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.
It was the wunderkind’s first film made expressly for theatrical release (he was just 26), and so that’s how it’s labeled by critics and film historians.
It’s no blockbuster on the scale of what we’ve come to associate with Spielberg, but it has all the clear-cut hallmarks of an Old Hollywood movie geek who was 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 who has been commandeered by the state and given up for adoption. Once successful, they’ll make a run for the border.
The story cribs, too, from more highly regarded films of the time, most notably Terrence Malick’s Badlands and the game-changer Bonnie & Clyde; it also splices some DNA strands 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 all of 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 film Amblin’. It follows another pair its two young lovebirds taking life by the horns and living by 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 many 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 (although with a bit of a notorious, iconoclastic reputation, too) — dubbed The Sugarland Express nothing short of (and I quote), “…one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies.” Wow. That puts it alongside the like of Citizen Kane.
In context, however, that rave was couched in a specific qualifier, i.e. it was a phenomenal debut “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 also marginalizing the effort as “synthetic”, “cynical”, and “pure Hollywood”. Granted, they were judging it against the 1970s Golden Age of American Cinema, but even by those standards they were selling it short.
More relevant, when viewed through today’s sensibilities, The Sugarland Express is as deeply personal as it is impressively crafted. This bold indie effort boasts multiple layers of social commentary, at times with pointed indictments (including the perversity of some of our incarceration laws).
It may be sentimental, but slick and shallow it ain’t.
The Sugarland Express is a much richer and more substantial than similar genre films that would follow it (like Smokey & The Bandit, which barely rose above caricature). It even took home the Best Screenplay prize at 1974’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Spielberg keenly applied inventive visual metaphors, too, such as (of all things) a Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoon. The iconic Looney Tunes reference is 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, the cast boasted two recent Supporting Oscar winners: Goldie Hawn, who was beginning to expand her repertoire into more challenging leading roles, and Ben Johnson, who won for playing a 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 while also personifying its themes. She is a whirlwind of fierce passion, comic charisma, and (rather surprisingly) a deep, bitter melancholy. In a ranking of Hawn’s career best, one 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 weaselly slimeball he became most known for in 1988’s Die Hard.
This film is also the one shining moment for Michael Sacks‘ short-lived career. As the simpleton patrol officer who’s taken hostage, he forms a bond with these married fugitives. His connection to them is more sincerely felt than some perfunctory Stockholm syndrome, and a key factor in why we root for them.
In terms of craft, we see Spielberg’s ambition from literally the opening shot. It utilizes a bold technique that Spielberg would repeat throughout his entire career: The Spielberg Oner.
With it, Spielberg frames and reframes multiple compositions during the course of one uncut shot (read more about the technique here). As Kael observes in her review, “Composition seems to come naturally to him.” Boy, does it ever. (I’ll be referencing The Spielberg Oner quite a bit throughout this “30-Plus Days Of Spielberg” retrospective.)
Here, the opening shot begins in close-up. It then pulls out to a wide establishing shot, then tracks to the right and moves downhill to rest on a medium shot that frames two modes of transportation: one vehicle that’s parked safely (in the background, left behind), and another in the foreground that foreshadows the dangerous journey ahead. At the center of this complicated tracking shot, there’s a cluttered collage of road signs pointing in all different directions (in a striking introductory visual metaphor).
And that’s all before the first cut! It also sets the stage for something even more impressive later on: the first-ever 360-degree shot of its kind, which occurs about halfway through the film (see Trivia below).
For all the films it borrows from, one can’t help but wonder how much The Sugarland Express 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. Each have a deep, existential void of maternal yearning, one that simmers 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.
And at their hearts, they’re soulmates.
The Sugarland Express and Raising Arizona conjure a kindred spirit of empathy. Even as we acknowledge that these couples are breaking the law, we can’t help but sympathize and root for them — these convicts, these parents, whose criminality is born solely of a desire for family.
It’s a longing made desperate and heartbreaking, all because of injustices far beyond their control.
- 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. In the 1960s, Darryl 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 used it here first 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. I’d say he was right.