Steven Spielberg’s first US theatrical film (Duel was released theatrically in Europe) marks the director’s return to the open road. It isn’t surprising Spielberg got the job to direct this cross-country chase movie, since he had so beautifully brought the road to life in his monster-truck thriller Duel. Yet, this true story of Lou Jean and her lover Clovis, who take a cop hostage in order to get back their baby, doesn’t have the technical ingenuity that made his earlier film about an everyman stalked by an seemingly unstoppable and unequivocally psychotic truck driver so much fun.
As a comedy is isn’t as energetic as something like Smokey and the Bandit or Cannonball Run II. As a drama it is a little muddled and can’t strike a balance between melodrama and comedy, or social comment and familial loyalty. At the time, as exampled by Spielberg’s much flawed 1941 (released in 1979), the director didn’t have a grasp of comedy as he did horror or suspense. As such The Sugarland Express feels like a film by a director-for-hire. Certainly, the young Spielberg struggles to get to grips with his characters, and by the film’s end, you are left with the sense that you never got to know the people who’ve you’ve just invested all that time in.
The Sugarland Express is one of the director’s lesser known films and for good reason. His trademarks aren’t evident, and while, if you delve into the story’s ideals, you’ll find the subjects Spielberg would investigate later in his career, this is a project used as a means to another end. After all, a year later he would make Jaws with Sugarland’s producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown.
That isn’t to say The Sugarland Express is a bad film. Spielberg, even back in his 20s, was a great storyteller. Considering that it is sandwiched between Duel before it and Jaws and Close Encounters after it, The Sugarland Express is that strange occurrence not usually seen by a director so young and passionate: a filmmaker going through the motions. Of course, when Steven Spielberg goes “through the motions” it is inherently more exciting than most.
It shouldn’t go without saying that Goldie Hawn is brilliant in the film. Her stellar performance would set her on the way to Hollywood stardom with roles in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, Colin Higgins’ Foul Play, and Howard Zieff’s Private Benjamin during the following years.
Review by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Hal Barwood/Matthew Robbins
Starring: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Michael Sacks
Released: 1974 / Genre: Road Movie Comedy-Drama / Country: USA / IMDB
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