The Sugarland Express
The Sugarland Express is caught between two stools: the kind of movie Steven Spielberg wanted to make, one that was informed by his sensibilities, and the kind of movie his “New Hollywood” peer group were turning out. In some respect, you might see it as an attempt to replicate the human drama of George Lucas’ American Graffiti from the previous year, but that picture had nostalgia on its side. All Spielberg really had was Goldie Hawn.
Spielberg gains a story credit on his feature debut, itself based on an actual incident, if inevitably embellished. The screenplay comes courtesy of later Amblin and Lucasfilm collaborators Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood (the latter also directed the underrated Warning Sign, the former Dragonslayer, and, alas, *batteries not included). As Robbins said of his director, there was “not a drop of rebellion in him”, yet he was making a movie about rebelling against the system, ostensibly in the name of family (a few years later, he would make a movie about rebelling against the family, in the name of escapism).
There’s never a doubt that the ’berg’s on the side of Goldie’s instigating ex-con, determined to get back Baby Langdon, who has been put into foster care, and springing her hubby William Atherton from jail to aid her cause. But this is the era of Badlands and the pervading influence of criminals on the run beget by Bonnie and Clyde; it cannot end well, however many memorably commercially-skewed, expansive touches are added (shooting out tyres, vigilante gunmen, and most notably the endless police escort of Michael Sacks’ kidnapped patrolman, which wouldn’t look out of place in a John Landis movie but was actually on the slender side of reality, since the caravan was reported to be more than a hundred cars long).
The picture Spielberg would probably have liked The Sugarland Express to be is closer to the rambunctious road movies that would follow, the ilk of Burt Reynolds’ Smokey & the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, rather than sticking to the script of the incident that ended in the hubby dead and the mother incarcerated (though she did get her kid(s) back). Indeed, his instinct was to have Atherton’s character survive, and it was producer Richard Zanuck (their next collaboration destined to hit the jackpot) who persuaded him otherwise. The common refrain regarding the picture’s very modest reception (critically, it was a different matter) was that, as Peter Biskind put it “what appeared at first to be a light romp suddenly plunged into tragedy”.
And yet, despite his crowd-pleasing reflex, Spielberg’s simultaneously trying to ensure his movie plays its cards close to its chest, from the melancholy, post-Midnight Cowboy John Williams score to the documentary-style, natural light cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond. You could argue just having Goldie on board, bubbly and irrepressible, is too much of a contra-indicator to the content, yet Hawn really gets the picture, and plays it real. And Michael Sacks, eventually destined to quit acting and head for Wall Street, is the real heart of the piece, identifying, sympathising and attempting to protect his captors (and having a little crush on Hawn).
Atherton, later assuming hissable ’80s creep status in the likes of Ghostbusters and Die Hard, gives it his best hick, and is perhaps a little too dedicated. Although again, he’s only serving the era this comes from, rather than the one Spielberg is pushing towards. Ben Johnson, meanwhile, is note perfect in the familiar role of the sympathetic lawman. He does as much as the casting of Hawn to announce how we should be thinking (“Ah shoot, they’re nothing but a couple of kids”); we’ll see a variant on the wise elder, albeit a lush one, with Robert Shaw in Jaws.
Pauline Kael had Spielberg pretty much pegged in her review, even if I’m less convinced of her take on his achievement here, that he has “so much eagerness and flash and talent that it just about transforms its scrubby ingredients”. The Sugarland Express is a professionally-made picture, for sure, but it doesn’t make you sit up in your seat the way it evidently did her (“He could be that rarity among directors, a born entertainer… In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies”). Kael basically set out his entire career though, which was certainly some crystal ball: “If there is such a thing as movie sense… Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else. There’s no sign of the emergence of a new film artist (such as Martin Scorsese) … but it marks the debut of a new-style, new-generation Hollywood hand”.
Most of the time, Spielberg isn’t patronising his dim-watt fugitives, but their lack of gumption may also have contributed to the movie’s failure. There’s no Bonnie and Clyde or Malick-esque mythologising here, only inevitable failure, and the light-hearted side of The Sugarland Express is never sufficient to make up for that; there’s a feeling that you’re left with neither one thing nor the other, meaning the movie doesn’t quite satisfy on any level. Too unimportant to be tragic, not whacky enough to take you along for the ride (a few years later, this kind of general template, but with hijinks and slapstick instead of bleeding out, would make for a massive TV hit in The Dukes of Hazzard).
Perhaps the most representative moment in the movie – given that, in many respects, but mostly in its treatment of character, it feels more mature than his later work (a sign of the era perhaps, but there’s a gulf between his first trio and those that come later) – is the sequence at the drive-in, where Atherton provides sound effects for a Road Runner cartoon, to the amusement of Hawn. But then, as Atherton takes in the carnage inflicted upon Wylie Coyote, the merriment turns to poignancy.
For near enough the next decade, Spielberg could be relied upon to present his subject matter with a degree of genuineness, as infused by a commercial instinct as that was, which led to such developments as Roy Neary leaving his family behind in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the stereotyping of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. After which, he became more calculated, not commercially so much as in terms of seeking accolades and peer approval; for me at least, that’s when he became a lesser force. Kael reacted to The Sugarland Express by suggesting “he’s one of those wizard directors who can make trash entertaining”. Until he decided he was better than that.