Skip to main content

Clovis, it don't do no good runnin' from a tornado.

The Sugarland Express
(1974)

(SPOILERS) 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. 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 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 likes 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 that 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 destined for 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, who 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 not entirely 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 wacky enough to take you along for the ride (a few years later, this kind of general template, but with hijinks and slapstick instead 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.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

So long, sky trash!

Star Wars The Saga Ranked
This is an update of my 2018 ranking, with the addition of highly-acclaimed The Rise of Skywalker along with revisits to the two preceding parts of the trilogy. If you want to be generous and call it that, since the term it makes it sound a whole lot more coherent than it plays.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Man, that’s one big bitch cockroach.

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Everyone loves Bruce Campbell. He’s eminently lovable; self-depracating, a natural wit, enthusiastic about his “art” and interactive with his fans. It’s easy to be seduced into cutting anything he shows up in some slack, just by virtue of his mighty Bruce-ness. I know, I’ve done it. Unfortunately, not everything he does has the crazy, slapstick energy of his most famous role. Most of it doesn’t. Don Cascarelli’s Elvis versus Mummy movie has a considerable cult following, based as much on the cult of Don as the cult of Bruce, but its charms are erratic ones. As usual, however, Campbell is the breezy highlight.

The blames rests with Cascarelli, since he adapted Joe R. Lansdale’s short story. The premise is a great high concept mash-up; Elvis Presley, a nursing home resident in declining health, must fight off an ancient Egyptian mummy. Is he really Elvis, or Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff? Or both, as the King claims to have switched places with the real Haff so as t…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.