The Sugarland Express [1974] 7/10



Steven Spielberg’s debut feature is a bafflingly underexposed, underrated road movie. Not quite as underexposed however, as his atmospheric 1972 TV movie Something Evil, which is usually omitted from biographies and filmographies. The wit, style and invention on show there, and here, while enormously impressive, are also more than a little tragic, given the bloated, juvenile excesses of so many of his later ‘enterprises.’ Just as the Star Wars circus diverted George Lucas from the great directorial career promised by American Graffiti, Spielberg’s next picture (Jaws) reaped vast profits, but thereby ensured he’d never again be able to harness from the hungry energy of his earlier days. It’s hard to believe the same man directed Sugarland, 1941, Hook, Always, and The Lost World. As a movie, Sugarland Express falls a long way short of both Graffiti and Badlands, which it more closely resembles – but there are moments when it comes surprisingly close to their kind of greatness.

Loosely based on a true story, the movie follows Lou-Jean and Clovis Poplin (Goldie Hawn, William Atherton), a poor, young, married Texan couple whose criminal records have resulted in their child, Langston, being taken into care. Outraged that Langston has been permanently placed with a respectable, older couple in the upstate town of Sugarland, Lou-Jean busts Clovis out of jail and the pair hijack a police car, taking inexperienced highway patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) hostage. A long convoy of police vehicles and media trucks forms as they head for Sugarland, negotiating with veteran cop Tanner (Ben Johnson) at every stop of the way as their story becomes a news sensation in the state, the roadside filliing with well-wishers voicing their support for the Poplins’ quest. But the cops’ patience eventually starts to fray…

Sugarland Express has a convincing, documentary atmosphere, with its well-chosen gallery of apparently non-professional bit-players and extras. Spielberg allows his characters to all talk at once, or interrupt each other, or not speak clearly, but this Altmanesque looseness never tips over into self-indulgent chaos. Everything in the movie is carefully planned – when cars crash, the stunt-men land in exactly the right puddles to splash the cameras – but Spielberg’s tight technical framework sits comfortably alongside his story’s freewheeling flow. Crucially, the film is extremely well-cast. The surprisingly physical Hawn, alternates between alarming and appealing, but her in-the-moment performance never hits a bum note. She’s matched by Sacks, whose wise underplaying Slide, gradually gives unexpected dimensions to an initially straight-arrow character. It’s a strikingly intelligent performance – one which makes the actor’s subsequent tumble into obscurity all the more frustrating.* Second-billed Johnson doesn’t have much to do, but he’s does as craggily believable as ever, and even the manic Atherton, while the weakest link on show, doesn’t get in the way too much.

Spielberg is the real star, however – you sense his giddiness, his intoxication with the possibilities of cinema. His compositions are often striking but never forced, just as his camera movements, via cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, feel spot on for the material. The technique is calculating, but, with the exception of an occasionally heavy-handed score, never manipulative a distinction forgotten in too many of his later pictures. And he pulls off some memorable coups – a pair of traffic cops singing into their radios as they zoom into a burning sunset, voices crackling through the dusk static; Atherton’s face turning serious as he watches a Road Runner cartoon through a window, the cartoon’s reflection dimly visible on the glass; the final, lyrical shot of two figures a shimmering golden river, its dazzling light casting two foreground figures into stark black silhouette. It’s a fine, brave ending an unusual, memorable, promising picture.

* Sacks won the Golden Globe as 1972’s Best Newcomer for his debut performance as Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. After Sugarland, he appeared in The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover (1977), Hanover Street, The Amityville Horror (both 1979), Split Image (1982) and The House of God (1984), as well as four TV movies made between 1974 and 1984. Then – nothing. He seems to have fallen off the map completely. If anyone reading this review can supply any details of his subsequent activities or current whereabouts, please e-mail: