Taking that first step forward in any career is quite a risky venture. Uncertainty is prevalent as you enter new territory full of unforeseen challenges. Unfamiliarity though is also a cure for complacency. Being hungry for exposure can lead to some interesting experiments, or it can also lead to some colossal failures. Steven Spielberg’s first got the opportunity to cut his teeth with feature films when he directed The Sugarland Express. The film is an adaptation of a real life event where an escape convict and his wife drive across the state of Texas in order to reclaim their child from his adoptive parents. Like with Duel Spielberg’s shows flashes of his trademark directorial prowess, however the end result is far clunkier in its execution and lacks any type of creative spirit. Although there are certain moments that are impressive for a first time feature, The Sugarland Express is an early misstep in the career of Steven Spielberg.
Historically this film is most notable for its connection to Spielberg, but at the time he was far from the biggest name on the crew list. That honor went to Goldie Hawn, an already an established box office draw, who already won her first Oscar by the time The Sugarland Express started filming. In the film Hawn plays Lou Jean a woman who has had her own trouble with the law, but is still determined to get her family back together. Her husband Clovis, played by William Atherton, is currently incarcerated in a low security prison. It is the type of prison no one escapes from. Not because it is some sort of impenetrable fortress, but because it would be like breaking into the DMV to try to get out of a ten dollar parking ticket. The risk is a gargantuan behemoth of a disaster compared to the very minute reward. Clovis, though hesitant, follows through with Lou Jean’s plan of escape. Obviously this is a couple that has questionable judgment. Largely Hawn and Atherton work as this bumbling couple of misbegotten fortune. Hawn is particularly noteworthy as her dimwitted but complicated character. They will both drive you crazy with their moronic judgment and constant nagging, yet they still largely remain sympathetic characters.
During their escape they hit a bit of a snag and are forced to take a police officer hostage. What started as a simple idea quickly escalates into a state wide manhunt. Police from all over the state of Texas join in to rescue their fellow comrade from this relatively unusual situation. In a way it is similar to watching an amalgamation of Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Run. Unlike those films The Sugarland Express is lacking in a coherent tone. The tone is this rigorous spinning top that is never able to come to a complete stop. At times it feels like a whacked out comedy and others a serious melodrama. Generally shifting tones allows a film to compliment itself. Comedic moments become stronger when they are placed amidst a sea of seriousness. Here the tone never establishes itself either way. At times it is a mystery what emotion you are supposed to elicit. Laughter, stress, anger, or maybe it should be a combination of everything? It is the perfect case of a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. A scene like a surprising shootout at a car dealership is humorous on its service level, yet the reaction of the characters make it appear as if it is meant to be taken seriously. This failure makes it a frustrating to no end.
Part of the failure can be blamed on the fact that the comedy is bland and humorous and the drama is limited in its emotional depth. Developing the character’s motivations more would have allowed the more intense moments to have more weight. One thing it did accomplish was instituting a multitude of moral dilemmas. Clovis and Lou Jean start to develop their own “Stockholm Syndrome” esc relationship with their police captive. Michael Sacks plays Maxwell Slide the patrolman turned hostage. The interplay between these three characters is easily the best part of the movie. They begin as adversaries and evolve into colleagues. Obviously the idea is not revolutionary. Implementing it in an effective way did not allow that familiarity to diminish its overall influence.
Goldie Hawn wasn’t the only Oscar winner Spielberg had at his disposal. This also marks the beginning of Spielberg‘s legendary partnership with John Williams. Williams had already gathered acclaim for his work in The Fiddler on the Roof so Spielberg was sure lucky to have him. Surely at the time no one would have thought this combination would become such a tremendous staple in cinema. The score in this film is relatively forgettable as it has little impact on the narrative. In fact most would have a hard time recognizing this as one of Williams’s scores. It’s far more timid than his future work.
Spielberg does do a number of inventive things with his camera. Much of the film takes place inside a cramp police car, which should limit what you are able to do as a director. Surprisingly, Spielberg still implements much his trademark camera work. He is even able to pan 360 degrees inside this small space. Today it is easy to overlook such an accomplishment, but for the time it is an impressive feat. Spielberg can make you feel in awe of his directorial style at the same time make you forget there is a camera there at all. Very few directors have that capability, and he was one of them right from the start. Even in his failures he still tends to give you something new and interesting.
History is full misbegotten potential. People who receive the cursed ‘next big thing’ label are habitually destined to end up in obscurity. There are times when that trend is bucked. Steven Spielberg is without a doubt someone who far exceeded anyone’s expectations. For a first time feature The Sugarland Express is a rather minor failure. You can see where it wants to go it just never gets there. For those who are Spielberg completest they may enjoy this trip down memory lane. All others will find little reason to partake in this flavorless journey.