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 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.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985)
(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distr…

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.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.