RopeofSilicon Movie Club: ‘The Sugarland Express’ (1974)


Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express

Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express
Photo: Universal Pictures

I was trying to figure out what genre Steven Spielberg‘s The Sugarland Express fits in while preparing today’s Movie Club entry. It’s definitely got drama as Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn), an ex-con, convinces her husband Clovis (William Atherton) to break out of pre-release four months before he’s due to be released free and clear. Their goal is to make a run for Sugarland, Texas where they hope to get their child out of foster care, a child that was removed from their custody due to the misdemeanors that landed them in prison.

These two eventually hit the road by hitching a ride with an elderly couple, but the fact the old man won’t drive any faster than 30 miles an hour on the freeway results in them stealing the car. A police chase ensues, ultimately resulting in the kidnapping of a police officer (Michael Sacks) and hijacking his cruiser.

To go with drama you now have action, comedy and there’s a definite sense of romance throughout, even if it isn’t constantly beating you over the head, which was a major standout for me. Spielberg isn’t historically the most subtle filmmaker.

At the age of 26, The Sugarland Express was Spielberg’s first feature film following the success of the television feature “Duel”. Here he manages a large cast of extras, gets some great performances out of his leads and it also marks his first collaboration with composer John Williams and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

I can’t say Williams’ score stood out for me on any great level, but Sugarland Express is loaded with Zsigmond’s sun-dappled cinematography and the shots they got from street level as the caravan of police cars race down the freeay and the pavement blurs by at the bottom of the frame were excellent.

However, of them all, I don’t love any shot in the film as much as I loved this next one…

Elderly couple in The Sugarland Express

A.L. Camp and Jessie Lee Fulton in The Sugarland Express
Photo: Universal Pictures

A.L. Camp and Jessie Lee Fulton play the elderly couple left on the side of the road after their car is stolen by Clovis and Lou Jean.

Spielberg briefly checks back on the two a few minutes later only to find them still standing on the side of the road. A police officer asks if it was their car that was stolen, they say yes and he suggests they stay put before zooming off to join the chase. Much to our amusement, they stay put and it’s the last we hear from them. For all we know they could still be standing there to this very day.

William Atherton, Goldie Hawn and Michael Sacks in The Sugarland Express

William Atherton, Goldie Hawn and Michael Sacks in The Sugarland Express
Photo: Universal Pictures

As far as the leads are concerned, Hawn’s screeching and neurotic performance is just as fun as you’ve ever seen her and, truthfully, I can’t remember the last time I saw her in a film and it was a welcome reminder of how great she can be.

Also, for people such as myself, growing up seeing Atherton as a bad guy in films such as Ghostbusters, Real Genius and his slimy character in Die Hard, it’s a bit of a change from the norm to see him here as a caring parent and husband.

Even though they’re ex-cons, the film doesn’t necessarily paint Clovis and Lou Jean as villains. Instead they are better described as dimwitted optimists that have made a series of bad decisions and don’t realize the extent of trouble they’ve gotten themselves into.

What I found interesting about this fact is that characters this stupid would typically have me dismissing their every move, but Sugarland Express doesn’t judge these characters as “bad guys”, they’re simply desperate people and the love they are exhibiting for their child and the extent to which they are willing to go to get him back says a lot about their true character.

Ben Johnson in The Sugarland Express

Ben Johnson in The Sugarland Express
Photo: Universal Pictures

Accompanying Atherton and Hawn’s performance, and helping establish them more as people that messed up rather than hardened criminals, are Michael Sacks and Ben Johnson. Johnson, playing Police Captain Tanner, seems as if he would rather let the two of them go and get their son, but as a Texas lawman he can hardly allow them to get away with kidnapping one of his officers, hijacking one of his cruisers and raising hell across half the state.

You could interpret the film as nothing more than that, a wild and entertaining road movie, but Spielberg did have a message to sell…

Spielberg mentions Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole as a film that affected his approach to Sugarland, the idea of taking a look at media sensationalism and tendency to turn tragic situations into sensationalized “events”. Both films, as it turns out, were based on true events.

The media does get involved in Sugarland, but not to the extent of Ace in the Hole. Here Clovis and Lou Jean are treated like rock stars as they slowly cruise through one small town and again while stopped at a gas station. In these terms, Ace in the Hole does come to mind, but in a lot of ways Sugarland Express felt, to me, like more of a PG (or even G-rated) version of films such as Natural Born Killers and Bonnie & Clyde. I’d say those are better films, but The Sugarland Express does have a sort of unmistakable charm to it that I enjoyed.

Everything really came together for me in the end. Zsigmond captures the sun’s glow in the tragic final moments and the film ends in a way I have a hard time believing Spielberg would allow one of his films to end nowadays.

The big question, for me, came afterwards and wondering whether I would have been able to tell this was a Spielberg-directed film had I not known beforehand. Instinct tells me “no” as he has, for the most part, abandoned this style of “stand back” filmmaking for more obvious storytelling in recent years (though his new film, Lincoln, is a definite exception). I’d love to see him return to this style of storytelling again, something a little less polished and driven by a passion for telling a good story rather than appealing to all audiences.

Hell, I’d like to see him remake this film today and see what kind of changes he would make. Would he make changes or would he mostly make some necessary cuts to tighten the story?

The first films from many filmmakers are rarely as entertaining as I found this one to be, even though I’ve seen a story like this told a myriad of times. It proves that if a story is told right it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard it. The Sugarland Express isn’t some kind of masterpiece, but as a dramatic road comedy it satisfies for much of its running time.


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Based on last week’s poll, the November 26, 2012 Movie Club selection is Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck, Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine.

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Next week’s film will be Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. For more information and an updated schedule, visit the Movie Club homepage.