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

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

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.

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

Time wounds all heels.

Go West (1940)
(SPOILERS) Comedy westerns were nothing new when the Marx Brothers succumbed – Buster Keaton had made one with the same title fifteen years earlier – but theirs served to underline how variable the results could be. For every Bob Hope (Son of Paleface) there’s a Seth McFarlane (A Million Ways to Die in the West). In theory, the brothers riding roughshod over such genre conventions ought to have been uproarious, but they’d rather run out of gas by this point, and the results are, for the most part, sadly pedestrian. Even Go West's big train-chase climax fails to elicit the once accustomed anarchy that was their stock in trade.

Shall we bind the deal with a kiss? Or, five dollars in cash? You lose either way.

The Big Store (1941)
(SPOILERS) Three go mad in a department store. The results are undoubtedly more diverting than low point Go West, but it feels as if there is even more flotsam to wade through to get to the good stuff in The Big Store, which is almost exclusively delivered by Groucho as private detective and bodyguard Wolf J Flywheel. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the climax is one of the better ones, an extended chase sequence through the store that is frequently quite inventive.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …