Before Spielberg was the box-office titan that he would become with 1975’s Jaws , he made his North American theatrical debut (Duel, a television movie had been released theatrically in Europe) with 1974’s Sugarland Express.
Based on an actual event that occurred in 1969, the story follows Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn), her husband Clovis (William Atherton), and a police officer, Slide (Michael Sacks), that gets caught up in their cross-State escapade.
Lou Jean was recently released from prison to learn that her baby has been in the system and has finally been adopted. She wants him back. She goes to the pre-release prison holding Clovis, who still has four months left on his prison sentence, and breaks him out.
Officer Slide gets caught up in events when he pulls them over and they consequently kidnap him and steal his patrol car. All of it in a quest to get to Sugarland, Texas, and reclaim Baby Langston.
As they gain a long line of police cars behind them, led by Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson), they draw the support of the locals, even as the police attempt to defuse and calm the situation.
Spielberg, who helped create the screen story, balances the emotions and the characters, showing both sides of the story, though as the film progresses Tanner remains calm and focused, hoping to end everything without bloodshed, and Lou Jean, the driving force behind the on the run couple becomes more unhinged.
The film sees the introduction of a couple of people who would work with Spielberg a number of times, Verna Fields came aboard as editor (a role she would shine in for Jaws) and this marked the first collaboration between Spielberg and composer John Williams (love that harmonica).
Sugarland Express is a solid film, only hinting at what would be to come from Spielberg, including a dolly zoom that would be used to great effect in his next film. It also gives the film Hawn a chance to shine. Primarily known as a comedic actress, Hawn shows she has some real chops as she brings Lou Jean to life.
That’s not to say there aren’t some humorous moments to the film, but it definitely walks a more dramatic line, and the story focuses on the trio trapped in the police car together, and how they slowly bond, even though they are on opposite sides of the law and the issue.
Sugarland Express was never my favorite Spielberg film, but it definitely shows how he’s grown as a filmmaker and a storyteller. He knows how to make use of his locations, his performers, and knows what he needs to tell his stories.
It’s an interesting theatrical beginning for Spielberg but nothing could quite prepare us for what he did next…