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by request: the sugarland express (steven spielberg, 1974)

The Facebook group a few of us created, wherein we picked out 50 favorite films, is a gift that keeps on giving. I made a promise to myself to watch every movie Jeff Pike and Phil Dellio chose that I hadn’t already seen, and I’m getting closer to achieving my goal. Phil had The Sugarland Express at #49, and I had actually seen this once, when it came out in ‘74. Since that was almost 40 years ago, I thought it was worth another viewing.

Normally, I’d save the technical aspects of my viewing experience for the end of my comments, but there were problems that should be mentioned up front. The Sugarland Express isn’t the easiest movie to find. Well, you can still get the DVD pretty cheap, but it has never been released on Blu-ray, which butts up against my Blu-ray snob factor. So I didn’t want to buy or rent the DVD. It finally turned up on HBO, but even here, there was a problem, because HBO rarely shows 2.35:1 movies at the proper aspect ratio, preferring to fill the 16:9 screen. Since part of what makes The Sugarland Express such an enjoyable movie is the way Spielberg and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond use the wide screen, I ended up watching the movie in the worst possible fashion. I should have just rented the damn DVD.

Zsigmond had been working in film for almost 20 years, but Spielberg was a relative novice who came out of TV, and who had directed only one film to that point, the fine TV movie Duel. I mention this because The Sugarland Express is a combination of the brashness and energy of youth, with a confidence that belies Spielberg’s age (he was in his 20s). It looks great, and Spielberg has quite a delicious touch with cars, a good thing since automobiles probably deserve a screen credit in the acting department for this movie. But that touch extends beyond machines; there are several very good performances by humans, as well, enough of them that you have to give the director at least some credit for bringing out the best from his cast.

Goldie Hawn gives what many (including Hawn) believe is her finest performance. Ben Johnson doesn’t get very far beyond Icon status … you get the feeling Spielberg was in awe of Johnson, and so he doesn’t ask as much from him as, say, Boganovich in The Last Picture Show (which also plays on Johnson-as-Icon, but gives the character a bit more depth), or Peckinpah, who actually lets Johnson act in The Wild Bunch. William Atherton went on to become one of those “Hey, It’s That Guy!” actors, perhaps best known for his work in the first two Die Hard movies, but here, he’s got a difficult part, and he is excellent. Michael Sacks is largely forgotten now, but in this, his second feature (his first was even more memorable, as Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five), he balances several emotional states as a kidnapped highway patrolman. (Sacks hasn’t had a screen credit since 1984, having moved into the world of finance later in life.)

The Sugarland Express isn’t worthy solely as a harbinger of Spielberg’s subsequent career. It’s good enough even without the foreshadowing. I wanted a bit more depth overall … there are obvious comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde, and speaking as someone who placed that movie at #3 on his Facebook list, it’s safe to say the comparison doesn’t do Sugarland many favors. But that’s hardly a damning critique, to say it isn’t as good as the third-best movie of all time. One key difference is that where Bonnie and Clyde are both aware of what lies ahead (Bonnie more than Clyde, but he gets it, too), here, while Atherton’s Clovis knows what’s coming, Hawn’s Lou Jean is too caught up in anticipation of good times to come to really understand it’s not going to turn out well. This isn’t worse than Bonnie and Clyde, merely different, but it wasn’t as compelling for me.

Nonetheless, it was one of the best movies of 1974. Accepting that I’m forgetting something and that something needs to be re-evaluated, I’d put it in my Top Five for 1974, with The Godfather: Part II at the top, Chinatown right behind that, and then this movie, California Split, and The Conversation battling it out for #3-5. (Various AI prediction systems tell me I’d really like Celine and Julie Go Boating.) 8/10.

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