The Chronological Spielberg: The Sugarland Express (1974)

Sugarland Express is the one early Steve Spielberg movie you don’t hear much about. Duel is a taught, impressive debut while Jaws might be one of the best things ever committed to film and then you’ve got Close Encounters, but how come no one talks about how great Sugarland Express? Well, because it’s not that good. There are good, even great, moments to be found in the film, but overall I found it to be a long, unrealistic and worst of all tonally uneven film.

Here’s the story. Goldie Hawn’s husband William Atherton is in a jail for people who are about to get out of jail. It’s a pretty relaxed looking favility, which is proven when Hawn breaks him out by giving him some clothes and sunglasses. See, their son got taken away from her and she wants to get him back. Atherton only has four months left before getting out, but apparently the kid is going to get moved before then. So, she needs him out now and he goes. They get a ride away from the jail thanks to a fellow inmate’s parents, but the old man drives so slowly that he winds up attracting the attention of a cop played by Michael Sacks. After a chase scene, the couple wind up kidnapping the officer which leads into a chase with the cops to try and get him back. But it’s not a very fast chase, even if it does seem to occupy every single cop in the south (cars literally wrap around bends at times in this film). The goal is to get the kid, but with the cops on their trails, it’s hard to assume they’ll succeed even if this is based on a true story.

I think watching this movie first would be a better choice for someone looking to explore Spielberg’s movies. It’s a lot more by the book than Duel. It also feel less tonally consistent with its elements ranging from child endangerment and snipers to ridiculously long car chases and incredibly stupid lead characters. Duel might have felt like it was inspired by Hitchcock, but Sugarland feels like Cool Hand Luke mixed with Blues Brothers two movies that are great on their own, but apparently don’t synthesize well.

There are a few other elements working against the movie for me as a viewer, some of which are my fault, some are reactions to choices by Spielberg and the writers. I’ll give up my own problems first. One, I do not like Goldie Hawn. The only thing I’ve ever seen her in that I liked was Death Becomes Her and I was a kid. There’s just something about her as a person that bothers me. Add to that the fact that her character, while having legitimate reasons for what she’s doing, is simply a dummy and you’ve got a recipe for me not caring. Even if you think the breakout makes sense (which I don’t) you then have to forgive her for ruining her own plan, freaking out, stealing a car and kidnapping a cop. That was all her. Had she just chilled out, it wouldn’t have been a problem. I know she sees a time table for getting her boy back and all that, but every decision she makes seems stupid and ill thought out. At times, watching her is like watching an episode of MTV’s Teen Mom. I also personally don’t know enough about the 70s era prison systems or police work, but the escape seemed way too easy and the chase ridiculous. If these were normal procedures, that’s on me, but if not?

Well, that gets us into my problems with the story. Like I said, the escape seemed ridiculous, though I guess I can buy it. Different time, less security. But, my real problem is how the police cavalcade is handled. It’s like a much more civilized  version of the end of Blues Brothers, but spread out over an entire movie. My biggest problem, though, is that I never once believe that these people can succeed in their mission. No logical person believes that these two idiots are going to have a happy ending. How could they? It’s impossible. They are going to get caught, so no matter how many deals are made or attempts on their life foiled, the end is always going to be the same. If this were a straight up comedy in tone, it would make sense, but the mix is just nuts. You’ll have a heartbreaking moment of a little boy crying for his mother followed by that ridiculous string of cars behind our supposed heroes. Those elements don’t quite fit together and thus put me off balance as a viewer.

There are good moments of course. Spielberg is the master of getting cool shots that you almost don’t even notice. One of my favorites was pretty simple, but towards the beginning when the cops are getting called to action, there’s a shot of two cars pulling away from a diner. The camera is situated between them and the both pull out right past the camera at the same time. I don’t know why, but that one struck me as cool. There’s also a pretty gnarly shoot out at a used car lot and a stunt where a van gets driven off the road where a guy looks like he actually flips into a pond and then the van lands on him! These scenes both looked great. And that end shot is beautiful.

I also have to say that, with a few changes in casting, editing and presentation of the story, this could have been a great movie. William Atherton is great, so is Sacks. The relationship between these three characters is pretty great, even with me not liking Hawn. Oh, and you can’t forget Ben Johnson as the captain. He has some great unspoken moments and almost seems like he’s in a different movie, a much more serious one. The ending feels like it’s from a different movie too because of how serious things get. In the parlance of today, shit gets real real fast. But, like a lot of other parts in the movie, the ending doesn’t match up with the other parts and the whole thing feels off balance and long.

I actually feel bad dumping on this movie as much as I am because of how much I liked Duel, but I think that’s why I was disappointed with this one. Duel is amazing, a great piece of filmmaking made all the more impressive considering the time constraints, that it was made for TV and Spielberg was so young and inexperienced when he made it. This one doesn’t feel nearly as impressive no matter how many smaller moments or shots appeal to me. Even the very end makes me feel bad about not liking this movie because the last scene is so perfectly shot.

Speaking of Duel and Spielberg’s other movies, I noticed a pair of interesting themes in these flicks that I’m sure are more coincidental than anything. First off, during a chase scene there’s a train that inhibits the forward motion of the hero. In Duel this scene is super suspenseful as the truck is trying to push the car into the moving train. This time, Goldie just has to swerve out of the way. Could this be a commentary on how transportation situated on tracks get in the way of our personal freedom and movement or just a thing that happens to people? There are also a pair of old people in both films who can’t be labeled as bad guys, but definitely aren’t as helpful or good as they could have been. In Duel it’s the old people who run afoul of the truck while Mann is asking them for help, in Express it’s a pair of old timers who do give our heroes a ride, but do it in such a manner that they wind up getting pulled over by the cops. This might be a commentary on the elderly’s inability to get out of the way of youth.

At the end of the day, I’m really not sure if I’m more disappointed by the film or unsatisfied with it. I think the two go hand in hand, but my expectations were raised so much by Duel and his next picture, Jaws, that I expected Sugarland Express to be up there with those. To be fair, it is a different kind of movie and I can appreciate a director trying to do new things, but the off kilter tone doesn’t do this film any favors.

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