The Sugarland Express (1974)
(for some language, gun violence, high speed car chase peril, brief partial nudity)
Released: April 5, 1974
Runtime: 110 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks
In the strictest sense, The Sugarland Express is Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut. As the wunderkind’s first film made expressly for theatrical release (he was just 26), that’s how it was labeled by critics. While it’s no blockbuster on the scale of what we associate with Spielberg, it has all the clear-cut signs of a movie geek raised on John Ford, Howard Hawks, and other legends of the bygone studio era.
Inspired by a real-life event, The Sugarland Express tells the tale of two Texas convicts, a husband and a wife. On the run, they seek to “kidnap” their baby that has been commandeered by the state and given up for adoption, and then make a run for the border. The story cribs, too, from more highly regarded films of the time, most notably Terrence Malick’s debut Badlands but also Bonnie & Clyde, plus some DNA from Billy Wilder‘s dark media satire Ace In The Hole.
The final product, however, is distinctly and completely Spielberg, which is to say it’s as if he put those influences in a blender and came up with the most accessible and commercial version of that mix. It’s also a bit of a callback to Spielberg’s debut short Amblin’, with its two young lovebirds taking life by the horns and following their own rules, on a roadtrip to…where, exactly? Along the way, Spielberg balances comedy, drama, action, and sentiment (yes, that Spielbergian staple is evident from the start) with a carefree poise and cinematic flair uncommon for seasoned filmmakers, let alone a guy in his mid-20s.
The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, considered by many to be the greatest film critic of all time, dubbed The Sugarland Express nothing short of (and I quote), “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies.” In context, however, that rave was couched in a specific qualifier, i.e. “in terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience.” In other words, she was much more impressed by how well it was made than by how it made her think or feel.
Other critics of the time expressed similar views, praising Spielberg’s technical craft while knocking the effort as “synthetic”, “cynical”, and “pure Hollywood”. Granted, they were judging it against the 1970s Golden Age of American Cinema, but by today’s standards it’s a deeply personal yet impressively crafted indie effort with multiple layers of pointed – and indicting – social commentary (including the perversity of some of our incarceration laws). It may be sentimental, but shallow and slick it ain’t.
It’s much richer and substantial than similar genre films that would follow – like Smokey & The Bandit, which barely rose above caricature – and even took home the Best Screenplay prize at that year’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Spielberg keenly applied inventive visual metaphors, too, such as a Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoon; it’s first projected behind the kissing silhouettes of our anti-heroes at a drive-in theater, and then reflected on them through their RV’s windshield – working as a poignant omen.
At the time, its cast boasted two recent Supporting Oscar winners: Goldie Hawn, who was beginning to expand into more challenging lead roles, and Ben Johnson, a memorably iconic small town salt-of-the-earth figure from one of the all-time great American movies, The Last Picture Show. Johnson brings a merciful grace and compassionate streak to his stoic Middle America archetype, but it’s Hawn who anchors the film’s emotions and embodies its themes, in a whirlwind of fierce passion, comic charisma, and (rather surprisingly) a deeply bitter melancholy. In a re-evaluation of her career best efforts, most would be hard-pressed not to put this right at the top.
William Atherton is a small revelation as her husband Clovis, displaying emotional complexities that are in sharp contrast to the weasely archetype he’s most known (and typecast) for, following 1988’s Die Hard. This is also the one shining moment for Michael Sacks‘ short-lived career who, as the simpleton patrol officer taken hostage, forms a bond with these fugitives that’s more sincerely felt than some perfunctory Stockholm syndrome.
And in terms of craft, we see Spielberg’s ambition from literally the opening shot. It utilizes a bold technique that Spielberg will repeat throughout his entire career:The Spielberg Oner. With it, he frames and reframes multiple compositions during the course of one uncut shot (read more about the technique here). As Kael also said of Spielberg in her review, “Composition seems to come naturally to him.” Does it ever. We’ll be referencing The Spielberg Oner quite a bit throughout this “30 Days Of Spielberg” retrospective.
Here, the opening shot begins in close-up, pulls out to a wide establishing, and then tracks right and downhill to rest on a medium shot that frames two modes of transportation – one vehicle that’s safe (in the background, being left behind), and another in the foreground that foreshadows the dangerous journey ahead – with, at the center of this complicated tracking shot, a cluttered collage of road signs pointing in all different directions (another telling visual metaphor). And this is all before the first cut. (It’s also just a palette cleanser for a first-ever 360-degree shot of its kind, which occurs about halfway through the film; see Trivia below.)
For all the movies that Sugarland borrowed from, one can’t help but wonder how much it also inspired the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. The two films are so evocative of each other, most clearly between Hawn’s Lou-Jean and Holly Hunter’s Edwina, who each have a deep, existential maternal void simmering beneath a highly comic (but sincerely portrayed) southern-hick surface. Also in common, Lou-Jean and Edwina each drag their more ambivalent husbands along to help them carry out their baby-napping schemes.
But even more broadly, The Sugarland Express and Raising Arizona conjure a kindred spirit of empathy from their audiences. Even as we acknowledge that these couples are breaking the law, we can’t help but sympathize and root for these convicts, these parents, whose criminality is born solely of a desire for family – a longing made even more desperate and heartbreaking because of injustices far beyond their control.
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.
- Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, The Long Goodbye) was easily Spielberg’s most accomplished collaborator at the time, secured by up-and-coming producer Richard D. Zanuck who was trying to establish a name of his own beyond that of being the failed son of legendary 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck who, in the 1960s, actually fired Richard from Fox after a series of flops, bombs, and disasters. (Richard would eventually win a Best Picture Oscar for producing Driving Miss Daisy.)
- In Jaws, Spielberg famously employed the iconic “dolly/zoom” shot that Hitchcock originated in Vertigo. But Spielberg actually first used it here, to great dramatic effect, in a would-be sniper shot late in the film.
- This was also the first movie to utilize the compact Panaflex camera. It enabled Spielberg to capture the first ever front-to-back-seat tracking shot, as well as the first ever 360-degree pan within a car (and a moving car at that).
- This marked Spielberg’s first time working with composer John Williams. The two have gone on to create what is quite possibly the most successful and long-lasting collaboration in movie history. Even though the score here is reminiscent of music heard in Steven’s short film Amblin’, Spielberg had initially asked Williams to give him a big, bold symphonic score in the vein of great American composer Aaron Copland. It was Williams who suggested otherwise, convincing Spielberg that the music needed to be sparser, more youthful, with the foundation of a solo harmonica and a few strings.