We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.
The Sugarland Express, 1974
Prix du scénario – Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins
When discussing the films of Steven Spielberg, The Sugarland Express is a title that usually gets lost in the shuffle. Although, it was the director’s first theatrical release (not counting Duel which was a TV movie although it received a theatrical release in Europe), the film is mostly seen as a competent crime/road movie in the aesthetic vein of Bonnie and Clyde, nothing special.
It failed at the box office, and was overshadowed critically by other “Lovers on the Run” films like Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, both of which were released within 12 months of each other. Yet there is a certain charm to The Sugarland Express which might be attributed to Spielberg’s crowd pleasing instincts, which he shows off well here.
However, this lighthearted approach is undercut by a looming sense of dread as the characters drive closer to their uncertain, yet inevitable, fate. The Sugarland Express opens with Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), fresh from a stint in a women’s prison, visiting her husband Clovis (William Atherton), who is currently serving time himself but just has four months to go on his sentence.
Lou Jean isn’t just there to visit Clovis, she’s there to break him out. We find out that her and Clovis’ child was taken away from them while they were both in jail and is now living with foster parents. Lou Jean means to take Clovis with her to Sugarland, where their child is, and take him from his foster home. A reluctant Clovis at first thinks it’s crazy, but we see that Lou Jean is determined to let nothing stop her, so he decides to go along with it.
Pretty soon, fate takes a hand, and after hitching a ride with an elderly couple who drive too slow on the highway, they are pulled over by highway patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks). Thinking Slide has stopped them because they’re wanted, they try to steal the car, but eventually kidnap the young patrolman and use his police car on their cross country road trip to grab their child.
Eventually word about the fugitives and the stolen car gets out to the Highway Patrol Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). Who then gets every available officer hot on their trail, and what follows is a somewhat low speed pursuit between dozens of patrol cars and the wanted couple. It’s very easy to see how much The Sugarland Express has in common with many films like it, since the success of Bonnie and Clyde only a few years prior gave birth to many imitators.
However, the film is not pure imitation, and stands on its own as a unique addition to the genre. This may be the most down to earth, and realistic film Spielberg has every made. There is much attention taken to the side characters of the film, such as the elderly couple who Lou Jean and Clovis hitch a ride with, or the man who plays Lou Jean’s father in a small scene. These characters feel authentic, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they were played by non-actors, but just real people who were told to act like themselves.
Spielberg has always been underrated with how he works with actors, as most critics focus on his impressive set pieces. Yet the performances he gets out of everyone is impressive. Goldie Hawn plays Lou Jean as a sympathetic woman, who may be a bit naive in knowing just how much trouble she’s gotten herself into. She is absolutely certain she will get her child and live happily ever after with Clovis, and she doesn’t discover her error until it’s too late.
The film was actually meant to be a dramatic showcase for Hawn, who was still known for playing the ditzy blonde from her days in Laugh In. Here she’s able to show off her comedic charm, but there is also a bit of an innocent femme fatale quality to her performance. She’s set in her ways, and too blindsided to know what’s really going on, but her clouded judgement gives her a manipulative streak she mostly pulls on Clovis.
Ben Johnson, who was a veteran actor, most notably from many John Ford films, was having a career resurgence at the time this film was released thanks mainly for his Oscar win a few years earlier from The Last Picture Show. His Captain Tanner is the voice of reason in the film, and the man who stands for law and order. He stops at nothing to make sure Lou Jean and Clovis are apprehended safely, and without violence.
Early in the film, he shuns away the idea of using snipers to kill the couple, thinking he’ll be able to bring them in unharmed. His character is a bit of the ageing lawman, the kind who who’s a straight shooter and always dependable, in many ways he’s the heart and soul of the film.
The biggest surprise, performance wise may come from William Atherton. If you don’t know the name, you may know the face as he showed up as the weasely Environmental Protection Agent in Ghostbusters. Then again as the weasely TV news reporter in Die Hard. I suppose in the 80s, Atherton had the face you wanted to punch, but here as Clovis, he’s quite memorable.
Clovis seems to be the most reluctant participant in this offbeat adventure. You can tell he loves his wife and his child, but we sense he knows what’s coming. And he seems powerless to stop it from happening, making his fate all the more tragic. Spielberg, of course, has been known for his set pieces, and even though they may not be as extravagant as his well known blockbusters, there are wonderful moments he’s able to get using the choreography of the cars on the highway.
There is a very ingenious scene where Spielberg keeps the camera inside the car carrying Clovis, Lou Jean and Patrolman Slide, while Captain Tanner pulls up beside them with his own car talking on the radio. The camera doesn’t cut away at all, as we follow Tanner’s car move beside them, then drive ahead, only to end up on the other side. It keeps the action tight and close, and creates an intimate feel between the principle characters, and it’s a wonderful cinematic way of establishing character relationships.
It’s a bit like filmmaking 101, but Spielberg has always been a master of framing and camera movement. On top of the technical aspects, I would argue this film also becomes a little subversive. The whole ethical notion of using gun violence comes into play, although it is never overtly said. Going back to Captain Tanner’s refusal to use snipers to bring the criminals down, the idea is brought up again in the film’s climax.
There is also a rather blatant scene in a car dealership, where Lou Jean and Clovis are hiding out. They are spotted by a couple of gun-toting hunters who open fire on them causing unnecessary chaos and destruction, and their incompetence almost gets everyone killed. There’s a scene later on which easily could’ve been cut, yet Spielberg keeps it in where Captain Tanner berates these men and takes their guns away, and smashes their truck in a fit of anger.
This idea of shooting before thinking permeates throughout, and is what actually is the cause of the film’s tragedy. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, we don’t really see Lou Jean and Clovis as anti-heroes, but rather as regular people caught up in an adventure to save their child. They don’t know it’s an adventure with dire consequences, it’s the idea of it all being fun and games until someone gets hurt.
The Sugarland Express will probably mostly be seen through the lens as the humble beginnings in the career of the most successful filmmaker in history. Yet it should be seen as a very unique genre film, which is deeper than its perceived reputation. It’s a playful film with a dark undercurrent floating beneath the surface, it’s the fable about flying too close to the sun and getting burned on your way down.