Even though Steven Spielberg made his name on sensationalistic concepts - giant sharks, aliens arriving on Earth, adventures of the occult and beyond - most of these films contain an element of realism, usually centered around a family unit, which anchors the drama in something real we can relate to.
This is why The Sugarland Express is interesting. It was made before Spielberg became a huge name, it's constructed around the same focus on a family unit, but contains none of the fantastic elements that would later inform his career. In fact it's based on a true story. So if you ever wondered what kind of filmmaker Spielberg would have become without the aliens and the dinosaurs, this is the film to investigate...
25 year old Lou Jean (a baby-faced Goldie Hawn) arrives at a prison pre-release center to visit her husband Clovis (William Atherton), with a clear purpose in mind: She's going to bust him out of jail. Even though he only has 4 months left to serve, and it would be foolish, by any account, to risk an even longer sentence for such a short time, events have unfolded that require swift and reckless action.
The authorities have taken Lou Jean's boy, baby Langston, and placed him in foster care, with a family in Sugarland, Texas. They claim she's unfit to be a mother, on account of her jail time and all. Lou Jean means to get him back, so she basically kidnaps her husband, so he can help her.
When they are pulled over by highway Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) the story takes a turn for the worse. They end up commandeering his car, taking him hostage, and forcing him to drive them to Sugarland to save baby Langston.
Their deeds do not go unnoticed, and soon they are being pursued by a whole caravan of police cars, led by the experienced Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson). Then the media catches on, and once that spotlight hits them, there's no going back.
(This film is difficult to discuss without talking about the ending, so please be aware that you are in a SPOILER ZONE from here on out.)
It's right there in the tagline - "The true story of a girl who took on all of Texas... and almost won" - there's no way this story can have a happy ending. We know this almost from the beginning. For a little while, though, Spielberg has us going.
We open the film with an awkward prison break, and after that we get a hilarious sequence, where the fugitives hitch a ride from an elderly couple. There's a great mischievous tone in this early part of the movie, with some charming, subtle humor, which continues even after the patrolman is taken hostage. For a while it seems like we're heading out on a safe, quirky road movie. The beautiful landscapes of Texas race by, while an unusual bond develops between the miss-matched threesome in the car, but the law is always present, looming ominously in the background, and it becomes harder and harder to ignore.
So when does the tone shift towards the dark? It happens very slowly and evenly during the entire run of the movie, culminating at the end, but there's one crucial moment I want to focus on: It's nightfall. The fugitives stop at a car lot, to spend the night in a motor-home. It's near a Drive-In cinema, where they are showing some old cartoons. As Lou Jean and Clovis are watching through the windows, the reflection of a cartoon is superimposed on their faces. It's one of those featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. They are basically all identical: The coyote comes up with a great plan, it fails, he's blown up, or crushed, or worse. It doesn't matter how well-conceived his plan is, it doesn't matter how good his intentions are, the coyote is always doomed to fail if he takes on the Road Runner. It's inevitable. At this exact moment it dawns on Clovis that they too are doomed. William Atherton tells the entire story with a simple change of expression, and Spielberg gives him room to do so. It's a stunningly simple piece of film making, which is why it works so well.
Goldie Hawn also deserves credit for her portrayal of Lou Jean. It's ironic, because I really should hate Lou Jean. She's the reason behind this mess. She's the instrument of every bad thing that happens in the story, and she's ultimately responsible for how it ends as well. And yet, I have no ill will towards her. Why? Perhaps it's simply because Hawn finds that universal bit of heart in the character - a mother's love for her child - that we can all relate to, but she never milks it for sympathy, or reduces Lou Jean's yearning to tearful ready-made Oscar speeches. Lou Jean is clearly absolutely clueless at times, but I don't think Goldie Hawn shares any such ignorance with her character. She appears to be in complete control of her performance, and it's her best work ever, by a mile.
To me the masterstroke of this film is the combination of the arc of the characters, the way the mood slowly changes, and how subtle Spielberg is when it comes to character development. Bonnie and Clyde robbed banks. Mickey and Mallory killed people left and right. Thelma and Louise shot a guy. Lou Jean and Clovis... what did they do? They kidnapped a patrolman, but after that, they don't actually do anything bad, so when did they go from being concerned, albeit horribly misguided, parents, to become public enemy no. 1?
Add to that the horrible Kafkaesque nature of their predicament: The lengths they are willing to go, to get their kid back, simultaneously showing how committed they are as parents, while reinforcing the impression that they should probably never be allowed near this kid again. What we end up with is the only truly tragic Steven Spielberg film (even Schindler's List (1993) is about hope), but - take note of this Hollywood producers - in no way does this diminish the impact of the story, or make the film any less enjoyable. Quite the contrary.
Unsurprisingly Spielberg's first foray into the world of feature films looks considerably more polished than his previous TV efforts. This is a gorgeous film, especially considering most of it takes place in a car or on a highway. Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shot the film, he would later shoot Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) for Spielberg as well, which earned him an Academy Award. Whether we're dealing with a simple conversation between three people in a car, or the massive police caravan, crawling through the landscape like a snake, Zsigmond catches every detail, and puts the widescreen frame to good use. The clunky square shapes of the cop cars, the soft dreamy look on Goldie Hawn's face, all the night sequences, the cartoon shot I mentioned earlier - These are the iconic images of The Sugarland Express. They don't stand a chance against bicycling aliens or big sharks, but on their own terms they are equally unique.
Before we wrap this up let's take a quick look at the rest of the crew. First we have to mention editor Verna Fields. I'm sure her contribution here was considerable, but it would be Spielberg's next film, Jaws (1975) which truly earned her recognition. It also ended up being her last film as an editor. This was the first time composer John Williams provided the score to a Spielberg film. At the time of writing this he has scored every subsequent Spielberg film, with the exception of two (The Color Purple (1985) and Twilight Zone The Movie (1983) - which Spielberg only directed one third of). Joe Alves, with whom Spielberg had worked during his TV-series days, joined the team as Art Director. He would go on to work on the two next Spielberg projects, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
This is an All-Star team if ever there was one.
I love the simple, beautiful drama of this film.
Once again we're dealing with an ordinary person, caught in extraordinary circumstances. We might end up in a rather outrageous place, but our starting point is a simple conflict that everyone can relate to.
The Sugarland Express didn't do particularly well at the box office. It barely broke even. Critics were pleased, however, and the film did win the screenplay award at the Cannes film festival. Regardless of its financial failure the film was an artistic triumph that would allow Spielberg to continue directing. His sophomore effort on the big screen would be the film that made him a God among men.
Next up: All we want is a nice quiet summer, but nature finds its way out of that one.
Beard Factor: Nothing! Again! Where are the beards?!
Composition: 50% The Spielberg Crack Team, 20% car fetish, 20% Duel, 10% Raising Arizona.
The Sound of Williams: First score composed by Williams! Hurray! Not one of his most memorable scores, mind you, but a solid effort nontheless.