In the popular consciousness, The Sugarland Express doesn’t really exist as anything more than a wisp of a pre-Jaws memory, a forgotten distant rumor of an appetizer before the shark movie that kickstarted the blockbuster craze rips into your stomach and takes the memories of Sugarland on with it. And, honestly, the film doesn’t exhibit any particular sort of argument for why you shouldn’t un-forget it, solid and effective though it may be. While the director’s debut film – the television release Duel – makes an argument on its own terms, irrelevant to the future of its director – Sugarland is on more tentative footing, functioning most compellingly as a prelude and a curious platonic ideal for anyone who wants to mount the “Spielberg was both a New Hollywood filmmaker and a post-New Hollywood blockbuster populist” argument. Since, you know, it is literally a more palatable version of the de rigueur New Hollywood narrative.
But that’s more conceptually intriguing for auteur-theorists than splayed out on the screen in front of you. By itself, The Sugarland Express is a fine, mostly nondescript entertainment with a nice Spielbergian heart compromised by the director’s desire to retain the thriller-shell of Duel. More accurately, the film is sabotaged by his timidity in actually enforcing why that car-chase body belongs in this film in the first place. A little like a premonition of the Spielberg-progeny John Landis’ Blues Brothers, Sugarland devolves at times into a cartoon car pile-up as though the fact that Spielberg simply knew he could throw cars at one another willy-nilly blinded him from asking whether he should. Except, while Landis reveled in the excess, infusing his film with a kaleidoscopic, free-associative mania that bordered on surrealist, like a big film and a placid, small film constantly violating one another in a deranged schizophrenic episode, Spielberg just sort of has cars just because, like a big film flattening the small film that is its heart.
The actual “debut theatrical release” from Steven Spielberg, Sugarland was released one year before Jaws would violate the box office and inaugurate the money-making ideal for the modern age, possibly catalyzing the death of the New Hollywood that Spielberg was part of. A New Hollywood that Sugarland Express idealizes in its employment of the era’s favorite narrative device: lover-outlaws on the run. In reality, question marks about the end of the auteur-focused decade aside, Spielberg’s earliest films, up to at least Raiders of the Lost Ark, are all of the New Hollywood tradition; in his own way, Spielberg simply avoided the turmoil of many of his fellow travelers and their baroque flaws by churning out thrillers of essentially minimalist recklessness devoid of the ungainly excesses that would play as much a part in decimating Hollywood’s willpower to fund the New Hollywood to begin with. But we can expend hours guessing about whether the New Hollywood was always a creature rushing to its own doom or whether a different breed of cinema actually catapulted it into the magma of its own excess (likely, both of these were true). What this means for Sugarland is a mess of a film, a work that finds Spielberg spastically torn between his New Hollywood intimacy and his ‘80s styled populist propulsion with little idea how to mix them together.
Released one year after Terrence Malick filtered the same concept into the realm of tone poem abstraction and Heideggerian, mythic commentary on being and becoming, The Sugarland Express has a decidedly different, more pared-down vision of couple on the lamb in the American wilderness. The couple are adults here, rather than amorphous specters masquerading as teenagers, and Spielberg’s more straightforwardly human take on the tale is understood when the couple doesn’t kill everyone they meet in bursts of unprovoked puppetry (as though they were being guided by their director-master without autonomy on their own). Instead, in Sugarland, they’re simple victims of circumstance, beleaguered by their own animating desire to belong together (the husband has been imprisoned and, upon escaping, they take a welterweight police officer hostage). Malick was galvanizing his characters in a philosophical exploration of nature, while Spielberg is mostly content to enjoy spending time with them, getting to know them, and letting them drift on.
Spielberg’s version of the tale sequesters itself away from the outlaw theater carnival of Bonnie and Clyde, the definitive American version of a tale that dates back as early as Fritz Lang’s divine You Only Live Once. It also hop-steps beyond the sexually provocative Freudian bullet Gun Crazy and the jittery, psychotic versions of the tale by Jean Luc-Godard, with Spielberg (and co-writers Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood) preferring a more streamlined rustic milieu and a restive character study. While most of these other versions are in some way philosophical tracts and formal showpieces that rely on the characters as playthings in a director’s montage, Spielberg is relatively content to thaw the tale out and just tell the story in effectively human, if simple terms.
