Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Sugarland Express

Sugarland Express (1974)
Directed by
Stephen Spielberg
Written by Steven Spielberg (story) and Hal Barwood (story and screenplay) & Matthew Robbins (story and screenplay)
Starring Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, Michael Sachs, William Atherton.
IMDB Entry

Steven Spielberg became a superstar director with Jaws. Fans of his career, of course, remember he got started directing a sequence of the original Night Gallery TV movie, and the TV movie Duel.  Oddly enough, however, his first film seems to get short shrift. The Sugarland Express was not a blockbuster, and was far less action-oriented that the films where Spielberg made his reputation, but it ranks among the best first films by any director.** Yet somehow it gets overlooked when considering his films.

The story begins with Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), who visits her husband Clovis (William Atherton) in a halfway house.  Clovis is about to be released from prison in a few weeks.  So Lou Jean breaks him out.  They overpower rookie cop Maxwell Slide, steal his patrol car and, with Slide as their hostage, head toward Sugar Land.** 

The escape as inexplicable and as it is inept, but the trio drive, followed by Captain Harlan Tanner (Ben Johnson) and police from every town they pass through on the way.

We learn the reason for all this early on.  Lou Jean's baby had been in a foster home and they were preparing to adopt him.  Lou Jean will do anything to stop this.  The result is a long low-speed chase.  Indeed, the lasting image of the film is watching the police car carrying them driving across the Texas landscape, following by an ever-growing parade of cop cars waiting for a chance to stop Lou Jean.  She becomes something of a folk hero -- a woman fighting for her child -- and a celebrity.

Chaos on the road

This is one of Goldie Hawn's best roles (she thinks so).  She manages to wring a lot out of the role, being both charming and also more serious in purpose than in many of her films.  Ben Johnson is also quite good as a man who is trying to find a peaceful solution to a situation that is spiraling out of control.

The film did respectably at the box office*** but was quickly forgotten. Why?  Most likely because of Jaws.  The film put Spielberg on the map and identified him as a maker of blockbuster films.  He followed that up with Close Encounters and -- after the flop of 1941 -- the Indiana Jones films.  People expected big films with plenty of action from him, and the small, more character-driven story of Sugarland Express just didn't appeal.  By the time Speilberg started making more serious films, it had already been forgotten.

Nowadays, when people think of Spielberg, they think of his blockbuster, and of the more serious films**** that have helped him earn Hollywood respect. The Sugarland Express, though, is among his best work and showcases some fine performances that shouldn't be missed.


*Some others: Preston Sturges's The Great McGinty, Mel Brooks's The Producers, Peter Bogdonovich's Targets, Kevin Smith's Clerks, and, of course, Citizen Kane.  It's interesting that in all the films, the director was also credited with the writing.

**A real town in Texas.  The movie calls it Sugarland, but the town is two words.

***Bolstered by the fact that it had two recent Oscar winners in Hawn and Johnson.

****Though he has tried a couple of "smaller" films (for Spielberg) lately in Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal.

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