The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express (1974). Directed by Steven Spielberg.

I’ve been watching classic 70s car chase films of late and Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, The Sugarland Express is worth watching if you’ve never seen it before. It’s based on the true story of two fugitives that kidnapped a policeman and forced him to drive from Port Arthur, TX to Wheelock, TX in 1969. At one point there were over 150 police cars and news vehicles in pursuit of the kidnappers. I wonder if OJ Simpson has seen this film?

In the film, Lou-Jean (Goldie Hawn) helps her husband Clovis (William Atherton) escape from prison and plan to kidnap their infant son who was placed with foster parents. Along the way they end up kidnapping a Texas state trooper which leads up to a downbeat ending a la Bonnie and Clyde.

Don’t expect a car chase movie like Vanishing Point or Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. The Sugarland Express has some great action sequences but it’s also strong on character development. By the end of the film you sympathize with Lou-Jean and Clovis instead of looking down on them as a couple of morons.

It’s interesting to see a few Spielberg trademarks that have carried through to this day — the John Williams score, the importance of family, scene transitions using bright light, innovation (first film to feature a tracking shot within a car). Take a look at the crane shot below. The camera pans up and turns into the floodlight of a police helicopter to transition to the next scene. For a second there I thought I was watching a scene from Close Encounters.

Crane shot in the Sugarland Express

It’s interesting to see what Pauline Kael had to say about this new, 26 year-old director back in 1974:

He could be that rarity among directors—a born entertainer—perhaps a new generation’s Howard Hawks. In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies.

The DVD version of The Sugarland Express isn’t bad for a film that hasn’t been restored. There is some dirt and noticeable film grain but it doesn’t take away from the movie experience. I would love to see an updated version with a director’s commentary.

Posted in DVD Reviews at 4:20 PM