Pauline Kael famously remarked about The Sugarland Express that it was “…one of the best directorial debuts ever.” How prophetic Ms. Kael was at the time. Revisiting Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature is a wonderful experience. At only 27 years old and already with four years of extensive television directing experience and one of the best made-for-TV films ever made (Duel), Sugarland was a natural extension from Spielberg's previous work.
The Sugarland Express (1974) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton
By Alan Bacchus
Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) visits her convicted husband, Clovis Poplin (William Atherton), in his pre-release correctional facility. Clovis has only four months before he is released, 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 in full force. Much of the film takes place in one long convoy – the threesome in front with 200 cop cars behind them. It’s overkill to the nth degree, but hey, we’re in Texas and it's a comedy. Spielberg's instincts are impeccable in this regard. 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-minute 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. Spielberg is tougher on his characters in the end than he would be in later pictures. SPOILERS...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 hints of their inevitable demise into the story. The tonal shift in the ending is not unnatural and is earned, the same way as in 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, big set pieces, and his love for quirky characters and natural dialogue. However, in the past 20 years he’s clearly lost this ear for dialogue, which is a shame. His cinematography looks much different than today, but his camera moves are all the same, tracking and craning to reveal his characters in the most innovative (and motivated) ways.
Most cinephiles have memorized shot-for-shot the early Spielberg classics, including Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and so there are no surprises when watching those films multiple times. That’s why The Sugarland Express is worth a visit, as it gives you a chance to rediscover a great filmmaker straight out of the womb and with a clean, unblemished slate.