Somewhere between unleashing the homicidal tanker of Duel on television audiences and the man-eating shark of Jaws on moviegoers, a young Steven Spielberg found the time to spin a far more human yarn in his debut theatrical feature The Sugarland Express. Employing the same storytelling techniques here as in the more fantastic fables that would follow, he elevates the material above its fairly routine narrative.
Based on a true story, the film follows the efforts of two married convicts, Lou Jean and Clovis Michael Poplin (Goldie Hawn and William Atherton), to retrieve their son from the foster parents who took custody when the Poplins went into the clink. Having already served her time, Lou Jean springs her husband from jail and, a few tragic misjudgments later, soon she’s on the run with him and a kidnapped patrolman, Slide (Michael Sacks).
Pretty soon, the hunt is on with scores of patrol cars in a fairly low speed chase being held back by Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson), in an effort to protect Slide. What begins as a comic misadventure, with Tanner going so far as to push the Poplins’ stolen patrol car when it runs out of gas, slowly turns menacing as the inevitable showdown approaches at the foster residence in Sugarland, Texas.
Spielberg handles both the upbeat and catastrophic elements of the story with equal doses of cinematic economy. His ability to tell a story visually is already on full display in this early effort, with support from legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Spielberg captures a conversation between two patrolmen in moving cars, then pulls the camera back to watch them disappear into the horizon – all in one shot. As one scene ends, he lingers on the foster mother (Jessie Lee Fulton) long enough to watch her move a vase in preparation for the ensuing bedlam, wordlessly opening a window onto her character. Even the famous “Hitchcock shot,” which makes it seems as if the background is crashing in on the foreground, makes a chilling appearance as snipers close in on their prey.
But all of this showmanship would mean nothing without strong performances. For the most part, the film delivers them. Hawn is outstanding as Lou Jean, conveying a heartbreakingly sincere belief in her ability to get her son back in spite of the felonies that compound as she gets closer to Sugarland. Her denial is all the more poignant for her ability to make you identify with it. Atherton’s Clovis is similarly pitiable, putting up a good front while painfully aware of the couple’s dwindling chances, though his performance is hindered by an inability to affect a consistent southern drawl. The supporting cast is solid, with Johnson in particular standing out as his Tanner bends over backwards to accommodate the Poplins before grimly resigning himself to a more ruthless course of action.
John Williams, who would go on to be a longtime collaborator with Spielberg, doesn’t show nearly as much promise as his cohort on this outing. His score is distracting, with a harmonica melody that sounds like the opening lines from, of all things, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” He would find his groove only a few years later with Jaws and Star Wars, but not with this.
The Sugarland Express stands as a fine example of the fugitives-on-the-run genre, holding its own alongside Thelma and Louise, Bandits, The Defiant Ones and, to a lesser extent, Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde. It will probably be remembered, however, only in the context of the Spielberg oeuvre. Given the stamp he puts on the film, there are far worse ways for it to be remembered.
Review by David Thomas © 2004 filmcritic.com