The Sugarland Express
Young directors generally take what they can get in terms of employment, which has resulted in some incongruous early entries in the filmographies of the great auteurs. For young Steven Spielberg, the "true crime" story The Sugarland Express (1974) is certainly substantially unlike the movies that made him the most famous director in the business: Compared to flights of juvenile fancy like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., Sugarland is quite different. Goldie Hawn stars as Lou Jean Poplin, a desperate petty criminal ex-con whose two-year-old son has been remanded to the custody of a foster family in Sugarland, Texas. Lou Jean, feeling she has been victimized by an insensitive and impenetrable bureaucracy, breaks her son's incarcerated father, Clovis (William Atherton), out of a pre-release facility in Beaumont, and on their way to kidnap to their child they haphazardly take hostage a patrolman (William Sacks), thus beginning a statewide car chase of sorts, with the sober Capt. Tanner (Ben Johnson) in diligent pursuit. Often unfairly compared to the nihilistic Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Sugarland Express is quite different in that its anti-heroes are stupid and hopeless, but also emotionally harmless. Lou Jean is simply incapable of rational action (her handling of crisis situations would seem to support the state's custody ruling), and Clovis is keenly aware that he is being led down a doomed path by his heart but is unable to resist Lou Jean's pleading. There can be no good end to this road trip, and, unusually for Spielberg's prime output, The Sugarland Express is deeply sad and realistic (despite a few notable departures from the true story), salvaged as entertainment only by the director's acute visual gifts and perfect pacing, and Hawn's and Atherton's terrifically sympathetic performances. In his first major film, Spielberg provides a visceral, emotional texture, feigning to be more a part of the Hal Ashby-school of 1970s cinema than the lightning rod that would, along with George Lucas, create the blockbusters that eventually destroyed Hollywood's "Second Golden Age." Although touches of this style would later be seen in Jaws (1975) and had been liberally employed throughout Spielberg's previous made-for TV thriller Duel (1971), which not only had a similar on-the-road atmosphere, but a nearly identical ending Spielberg would not make another film as mature as The Sugarland Express for another 20 years. Great harmonica score by John Williams. Universal's DVD release presents the film in a great-looking anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Keep-case.