Sunday, August 05, 2007
DAY 5: The Sugarland Express (1974)
According to Wikipedia:
In 1969, a young woman named Ila Fae Dent helped her husband Robert escape from a Texas pre-release prison facility, because she feared losing custody of their child to her own mother. During their flight, they overpowered and kidnapped Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Kenneth Crone, holding him hostage during a slow-moving caravan of up to 150 DPS vehicles, along with reporters in cars and helicopters and hundreds of curious bystanders, that passed through Port Arthur, Houston, Navasota, and finally Wheelock, near Bryan. At Ila Fae's mother's house, they encountered numerous officers including an FBI agent. The situation grew tense, with Crone held at gunpoint. The FBI agent and county sheriff shot and killed Robert. The trooper was uninjured and Ila Fae spent five months in prison.
This relatively obscure bit of American history would no doubt over time have been relegated to the annals of permanent obscurity were it not for the fact that a young Steven Spielberg used the event as the inspiration for what would become his first big-screen motion picture: 1974’s The Sugarland Express.
Spielberg had wanted to make Sugarland for several years prior but, despite his consistent display of cinematic proficiency, Universal executives were unwilling to let the young director helm a project of his own creation saddling him instead with ready-made scripts from other writers. When Duel turned out to be such a tremendous success, the brass at Universal noted the surface similarities between the two stories (automotive chases through picturesque American countrysides) and decided to allow Spielberg to try his hand at directing his first major motion picture. Spielberg collaborated on the script with two young writers (Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins) and when the producing team responsible for The Sting (Richard Zanuck and David Brown) signed on, the studio was more than happy to fund Steven’s project. They had only one requirement: there had be a star in it.
Since the film was essentially a three-person drama (with the fourth supporting character being the police captain) Spielberg was told to cast a big name actor/actress in at least one of the roles. It didn’t matter which one. Zanuck and Brown suggested the popular Goldie Hawn, who was looking for a more serious dramatic part to counteract her typecasting as a fluffy comedienne. The star-struck director was thrilled when Hawn agreed to play the passionate, but none-too-bright, mother and “no sooner did she sign on,” as Spielberg says now, “than we had a start date.”
William Atherton (years before he’d be known as an antagonistic jerk in films such as Die Hard and Real Genius) played her likeable, but easily manipulated, husband. Michael Sacks was cast as the kidnapped police officer and veteran Western actor Ben Johnson lent age and dignity to his character of Captain Tanner. World-class Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, known primarily at the time for shooting three Robert Altman films (Images, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye) as well as John Boorman’s Deliverance, was the man behind the camera and he enjoyed a happy, though at times challenging, collaboration with the young filmmaker. Frequently questioning, though not necessarily disagreeing with, Spielberg’s instinct of where to place/how to move the camera, Vilmos taught Spielberg about the importance of maintaining a point of view (a practice which Spielberg had, with the notable exception of Duel, only used sparingly), that it wasn’t enough for a shot to be visually dazzling, it also had to be functional (“Who’s point of view is this?” he would often ask. “Well, it’s my point of view. The director’s,” the naïve Steven would answer). Gradually Spielberg saw the wisdom in his cameraman’s advice and he would later comment on how much he learned from Zsigmond in the process of making the film (especially since Spielberg was now working in a new format: the much "wider" 2.35:1 aspect ratio rather than the Academy/TV 1.33:1 ratio). For the sake of authenticity, the entire movie was shot in Texas (at several locations where the actual events took place) and the real-life kidnapped officer Kenneth Crone served both as an advisor on the film and played a small role as a deputy sheriff.