The off-hand mastery of nuts and bolts filmmaking on display in Duel is reserved to flickers and flutters of such success in a film that spreads out thematically and texturally, not always to its benefit (Jaws, with its expression of town-wide paranoia dynamics and implicit class commentary, would bind the two styles to perfection). There are nice, cunning touches though. Even the opening shots prefigure Spielberg’s more human version of the story as the camera maliciously plays around with expectation and mood. Very early on, the camera sediments in a predatory, leering shot straight out of Duel, blinkered by prison-bar weeds on the ground as it stares at Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) as she wanders down a dusty road. Rather than a truck plowing into her, though, a more wistful, mournful, countrified score (from John Williams in his first collaboration with the director) interrupts the expectation of horror with something more forlorn and humanistic, like a less expressive Malick.
But emphatically not Malick. The characters in Badlands were abstractions, disemboweled of feeling and fluctuation, like pantomime artists painfully expressing a figment of what “lovers on the run” might mean to them. This nearly avant-garde reapplication of the phantom-suitors in Last Year at Marienbad interrupted and threw away our essential assumptions about character, volition, human action, sense of self, and nearly every driving assumption of Western cinema, emerging as one of the definitive, provocative masterworks of the medium. Even Bonnie and Clyde understood the characters as mythic types – exemplars of Scoville-scale violence and Americana folktale-theater rather than fully-embraced humans – while Spielberg just likes to hang out with them. Hanging out with Vilmos Zsigmond filming them is a pleasure, don’t get me wrong, especially with him so fresh off of lensing maybe the most rapturously sublime American film in existence in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but the sense of untapped material is never far from the mind.
Husband Clovis Poplin (William Atherton), kidnapped officer Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), and police pursuer Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson) are naturalist figures, drifting around within our assumptions about human nature rather than shooting them in the back and not even bothering to dig a grave for our assumptions. With the gaps in the characters mostly filled by the actors, Hawn is the most important, filling her mother bear with what initially feels like vapidity and refusal to engage with reality. Eventually, these foibles ultimately emerge as a parent’s necessary self-denial, a need to not accept her predicament so she can retain any semblance of distant hope for a meaningful future with her family, however unlikely the fulfillment of that quest may be (they are on their way to kidnap their child, who was given to foster care upon papa’s imprisonment).
It’s a great performance, in a mild film, a less defiant vehicle than Spielberg’s other ‘70s films as well as the cinema that shares this broad narrative outline. The shared ennui of characters passing by life, just trying to survive another day, is intimately felt, especially in Johnson’s portrayal of a sheriff who would rather be at home than ensnared in what becomes a Southern carousel of media attention and national conversation. But even that “life as social spectacle” thread was more intimately expressed the following year in Dog Day Afternoon, or more importantly, in any other lovers on the run tale that implicitly understood the characters to be the objects of the film’s audience, who were cast as the spectators, thereby reflexively bending assumptions about character and diegesis and sublimating the literal narrative commentary in Sugarland to the level of formal commentary.
In other words, while Sugarland can implicate other people within the film in spectatorship and social theater, questioning whether we define ourselves or others prefigure our identities by creating versions of us in their minds, many other films from the decade were able to implicate the audience in that spectatorship as well. By questioning the role of the screen as our voyeuristic glimpse into artificial characters who are always necessarily defined by their creators (look to Spielberg’s buddy Francis Ford Coppola with The Conversation from the same year for example), they run amok with themes that Spielberg is content to simply step his foot in. Effective though it is, this is Spielberg at his most timid, and while that keeps his film away from the fell regions of over-indulgent cinematic avarice embodied in many of his post-‘70s films, it also keeps this film from engaging with the deep chasm of potential within it. Compared to a real cinematic parasite like Jaws, vigorously drawing energy out of its audience and unleashing it for its own life on the screen, Sugarland is tenuous at best.