The Sugarland Express (1974) – Review by Andrea Carnevali

The Sugarland Express ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Sandwiched between Duel in 1971 and the box-office-sensation that was Jaws (and let’s pretend his other two TV movies he made in between don’t really count), this has always been a half-forgotten one in Spielberg’s filmography and I look forward to re-discover it at my Film Club this Tuesday the 18th at 8pm at The Chiswick Cinema, as always. 

“The Sugarland Express” is actually his first real feature film for the big screen, in fact a really big screen, since he shot it all in wide anamorphic. His enthusiasm for working on a larger canvas, his love for the format and his attention to compositions and details within that large canvas is apparent in every frame of this film.

At the same time, watching the film one cannot help but noticing his eagerness to show off not just his knowledge and understanding of cinema, but also his pioneering techniques and breaking the rules of the way old Hollywood used to be.

To people used to his more famous Sci-Fi movies, like Close Encounters or ET (both of which were only a few years away), filled with special effects and sweeping emotions, this might look like a slightly muted affair. Not quite like your typical Spielberg-fest.

But if you scratch beneath the surface, you will find many of the director’s trademarks: his eye for composition, the incredible camera moves (look out for an early counter zoom shot, like he’ll do in Jaws a year later), his ability to tell a story with pictures, his use of editing the editing (always clear, making sure the audience knows exactly what’s going on), his blocking of the action through long continuous uninterrupted shots, all of which, always in support of the story.

The themes of the ‘search for a home’ or the ‘broken family’ or “the innocence of a child’ will also become key in motifs in Spielberg’s later work.

You can also detect, beyond the gritty realism of the ’70s, a whole series of crowd-pleasing elements throughout the film, as he alternates moments of drama with pure comedy and flashes of action, keeping the audience always entertained.

This is also the first (of 29) collaboration with legendary composer John Williams (though this is still quite an ‘un-Williamsy’ soundtrack, with Spielberg himself playing the harmonica).

As for the story itself, the main plot comes from a story by Spielberg himself, which was actually based on true events. A sort of “Bonny and Clyde” type of affair in which a married couple takes a policeman as hostage as they embark on a long ride across Texas to reach their young son, who has been assigned to new foster parents.

It is a sort of road movie, with several car chases, which follows a genre which was very much in vogue in the late ’60s and ’70s (films like The Getaway, Bullit, The French Connection, Badlands), but it also has a surprisingly large amount of comedy .

The story is almost too crazy to be believed and Spielberg has a lot of fun with some of the most outlandish elements of the true event, but beyond that, what drives the film more than anything is the interaction between the three key main players: the wonderfully devilish Goldie Hawn (who is as hilarious as infuriating), the husband, William Atterton and the “kidnapped policeman” all have great lines of dialogue, but often their characters really come alive in quietest scenes, with simple looks and gestures.

It’s in these moments of silence that Spielberg really excels in his direction showing a sensibility which will become his driving force in the years to come.

Book tickets for Andrea’s film club screening:

Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick, and a co-creator of the Chiswick In Film festival.

See all Andrea’s film reviews here: Film reviews by Andrea Carnevali

Chiswick In Film festival: Chiswick In Film festival 2023

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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