Saturday, 1 January 2011

The Sugarland Express

Is it really accurate to call The Sugarland Express (1974) Spielberg's first film? He had after all directed several films for TV, one of which was so good that it got a theatrical release, Duel (1971). But Pauline Kael certainly considered The Sugarland Express to be his first, and she was very excited about it. In her New Yorker review she called it "one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of cinema" and that Spielberg "has a knack of bringing out young actors and a sense of composition and movement that almost any director might envy". High praise indeed, although she did caution that "there is no sign of the emergence of a new film artist". Nora Sayre was also positive in New York Times, whereas Rogert Ebert felt that there was too little focus on the characters, which was frustrating because they were the kind you really wanted to know.

Despite the good reviews and the fact that it is, well, directed by Spielberg, it's not necessarily a well-known film today. That is a shame because it's very good, and it has long been one of my favourites of Americans films from the 1970s, that glorious decade.

It's based on a true story, about a young couple in Texas in 1969 who made a desperate attempt to be reunited with their 2 your-old daughter. She had been given by the authorities to a foster family, and by hijacking a police car, with a policeman, the young couple drive through Texas to the foster family to get the child back.

There are three things remarkable with the film. One is that which Kael talked about, the "sense of movement and composition". It's beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the greatest cinematographer of that time (and part of the movie brat gang) and makes great use of Texas's flat landscape and endless roads. This is in every sense of the words a road movie. The other thing is the performances in the car, especially Goldie Hawn as the mother, both frantic and naive. The husband is played by William Atherton and the policeman taken hostage is played by Michael Sacks. On the outside there is Ben Johnson, as Tanner, the policeman in charge of the pursuit. Tanner is a sad old man, with a strong sense of decency and fairness, but he just can't control the turn of events. And that is the third thing that is so good about the film, the turn of events. Even if it begins like a small, low-key event, it quickly snowballs into a national obsession and freak show, with people lining up to watch the young couple with hundreds of police cars and TV trucks following them. At one point an eager fan gives them a mini pig as a gift. By enlarging the scope Spielberg turns the film into a picture of America as a whole, as a country with an unhealthy gun fetishism and an almost lunatic fascination for celebrities and "outlaws". The young couple becomes heroes, primarily because they are in the news, and also perhaps because they are young.

The gun fetishism features in many ways, including two crazy men who literally shots a whole parking lot to pieces in their effort to capture and kill the "outlaws". Their car has the sticker "Control communists, not gun-owners" (or something similar), and they are part of some kind of homegrown militia. Another example is the foster father of the couple's daughter, who insists that the police use his rifle to kill them should they reach his house. Tanner also has to battle his colleagues who would prefer to shoot the runaway couple as quickly as possible. Here society is to a large extent blamed for what happens to the characters in the film.

That scene at the parking lot is quite formidable with its tension, emotions and humanism. The young couple try to relax for a few precious moments, and also to bond with the police man they've taken hostage, and they watch a Road Runner cartoon together. They laugh at it, but underneath the laughter is the feeling of the walls closing in, and watching the cartoon characters being shot and maimed is in the end not particularly funny, but all too close to comfort.

All of this must inevitably lead to an unhappy conclusion, and it does. Cruel and pointless. And here, towards the end, comes one of the most moving images in Spielberg's career. A teddy bear that the mother has brought for her daughter is, when it's all over, tossed out through a car window and is run over by a line of police cars.

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