Review: The Sugarland Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Sugarland is a small, undistinguished Texas burg not far from the Mexican border. The Sugarland Express is one commandeered highway patrol car and a caravan of half a dozen other h.p. cars, then a few dozen local police cars, then a couple Louisiana highway patrol cars, then a few hundred civilian cars, trucks, campers, and at least one Houston-based TV news van, all bound for the aforesaid Sugarland, Riding in the lead car are an escaped convict, his wife (also recently a con), and one relatively new state policeman whose dialogue sounds like a mélange of the Highway Patrol rule book, the safe-driving code, and Reader’s Digest. The convict may be even more hapless than his prisoner: he broke out—walked out—of the minimum-security prerelease farm from which he’d have been freed in another month anyway, persuaded by his wife that swift action is needed in order to rescue their infant son from a foster home. Before his journey had fairly begun he found himself guilty of grand theft auto, speeding, resisting arrest, stealing a policeman’s gun, and kidnapping—all within about eight minutes. Now it promises to become a very bad scene, what with Clovis (the con) garbling the syntax of all those threats that are supposed to keep his cop prisoner in line, Lou Jean (the wife) impetuously shoving a riot gun at police cars that draw too near, and half the local constables and deerslaying rednecks in the state trying to be the agent of retribution for these desperados.

Steven Spielberg, the 26-year-old director of these shenanigans, might have mounted a wearily familiar America-is-out-to-stomp-the-free-spirit trip here, but in fact his sense of detail, feel for movement and milieu, and almost palpable pleasure in his craft keep redeeming The Sugarland Express from tendentious generalization and make it one of the bright spots of the movie season. Goldie Hawn does nothing to remind us that she was LaughIn‘s consumer-approved scatterbrain, and in fact she’s excellent a lot of the time, though here and there she’s a trifle too shrill in emphasizing Lou Jean’s country ways (in fairness, the script is pretty chauvinistically shrill about Lou Jean, saddling her with the responsibility for pushing herself and her husband further up that well-known tributary at key points along the way). Newcomer William Atherton is exactly right: he looks, moves, acts, and appears to think like the sort of lazy-headed, disingenuous rural lout who drifts into petty crime as naturally and unmaliciously as a stray mutt scrounging out of a back-porch doggie bowl. Michael Sacks, Slaughterhouse Five‘s Billy Pilgrim, is less spontaneously assimilated into the mobile texture of the journey and the film, which is all right, even effective, until he has to convey being charmed by these fellow Texans who just want to reclaim their baby and disappear into Mexico. As the police captain one car back, Ben Johnson gives his best performance since The Last Picture Show, restoring a sense of native wit and decency to the image of the American lawman in a ten-gallon hat, and retaining sympathy even as he ruefully accedes to laying a death trap for this benign, low-comedy Bonnie and Clyde act.

Spielberg can’t really be blamed that Carey Loftin’s car smashes and thrills ‘n’ spills have become old hat. He does manage to rediscover the kinesthetic excitement in as basic a bit of grammar as the cut and focus pull that states the relationship between pursuer and pursued. And in such matters he is, of course, invaluably assisted by Vilmos Zsigmond, who has once again found a new way to observe and redefine the colors and force lines of the American outdoors and here turns in yet another superb job of cinematography that the A.S.C. will have to work hard to forget about come Academy Award nominations time.

RTJ

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS
Direction: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, after a story by Barwood, Robbins, and Spielberg. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond. Music: John Williams. Production: Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown.
The Players: William Atherton, Goldie Hawn, Michael Sacks, Ben Johnson, Gregory Walcott, Steve Kanaly, Louise Latham.

Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson