By Marc S. Sanders
Steven Spielberg’s second film, and first full-length theatrical release, is The Sugarland Express. It’s inspired by real life events that consisted of a convict couple making their way to the Sugarland estate, located in Texas, to reunite with their toddler child living with foster parents. Goldie Hawn played the mother, Lou Jean, who easily springs her husband, Clovis (William Atherton) from a pre-release penitentiary. Clovis only had four months to go before a full release. Once they’re out, they hijack a police car with the deputy driving and make their way across the state for Sugarland. The rest of the police force, along with out of state authorities, are hot on their tail. Pitifully speaking though, this becomes a long, drawn-out slow car chase. It’s a pretty dim-witted story, but because it’s based on fact, well, some thought it’d make for an interesting two hours on film.
Unlike Spielberg’s first film, Duel, I didn’t find much inventiveness with The Sugarland Express. If anything, it was likely green lit following what the director accomplished so well, at such a low expense, with his first film. Car crash/car chase movies were also becoming trendy in the early ‘70s with Steve McQueen’s Bullitt becoming such a pioneering film of incredible automobile stunt work. The French Connection would go on to win Best Picture a few years later with a centerpiece car chase to hang its hat on as well. The Sugarland Express however is quite silly and very inferior to those pictures, though.
I was impressed with the infinite number of cars at Spielberg’s disposal and many of them get bashed up and crashed up in so many ways. Yet, I grew tired of the novelty too. The stakes didn’t seem so high with this film. It is perhaps a film of its time. After so many on the run pictures that were made with much better sophistication in the decades that followed, Spielberg’s film often feels unconvincing and unintentionally silly. A funny moment occurs when Lou Jean needs to finally pee following miles and miles of endless driving. The outlaws force the police led by Ben Johnson, in a nothing role with a big cowboy hat, to bring in a port o potty in the middle of an open field. Cop cars are everywhere. It’s clear as day outside. Yet no one takes the opportunity for aggressive action. Lou Jean gets to relieve herself.
As the pursuit carries on, Lou Jean and Clovis become celebrities, and crowds of townsfolk approach the car they occupy to lend them money and good wishes and even a pet pig. Silly stuff mostly, but just not very amusing to me, and Goldie Hawn, who is normally a natural and adorable comedienne, is not very endearing here. Lou Jean mostly screams in her redneck dialect and as a former beautician, styles her hair in the back seat applying endless amounts of hair spray to irritate Clovis and the deputy.
I didn’t find much camera work to impress me from Spielberg either. I appreciated one moment in time however. As the characters manage to hide out in an RV parking lot overnight, they watch an outdoor screening of a Roadrunner cartoon short out their back window. Wile E Coyote falls victim to one of the Roadrunner’s tricks, and Spielberg captures a close up of Atherton with a foretelling expression of doom cross over his face. It’s a nice moment that brought me back into the film, but then the ongoing themes of the film return thereafter.
I don’t care if it’s a true story. I don’t care how ridiculously absurd it all amounted to. The Sugarland Express was just noise for me. Other absurdist stories of the 1970s, approached their subject matter better. Films like Dog Day Afternoon whereas the ordeal continued to prolong, so did the mental exhaustion and desperation of the characters. I’m afraid Spielberg just didn’t capture any of that here.