Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Sugarland Express (1974)

This early Spielberg film is a rollicking, fast-paced road picture about a Texas couple who kidnap a policeman and force him to drive them across the state to reunite with their child, who has been taken out of their custody by the state. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton make the most of their rather one-dimensional characters, though at times it seems as though they are appearing in two different movies (with Hawn too frequently playing her part in broad caricature, while Atherton seems to be trying to get at something darker and more intense with his performance). Michael Sacks is effective enough if rather bland as the young officer forced to drive the pair across the state against his will, though his transformation at the end, sympathizing with the outlaws and betraying his duties to the law by alerting his abductors to a potential police ambush, is handled too abruptly and without any real explanation as to why he (or the audience) should care so much about these two. Ben Johnson gives the film's strongest performance, as the weary old lawman leading the difficult pursuit to bring the couple to justice.

Overall, it's a skillfully-made debut theatrical feature from Spielberg, who proves himself especially effective in his handling of the large-scale, high-speed car chases (recalling his celebrated work on DUEL a few years earlier), though the pacing frequently lags between these set pieces, bogged down by heavy-handed commentary on gun violence, police corruption, and the nature of celebrity in America. It's not that these points aren't relevant to the events in the film, but Spielberg's handling of them is too self-conscious and telegraphed to be really effective. Coming between his brilliant early work on DUEL, and his first full-fledged masterpiece, JAWS, the following year, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS perhaps can't help but feel like a minor effort in Spielberg's filmography.

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