Steven Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express” (1974)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Best Screenplay)

The success of 1971’s television film DUEL generated some momentum for director Steven Spielberg’s career, and as soon as his TV contract with Universal expired, he decided it was time to make the jump into feature filmmaking.  In 1974, he partnered with producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck to make a fictionalized film about a true event that took place in 1969-era Sugarland, Texas, whereby a young couple broke out of jail and abducted a police officer en route to steal their son back from the foster family he was given to by social services.

This film was THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and was a striking debut in the feature film realm for the young director. Boasting a box-office friendly star like Goldie Hawn and with the full financial backup of Universal Studios, Spielberg was able to make an earnest, crowd-pleasing take on the then-popular “lovers on the run” genre.  This genre in particular, kickstarted in 1967 by Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE (1967), served as an ideal format for many of Spielberg’s directing contemporaries to make their debut—Terrence Malick had BADLANDS in 1973, and Francis Ford Coppola had THE RAIN PEOPLE in 1969, to name a few.

The story begins when Lou Jean (Hawn) smuggles her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of the pre-release facility where he’s got just four months left on his prison sentence.  Their intent is to get to Sugarland, Texas and reclaim the infant son that was taken away from them and placed into foster care when they were arrested.  Their escape is briefly foiled by a young police officer named Slide (Michael Sacks) until Lou Jean steals his gun and takes him hostage.  As they make the policeman drive them to Sugarland himself, the couple incites a media frenzy and a police response of epic proportions.

As the sole recognizable “name” talent, Hawn anchors an eclectic cast of solid performances.  Hawn plays well into type as a gum-smacking, feisty redneck queen who doesn’t take no for an answer.  I’m familiar with Hawn mostly as an older actress, so it was striking to see her so young here, looking very much like her daughter, Kate Hudson.  The rest of the cast is relatively unknown to me, but I was impressed by their performances nonetheless.  Atherton is appropriately jittery as Lou Jean’s anxious husband, Clovis.  As Clovis and Lou Jean’s police hostage, Michael Sacks does a great job of portraying his conflicted emotions as he comes to befriend his captors.  In many ways, he is the film’s protagonist, as he undergoes the biggest transformation by the end of the film, which concludes on a shot of him in a moment of solemn contemplation beside a lake.  And then there’s Ben Johnson as Sacks’ superior, Captain Tanner: a seasoned Texan cop whose sensitivity and expertise is challenged by Lou Jean and Clovis’ unpredictable streak of mayhem.

Spielberg fully embraces the opportunity of making a feature film by hiring the great Vilmos Zsigmond as his cinematographer.  Zsigmond had already shot 1972’s DELIVERANCE for director John Boorman, but the man who would eventually lens Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) was still a young upstart when he collaborated with Spielberg on THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS.  Zsigmond is one of the best cinematographers to ever work with the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a personal conclusion that’s evident in Spielberg’s film.  The 35mm film image is high in contrast, with a dusty color palette evocative of the Texas setting.  Spielberg had gained something of a reputation in the TV realm for placing a lot of his focus on camera movements and lens choices (more so than his peers), and his comfort with movement brings a great deal of energy to the film.  He uses cranes, dollys, car-mounted POV shots, and complicated zooms to tell his story, as well as employing his now-signature low angle compositions to powerful effect.  Spielberg’s use of a surreal perspective technique in 1975’s JAWS, accomplished by zooming in while dollying out and first used by Alfred Hitchcock in VERTIGO (1958), is heavily referenced in film circles.  What’s not mentioned, however, is that Spielberg first uses it in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, during the climax where snipers hide inside the foster family’s house and wait for the fugitive couple to approach.

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS also marks the first collaboration between Spielberg and world-renowned composer, John Williams.  The two must have gotten along quite well during production, but I wonder if they had any clue that their collaboration here would result a lifelong friendship and several of the most iconic film scores ever produced.  Williams’ score for THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is considerably less iconic, but still effective in setting Spielberg’s intended tone.  It’s appropriately cinematic, utilizing various folk instruments like harmonicas and guitars to convey the country tone.  There’s even a strange kazoo-like instrument thrown into the mix, which reminds me of SESAME STREET, but seemed to be the sound du jour for this type of picture at the time.  A modest selection of honky tonk source cues fill out the world and place the story inside of a palpable reality.

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THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS fits comfortably within Spielberg’s body of work as one of his more-daring films, ending on a note of ambiguity and uncertainty rather than the cathartic happy endings for which he’s known (and often derided).  It also deals heavily with the concept of a broken family, a theme that runs heavily through Spielberg’s canon.  Here, both parents are to blame for their separation from their son due to their criminal behavior—a stark difference from Spielberg’s other depictions where the father is the main absentee.  It should be noted, though, that Goldie Hawn’s character is the instigator and key proponent of the plot; Atherton is initially reluctant to break out of his pre-release facility to fetch his son, and is more prone to doubt about the success of their mission.  In that sense, the father is not as invested in his family as the mother is, a notion that fits much more easily into Spielberg’s thematic conceits.

Spielberg’s first true feature film was well-received, even going so far as to receive the Best Screenplay at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.  Most directors don’t enjoy the benefits of making their first film with the backing of a major film studio– a significant perk that made Spielberg’s debut more high-profile than it might have otherwise been.  Interestingly enough, it hasn’t been paid as much attention in recent years by Universal’s home video department.  One would think that their most treasured director’s first feature film would be readily available in the high definition Blu-Ray format, but as of this writing, there are no plans for its release in the foreseeable future.  Time has shown that many films are simply lost forever when they fail to make the jump to subsequent video formats, so we should be concerned that an important work of cinema is at risk of being lost beneath the tidal wave of the massive studio blockbusters that Spielberg helped to create in the first place.

As well as THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was received upon its release, and as much of a career game-changer as it was for the young director, it could not begin to compare to Spielberg’s next film, which would change the face of Hollywood filmmaking forever.

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.

Credits:

Produced by: David Brown, Richard D. Zanuck

Written by: Hal Barwood, Matthew Robins

Director of Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond

Production Designer: Joe Alves

Edited by: Edward M. Abroms, Verna Fields

Composer: John Williams