Even on his first film, Spielberg’s genius was on full display. ‘The Sugarland Express’ (1974)


A former 26 Year-Old Reviews a former 26 Year-old’s Theatrical Debut.

This director really likes action I thought as I watched The Sugarland Express. There’s a generous amount of car chases in this film considering how anti-violent the characters are. You have a Police Captain leading the chase that hasn’t shot anyone in his 18 year career; a young kidnapped patrolman who intimates his kidnappers are non-violent, and a husband serving a one year jail sentence without a history of violent crime. The catalyst is a beautiful charismatic young blonde (Oscar Winner Goldie Hawn, who else?) who threatens to leave her husband if they don’t expressly go down to Sugarland Texas to take their child out of the foster home he’s being held in. The tone of the film, based on a true event is so fantastically unlike any film that would be made today. And despite its ultimately downbeat plot it remains consistently optimistic.

I find the behaviour of characters in old films puzzling. It amazes me how little they are troubled. For instance in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder the murderous husband’s reaction to being caught amounts to “You got me! Let’s celebrate with a drink while the police come.” Such is the behaviour here where it seems the platoon of police vehicles (I could count 20) have nothing better to do than follow a non-violent couple they could easily catch. That’s the magic of movies for you. And Spielberg keeps the pace fast enough for you not to ponder that thought too hard. The movie and its characters unlike today remain relatively care-free and trust the words of strangers which are followed through honestly more often than not. There is little talk in these films of detailed planning or leaving a trail.

In his 1974 New York Times review, Stephen Parser negatively compared Sugarland Express to a similar film debut made one year earlier. Badlands by then 29 year-old Terrence Malick. ‘Although set in the past, “Badlands” says a great deal about the passivity of Americans in the seventies.’ His criticism is that this film of doesn’t say that. Having seen both for the first time during this pandemic I have to disagree. Time has been kind to this film and Spielberg. In his criticism of the director’s style he goes on:

These young film freaks have often been handling cameras since the age of three, and they know everything there is to know about lenses, filters, color stock, and solarization. Unfortunately, they are ignorant of everything else. They haven’t had time to read a book; they are technical wizards with pea‐sized brains.

Not unlike that said of filmmakers and young adults today. Oddly those criticisms would come from people of Spielberg’s age. The reviewer then remarked on Spielberg’s youth, and technical wizardy, then criticizes him for not being in touch with human emotions. “[H]e doesn’t have an original idea or the slightest feeling for people.” [Paging director Lucas.] His argument seems to be: why use the facilities of Hollywood to make entertainment for entertainment only purposes. Why not make a more thought provoking high art Malick film? It’s the same as how people complain about a successful talented not making something the way they would like it to be made had they had the talent. It’s a cheap shot. His review does get rolling some of the same criticisms that have dogged Spielberg his entire career even 32 films later with Ready Player One. That Sugarland manages to be so confident and optimistic is one of Spielbergs greatest strengths as he has always found ways to find happiness in sadness. Badlands is sad, ponderous beautiful, slow-paced and boring. It’s also good. Yet the seemingly more hastily assembled Sugarland manages to achieve a lot of the same points though with less impact. Thanks to Spielberg its indicative of Hollywood today but for all the right reasons.

I do wonder what would it be like to live in a more care free time. Ignorant in many ways, but more optimistic. But I don’t want to go there if it means retreating into the past. Such was the message of Ready Player One as well. This 26 year old director at the time already had an eye for action; stacking and packing the screen with dense layers of information exposed with flair while somehow remaining unshowy. A single shot of a patrolman radioing in a squadcar, his face reflected in the rearview mirror (director’s trademark) while a towtruck drags a wreck out of a ditch is a shining example. And all of it serves to movie along the story. There isn’t as much of it as there should be or perhaps there should be less.

This seems like one of those form over function story examples. The film is fun. The only reason I can imagine Spielberg made it was because similar to Kay Cannon with Blockers they were simply given the chance to direct. You can see traces of things the director would refine later on. And his technical skill evoked by a memorable 360 degree camera shot inside the car. There is little going on in this film that seems out of the director’s reach except the ending which is always tricky. For all the time we spend with these characters we don’t get to know them as much as we’d like. That part could just be by Spielberg’s design anyways. Two hours of pure escapism. That to me is what movies are all about. It’d be greedy to ask for more.

Rating: On Rotten Tomatoes 85% | On Metacritic 65 | In my heart, a very inspiring B-picture.

 

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