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Case Number 05406

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The Sugarland Express

Universal // 1974 // 110 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // October 18th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Dan Mancini encourages you to check out the first theatrical film from the legendary Steven Spielberg.

The Charge

Every cop in the state was after her. Everybody else was behind her.

Opening Statement

After getting his feet wet on television shows like Marcus Welby, M.D. and Rod Serling's Night Gallery, as well as the taut telefilm Duel, young director Steven Spielberg made his theatrical film debut with 1974's The Sugarland Express. Long overdue on DVD, it's finally arrived courtesy of Universal.

Facts of the Case

When ex-con/Texas belle Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower) learns her child, Baby Langston, is about to be adopted by the foster family who's been caring for him, she busts her old man Clovis (William Atherton, Ghostbusters) out of jail and the two head for Sugarland, where the foster family lives, to recover their boy. Bumblers, the couple instantly attracts the attention of the police and, through a bizarre series of events, ends up with a patrolman (Michael Sacks, The Amityville Horror) as their hostage. Pursued by Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show) and an army of Texas cops, the Poplins and their hostage have a series of picaresque adventures on their way to Baby Langston and their final destinies.

The Evidence

Immediately followed by the mega-blockbuster Jaws, The Sugarland Express comes off at first pass as a low-key and inauspicious debut feature, and one not particularly Spielbergian. But take a closer look and you'll find the themes of parental separation and emotionally stunted adulthood so often revisited during the director's prolific career. It's just that, in this inaugural theatrical outing, those themes are presented sans the high-octane action and extra-terrestrials that would come to define Spielberg's career.

In an inversion of the normal Spielberg mode of dealing with the parent/child relationship, The Sugarland Express puts the parents rather than the child at the center of the action. At least that's how it appears on first glance. But for long stretches of the film, Lou Jean and Clovis get caught up in the giddy exhilaration of their romp across Texas and seemingly forget about the boon at the end of their quest, Baby Langston. For all intents and purposes, the Poplins are the story's children, and the cops—particularly Captain Tanner—are the parental figures. The Poplins' abduction of the patrolman and their headlong flight across the state to claim their toddler is treated as criminal behavior only in isolated moments of dramatic punctuation. Mostly, their thwarting of authority is handled comically, the couple framed as wide-eyed innocents, their demeanor that of small children testing just how much the rules can be bent before consequences descend. Although Spielberg would explore the mother-child separation trope once again in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lou Jean's adventure has less in common with Jillian Guiler's hunt for her alien-abducted son than it does with Roy Neery's reckless flight from adulthood and responsibility. Lou Jean is a woman who responds knee-jerk and willy-nilly to every impulse that flutters across her heart. There's no sense whatsoever that she's either intellectually or morally self-aware. She's a child; a child that just happens to look like a young Goldie Hawn and, so, Clovis—like Adam handed the apple—commits himself to the adventure, whatever hell there may be to pay at the end of the road. Even the kidnapped patrolman finds Lou Jean's charm irresistible.

The Sugarland Express wades neck deep in every stereotype of Southerners as blissfully ignorant, gun-toting boobs, but the fine performances of its actors elevate the script's cookie-cutter characterizations. Hawn's beauty, uncanny timing, and range as an actress transcend Lou Jean's on-the-page cartoonishness and evoke genuine sympathy from the audience. She's aided by character actor William Atherton in a break from the villainous weasel roles that have since made him a recognizable face. Atherton plays Clovis with straightforward simplicity that is entirely believable, despite the foolishness of the character's behavior. And Michael Sacks actually gets to experiment with a bit of a character arc as Patrolman Slide warms to the Poplins over the course of the film. Though the characters are fairly one-dimensional on the page, the film provides them with plenty of quiet moments in which to interact, and Spielberg wisely gives his actors the space they need to deliver heartfelt, believable performances.

The film's precise pacing makes it most identifiable as a product of Steven Spielberg. With prodigious skill, the young director perfectly balances car chases, action set-pieces, and quiet character moments, while delicately fostering in his audience competing loyalties to both the Poplins and Captain Tanner. The film is so effectively propelled by the director's seemingly innate sense of narrative rhythm, its shortcomings are blurred and one gets caught up in the kinetic energy of a talented young filmmaker discovering the potential in himself and his medium. The only blatant misstep is a dour ending that, even though we see it coming from the film's earliest moments, seems out of step with the light-hearted tone with which Spielberg mostly handles the subjects of jailbreaks, kidnapping, and mother-child separation. Hollywood was still under the influence of Arthur Penn's revolutionary Bonnie and Clyde even as late as 1974, though, so we should probably cut the young Spielberg some slack for tacking on what must've seemed an obligatory ending.

In the course of his tight collaborations with cinematographers Allen Daviau (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List), Spielberg has come to favor shooting with spherical lenses at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio but, like many of his early films, The Sugarland Express is presented in the 2.35:1 scope frame. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter) utilize the wide canvas with a simple elegance unusual for such a young director (just check out the subtlety with which they use rearview mirrors to create natural split-screen effects, for instance—it's the type of technical precision that doesn't jump out ostentatiously at the viewer). This DVD presents their fine work in an anamorphically-enhanced transfer that falls short of a full-on restoration, but is still pleasant to look at. While some source dirt and fine wear-and-tear have carried over into the digital realm, and some shots are marred by too-heavy grain, colors look appropriate (muted and natural) and the overall image is smooth and reasonably sharp. The stereo audio is relatively flat, and suffers from some minor distortion here and there, but it's a decent presentation of the source.

Unfortunately, the only extra is a trailer.

Closing Statement

Despite the dearth of supplemental material, this DVD offers an entertaining road movie to anyone looking for a couple hours of escapist fun. The Sugarland Express is also fascinating as a retrospective glimpse into the early career of a filmmaker who subsequently changed the medium. Its tight sense of pacing and mostly deft blend of comedy and drama were a harbinger of things to come.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 89
Audio: 80
Extras: 10
Acting: 90
Story: 85
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Comedy
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailer


• IMDb

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