I was a little bit nervous about tackling The Sugarland Express. Out of all of Spielberg’s films, it’s the one with which I’m least familiar; I’d never even seen it in its entirety until a few days ago. The rest of the films on this list have so seeped into my consciousness one way or another that forming thoughts on them was relatively easy. This one always lurked way back at the beginning of his filmography, lost in my mind in the torrent of what came after, like the gibbon in the “Ascent of Man,” watching its more fully evolved descendants march into film history. And it always struck me as looking a little mundane. Why would I want to watch this when there are sharks and aliens and Indiana Jones to be had? Having finally seen it though, it certainly is a Spielberg film, if still in the larval stages. But it’s very much the work of an artist who knows he has the pipes, but just lacks the confidence and experience to belt it to the back row.
It’s pretty fitting that Spielberg’s first feature film would deal with a broken family. If there’s one line you can draw through his filmography, it’s family, either how they stick together or how they deal with falling apart. In this case, it’s a little of both, with the parents losing their child while serving jail time and vowing to get him back, even if it means breaking the law again. It’s based on a true story, which seems to inform Spielberg’s approach here; it’s done in a very matter-of-fact style, very much in the spirit of the early 70s and filmmakers like Altman and Malick. The cinematography and editing really give the feel that you’ve been slapped down in the midst of these people’s lives, with no flashy tricks or fancy cuts. The one time Spielberg does let loose visually is in the gorgeous final shot, two figures silhouetted against a shimmering lake at sunset that seems to offer both hope and regret in its tones (it’s also pretty reminiscent of the low-key ending to Jaws that would come two years later).
What’s fascinating about Sugarland Express is its contrasts. Much of the low-speed chase that makes up the heart of the film is done in a pretty-lighthearted fashion. It’s not out-and-out comedy, but it feels like a Robin Hood story, with two young outlaws who really have the right of it capturing the hearts of onlookers and even winning over those who are pursuing them. And casting Goldie Hawn as the mother feeds into this even more, playing on her persona to create an expectation in the audience that, while there may be roadblocks ahead, we’re not looking at Bonnie and Clyde here. But threading through all this are two police snipers who have been ordered to shoot the couple when they show up to collect their son. So while we’re breezing down the highway, there’s this nagging sense of dread. And to Spielberg’s credit, he doesn’t back away from it. The rendezvous to pick up their son is a disaster, with the father mortally wounded, the couple on the run again, and their son still in the custody of his foster parents.
But then a pet peeve of a lot of detractors of Spielberg’s recent films raises its ugly head for the first time: the happy ending. Just when we’ve come to a perfect thematic ending to the film, a point that asks us to think about what we’ve just seen, he takes away all ambiguity with a title card that tells us Hawn’s character “convinced the authorities that she was fit and able to take care of baby Langston. They are now living quietly in a small west Texas town.” Which makes no sense at all, given that we’ve just seen Hawn break her husband out of prison, steal two cars and kidnap a police officer. Going back to Bonnie and Clyde for a moment, imagine if that film ended with “Bonnie and Clyde recovered from their wounds, served their time, and died happily together in a small Texas town.” It’s so completely jarring in the face of what’s come before that it really smacks of either studio interference or screening feedback, with people not wanting to see the popular and pretty Hawn go out on such a downer. It’s a real blow to the film, and the main reason I don’t rank it higher than this.
But it’s so clearly full of promising talent on the part of Spielberg that it’s hard to rank it lower. For a film I avoided for so long, it really surprised me, and it would be interesting see Spielberg go back to this style, tone and content at this point in his career, with the benefit of experience and hindsight.
Tomorrow: They’re not all E.T.