Monday, July 19, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Sugarland Express" (1974)

In 1974 Steven Spielberg was a nobody and Goldie Hawn was a bonafide star stuck in a rut of ditzy blonde roles. They tag-teamed to launch the career of arguably the most successful -- depending on how you want to define it -- director over the last 40 years.

Coppola had a heyday that few will ever match, and Scorsese has made a handful of films that will stand the test of time as cinematic watersheds. But nobody in the modern era has been as prolific and as consistently good as Spielberg.

I cannot name a single Spielberg picture I do not like. Even stuff that many people disparage, like "Hook" and "1941," I can find something to like about them enough to recommend. At his worst -- say, "The Terminal" -- he's left me merely indifferent. My favorite, incidentally, is the one most people have never heard of: 1987's "Empire of the Sun."

With "The Sugarland Express," I can now say I've seen all 24 of his feature film directorial efforts (not including movie sequences, TV shows, etc.). His first effort at the age of 28, one year before "Jaws" would change the map of Hollywood forever, is a sweet cross-country caper with a tragic undertow.

It's not terribly original -- "Bonnie and Clyde," "Badlands" and "The Getaway" are indelibly marked in its DNA -- but shows an already dazzling young filmmaker honing his skills and vision. Spielberg came up with the story, based on a real-life event in 1969, along with screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins.

Hawn plays Lou Jean Poplin, a 25-year-old who busts her husband out of jail so they can go rescue their baby boy, who's been handed off to foster care. As they drive around creation in a Texas Highway Patrol car, with the patrolman held hostage, they become instant folks heroes for breaking the law to keep their family together.

A few caveats, though. Lou Jean lost custody of their boy because was in jail herself on petty larceny counts. And hubby Clovis (William Atherton, forever "dickless" from "Ghostbusters") is actually held in a Pre-Release Center -- in other words, he's been selected for parole and is in a barely incarcerated state before getting out in four months.

But Lou Jean insists that Clovis bust out right now, even though there's no reason to believe the baby is going anywhere soon. She wears some of Clovis' clothes on top of her own, they switch out in the men's restroom, and they walk right out the gate. The guards aren't lax -- it's just that breaking out of pre-release is like throwing a race right before you cross the finish line.

They catch a ride with some old folks, who drive so slow on the highway they're pulled over by Patrolman Maxwell Slide, an eager young officer. After a chase and crash, Lou Jean lifts Slide's gun while he's carrying her out of the wrecked car, and soon the long chase is on.

Slide is played by Michael Sacks, who had a short but busy acting career in film and television. Two years earlier, he starred as Billy Pilgrim in "Slaughterhouse-Five," and he was also in "The Amityville Horror" and "Hanover Street" with Harrison Ford, but by 1984 he was out of showbiz. He runs an online bond trading company now.

Slide is a quasi-willing victim, not making much of an attempt to wrest the single pistol and shotgun (both his) away from Clovis and Lou Jean, who are less than vigilant in keeping the cop covered. When the bandits become famous, drawing television crews and other media coverage, Slide gawks joyously at his picture in the newspaper, and even passes out kisses through the car window as they travel through a town of adoring fans.

The dynamic between Lou Jean and Clovis is interesting, and not entirely healthy. It's pretty clear that Clovis, while canny, is nowhere near his wife's match when it comes to getting what she wants. Lou Jean pushes Clovis' every button to get him to escape from prison, hold a gun on Slide, and pretty much every other nefarious activity. Of course, the police view him as the instigator and give deference to Lou Jean when it comes time to get rough.

In real life, Lou Jean -- all the characters' names were changed for the film -- served only five months in jail after they were captured, and eventually got her baby back through due process with the authorities. Clovis, if he really was her happy dupe, paid for it with his life.

The other main character is Captain Harlin Tanner, played by the great Ben Johnson. After a career of playing sidekicks and villainous cowpokes, Johnson won an Oscar for 1971's "The Last Picture Show" and suddenly found himself getting meatier roles. He plays Tanner as a tough old veteran who cherishes his role as a law enforcement officer, but also values human life and is reluctant to trade it away without exhausting every option.

At a time in history when the general public was tiring of youthful rebellion and ready for the cops to crack some skulls, Tanner is something of a gentle relic -- or a groundbreaking pioneer, depending on how you look at it.

"I've spent 18 years on the force without having to take a human life, and I'd just as soon keep it that way," he says.

Tanner calls in a pair of Texas Ranger snipers to take out the culprits, but calls them off when they tell him they only have 90 percent chance of success without hitting his officer. "Those are good numbers," his right-hand man insists, but Tanner is willing to gamble that he can talk Clovis down via the CB radio.

In one memorable bit, Tanner calls in a port-a-john to be brought into an empty field so Lou Jean can tend to her business. Of course, he plants an officer inside in an attempt to put an end to things. Clovis figures it out and puts an end to the attempted capture without violence, but doesn't bear any grudge against Tanner for trying.

It's telling that Tanner and Clovis reach a sort of understanding where the hunter and hunted respect each other's role while erecting certain lines of decency neither will cross.

Spielberg strikes a tone of fun-and-games, with clear portents indicating things will end badly. He plays with the audience's expectations -- at one point Clovis, who had been riding in the passenger seat, takes the wheel and wears Slide's hat and sunglasses. As they draw closer to the trapped house filled with marksmen, we expect the gunmen will shoot the patrolman by mistake. But no -- the sunglasses and hat disappear, taken by some roadside fans as souvenirs, and the tension eases.

John Williams provided the mournful score, as he has for all 24 Spielberg features -- an unprecedented collaboration between composer and director.

"The Sugarland Express" is a derivative film, but still an enjoyable one. Goldie Hawn proved she could handle grittier roles, and the movie was successful enough for Spielberg to get a greenlight for "Jaws." That was a disastrous shoot, but as is usually the case for the gifted filmmaker, he turned chum into screen gold.

3 stars out of four

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