the truck’s tyres. The pump attendant opens the Plymouth’s hood and reports back that the car needs a new radiator hose. But David doesn’t believe him, saying he’ll buy one at a later date. It would turn out to be a big mistake. The gas station is long gone, having been replaced by a bank. It’s a shame, because the Ram could do with some diesel. Although it’s averaging an impressive 25mpg (10.6kpl), I’ve done more than 500 miles (800km) since picking it up in San Francisco, and it’s running low now. As I film on the sidewalk outside the bank, a teller comes out and demands to know what I’m doing. I explain that I’m searching for Duel filming locations, but she just looks blank. She’s never heard of the movie, and tells me I need permission to film. As she goes back in to report me to the bank manager, I quickly do my piece to camera. Luckily I don’t fluff my lines, and I’m speeding away by the time the manager comes out. While Spielberg wasn’t quite as quick as me, he certainly didn’t hang around either. The entire movie was shot in just 12 days…

Next month, Will finds out how David Mann made it out alive in the film’s dramatic climax.

The Car The Truck The pickup
Model: 1970 Plymouth
Valiant Custom
1955 Peterbilt 281 Ram 3500 Laramie
Crewcab 4x4
Long Box
Engine: 318ci V8 Cummins NHBS
6-cylinder diesel
6.7-litre Cummins
Turbo Diesel
Power: 230hp 275hp 385hp
Transmission: 3-speed
13-speed manual 6-speed
Top speed: 116mph (185kph) 90mph (144kph) 106mph (170kph)
Price when new: US$ 2800 US$ 8500 US$ 74,435

Abandoned Peterbilt

I discovered this wonderful 1955 Peterbilt parked up in a bus and coach graveyard in Williams, California. Although this rare beast has clearly seen better days, it was still driving when it entered the yard 15 years ago. The owner has plans to give it a full restoration one day. The truck is incredibly similar to the star of Duel, and even has the same dashboardmounted fan.