DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS

Friday 8 June 2007


The Sugarland Express (1974) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton


Revisiting Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature is a wonderful experience. Spielberg, at only 27 years old, already had four years of extensive television directing experience and one of the best made-for-TV films ever made – “Duel.” So “The Sugarland Express” was a natural extension from his previous work, especially "Duel," which were similar both in style and theme. Pauline Kael summed up the result triumphantly as “…one of the best directorial debuts ever.”

Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) visits her husband, a convict, Clovis Poplin (William Atherton), in his pre-release correctional facility. Clovis has only four months before freedom, but Lou Jean threatens to leave him if he doesn’t escape from prison and help her reclaim their foster-homed child. Clovis does what he’s told and together they skillfully flee the premises unnoticed by the guards.

As soon as Lou Jean and Clovis are on the road the momentum starts to build. They quickly find themselves in a car chase with a state policeman, after which they kidnap the cop and steal his car. Now speeding away in a stolen cop car holding a cop hostage, the stakes are sufficiently raised to alert virtually every officer in the state.

Spielberg’s innate skills in producing order out of chaos are evident. Much of the film takes place in one long OJ-like convoy - the threesome in front, with 200 cop cars behind. It’s overkill to the Nth degree – but hey we’re in Texas. A relationship between hostage and hostage-taker develops and much of the humour arises from the absurdity of this unusual relationship. Overnight Lou-Jean, Clovis and officer Slide become 15-min celebrities. Like the Bronco Chase, the citizens of the small towns they pass through surround them, touch them and throw gifts at them – a virtual Christ-like adulation. It’s refreshing to see how natural and organic Spielberg portrays old country Middle America.

The journey ends at the home where their child is in foster care. At this point, for the first time, Clovis and Lou Jean are forced to face the reality of their situation and come to grips with the decisions they’ve made. WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD. Spielberg doesn’t give the audience the warm fuzzies at the end like he does with “ET” or “Close Encounters”. He plays the ending like it naturally should be resolved. Clovis is shot and killed and Lou Jean is sent to prison for five years. Spielberg cleverly manipulates his audience by emphasizing the care-free aspects and only freckles in hints of their inevitable demise into the story. The tonal shift in the ending is not unnatural, and in fact follows the same track as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.

It’s fun to see Spielberg’s favorite cinematic trademarks developing right before our eyes - his use of overlapping dialogue, his confidence with crowds and epic scope, and his love for quirky characters and natural dialogue. Though in the past 20 years he’s clearly lost this ear for dialogue. It's a shame. His cinematography looks much different than today, but his camera moves are all the same. He tracks and cranes and reveals his characters in the most innovative (and motivated) ways.

Most cinephiles have memorized shot for shot the early Spielberg classics, “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Raiders of the Lost Ark” and so there are no surprises when rewatching those films. That’s why “The Sugarland Express” is worth a visit, it gives you a chance to rediscover a great filmmaker straight out of the womb and with a clean, unblemished slate. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Sugarland Express

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