Tip of the Spielberg – “The Sugarland Express” (1973)

While it’s always a delight to see a director’s first theatrical feature film, this one feels like a bit of a cheat. While Duel was by no means made for the big screen, it had trademarks that made it big in scope for the small screen. Yet, Spielberg, with a theatrical budget and the knowledge from Duel and other TV movies (Something Evil) to make the leap was critical. The Sugarland Express allows him to give a glimpse and taste to an audience wondering who this new upstart was.

Admittedly, The Sugarland Express always escaped me when watching Spielberg films. Duel is talked about infinitely more than Express, making the movie seem like it’s lost to the sands of times and not worth seeing unless you’re a completionist (This series is about being a completionist, but that’s beside the point). But, for what it’s worth, The Sugarland Express is worth sitting down to see why Spielberg received praise for his directing despite the audience failing to show up for what turned out to be a great and underrated film. It’s also his first take on a subject inspired by actual events, if a bit more played up for the cinema.

Following Lou Jean Poplin, played by Goldie Hawn, she plans to break her boyfriend Clovis (William Atherton) out of pre-release to return their son from foster parents. This means having to take hostage Officier Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) and take his car to Sugarland to regain custody of their child. For those familiar with crime, you’d know they are screwed with this plan from the get-go, leading to a long, arduous pursuit and hostage situation. The cops from several counties, cops from Louisana, and even reserve officers in name only come to join in on the action.

This feels like the antithesis of Bonnie & Clyde. While that one did have the draw of the infamous couple, there was not much rallying behind the misfits nor rooting for them to succeed in their mission. The Poplins are idolized and admired, but more so for the spectacle of it all in their little brush with celebrity. This happens within the moment rather than years later after the fact. Yet, unlike Bonnie & Clyde, who both lost themselves in the thrill of it all, one is reluctant. Clovis is the heart of this picture, getting caught up in a situation he never wanted to be in since he was already in pre-release. He loves Lou Jean and does anything for her but falls victim to that romantic bliss.

Officer Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) makes a promise to Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) and Clovis Poplin (William Atherton). Source: Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

Clovis comes out of his own character too. He has never fired a gun nor kept an officer hostage. He has never done anything more than petty larceny. There’s an affable charm to him, too, played perfectly by Atherton, who captures Clovis’s positive and scared sides with a perfect balance. This is shown beautifully in the drive-in movie scene where Lou Jean and Clovis see a Road Runner Looney Tunes short. He makes up the sound effects of the short, complete with Wille E. Coyote falling, to compensate for the lack of radio in the RV. Then the scene stays on them from outside the RV window, with the sounds on display and Clovis’s smile drifting into sad and sudden realization. They think they are the Road Runner, quickly getting away from Wile. Instead, they are the coyote that will soon fall victim to the real Road Runner: The Texas Public Safety Department. It’s a heartbreaking moment that comes into perspective once the finale comes around.

The portrayal of police here is also shown as a defiant force, going along with the Poplins, trailing behind them to make a long-winded trap to get them. Of course, some men pretending to be Reserves try to stop them, but that doesn’t damage their plans. They are portrayed as heroic, yet they falter in every way to stop the Poplins or arrest them on sight. They have squad cars, helicopters, and an elaborate plan, but then all that goes downhill toward the end because Clovis and Lou Jean may seem stupid, but they are not. Again, the chases and action scenes show why Spielberg was the man for the job.

Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) remains hopeful that she and Clovis will get their child back.
Source: Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

This is all of his work on Duel taken up a notch and with more money behind it. There are elaborate flyover shots, wide shots that show the expanse of Texas, and lots of car crashes and action. The essence of “Blockbuster Spielberg” is captured here in these moments. Not only that, but this is where he can finally go the more cinematic route, even having new technology on hand to help the director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond with the Panaflex camera, a smaller take on the Panavision camera, allowing for more movement within the car and in tight spaces. It’s very present, helping capture all the action on the ground and in tight squeezes, such as the used car shootout or getting great close-ups with the couple.

While it was not the most enormous box office success despite the power of Golden Hawn, who is good in her own right yet overshadowed by Atherton, it is a significant step in the trajectory of Spielberg’s career by showing he has the chops to continue making movies that are more than a spectacle. Instead, he captures the people behind the spectacle, their emotions, and the strife that battle. Something that will be needed in full with his next film, Jaws.

Revue Rating: 4 out of 5

Next time, baby, there’s a shark in the water. Jaws, the first “summer blockbuster,” makes waves in 1975.

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