After the silent Universal logo, Sugarland Express opens (like Duel) on a black screen. A title card informs us that what we are about to see is based in fact. The screen fades into a close-up of a typical highway sign with a fairly simple and straightforward instruction but the camera slowly pulls back to reveal that it is just one of many signs offering, as author Doug Brode describes, "confusing--almost contradictory--choices," just as the characters will have many choices to make throughout the film and will, more often than not, choose the wrong ones. In the same shot, a bus drives up to the humble crossroads. It stops, a young woman carrying a bag alights, the bus drives off, the female traveller starts to walk toward the camera and the audience is introduced to the film’s heroine (and Spielberg’s first prominent female character): Lou Jean Poplin. As the credits roll we see Lou Jean making her way toward a minimum security prison. The credits end and Lou Jean is reuinted with her husband Clovis. While standing in the courtyard visiting area, surrounded by dozens of families, Lou jean tells Clovis that the state has taken their two-year-old baby from them and placed him at a foster home in the fictional town of Sugarland (not to be confused with the real-life town of “Sugar Land”). As she tearfully pleads for his help (“I want my baby back. Now are you gonna help me or not?”), significantly, an infant cries noisily behind her, almost overpowering her own voice, just as her love for her own child overpowers all logic and reason, pushing her other thoughts and feelings into the background and causing her to make unwise decisions. She talks her husband into breaking out of pre-release with her in order to accompany her to Sugarland and reclaim their son. After a brief sexual encounter in the men’s room, during which Clovis has second thoughts about going with her but Lou Jean uses her feminine wiles to change his mind (“If you don’t, then this is our last time”), Clovis dresses up in an extra pair of clothes worn underneath Lou Jean’s outfit (the image of Lou jean literally “wearing the pants in the family” briefly glimpsed) and tries to sneak past the guard as just another visitor accompanying his wife. He is almost given away by his fellow inmate Hubie but a kiss from Lou Jean dampens his resolve as well. Clovis and Lou Jean manage to catch a ride with Hubie’s elderly parents*, his father a stern, stubborn man upset with the way his son turned out and his mother ready and willing to forgive any sin committed by her baby. Thus, through the plot element of Lou Jean’s resolve to get her baby and the storytelling device of Hubie’s arguing parents, Sugarland Express becomes the first Spielberg film to push to the theme of family and its frequent dysfunction (hinted at only briefly in Duel) to the forefront of the story.
*NOTE: It should be mentioned that this is not the first elderly couple (nor will it be the last) to appear in a Spielberg film. It's not even the first elderly couple to be appear in a car. At one point in Duel, Dennis Weaver stops a car carrying an older man and woman and asks them for help. Not wanting to get involved, they refuse to aid him and simply drive on. A similar thing would happen to Marty McFly in in the Spielberg-produced, Zemeckis-directed movie Back to the Future.
Sugarland Express also marks another significant “first” for Spielberg, a collaboration with an artist who would prove to be not only his most significant filmmaking partner for the rest of his own career but the “other half” of one of the most important alliances in the history of cinema (no less significant than that of Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist or Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker). During Sugarland’s opening credit sequence, the film’s music score (characterized by a single harmonica theme played in front of a full orchetra) is heard for the first time. It is a score composed by a former jazz pianist known then as “Johnny” Williams. In 1973 Williams had written several film scores and TV themes (including Lost in Space, How to Steal a Million, Valley of the Dolls, Jane Eyre, Cinderella Liberty and The Poseidon Adventure) and even won an Oscar for his orchestration of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof in Norman Jewison’s 1972 film adaptation. Like Spielberg himself, he was not yet the “god” of his craft that he would later come to be known as. And yet Spielberg had wanted to work with the composer ever since hearing his scores for the films The Cowboys and The Reivers, hoping to achieve a similar “Texan” sound for his own Sugarland Express. Not only was Spielberg quite pleased with the work Williams provided for his film, the two had hit it off so well that he wanted to work with him again on his next project (whatever it proved to be). Neither man, of course, had any idea that what would follow was a professional and personal association that would last for the next thirty-five years through which some of the greatest movies (and movie music) of all time would be produced, with Williams scoring all but one of Spielberg’s twenty-two subsequent feature films. Spielberg has called Williams not only one of his greatest filmmaking companions but one of his best friends and it is refreshing to see a relationship of such genuine respect and affection in an industry teeming with pretense and duplicity.
William’s music is even cleverly incorporated into the sound design of the picture. As Lou Jean and Clovis sit in the backseat of the automobile, plodding along the highway at a measley 25 miles an hour and causing a tremendous line of cars behind him (foreshadowing the line of police cars that will follow Lou Jean and Clovis to Sugarland), the frustrated drivers behind them honk their horns loudly at the “slow-poke” and the melody of Williams’ main theme can actually be heard in their blaring. Soon they are pulled over by an unsuspecting officer named Maxwell Slide and as the elderly couple climb out of the car to talk to the patrolman, Lou Jean, in a desperate panic, makes yet another unwise decision that will place her and her husband in danger. Fearing discovery by the deputy, she climbs behind the wheel of the car and speeds away. The officer quickly leaps into his patrol car and takes off in hot pursuit as Hubie’s parents stand helplessly on the side of the road (“Shit. Our car is stole.”). What follows is an exciting, and at times humorous, chase sequence that again displays Spielberg’s knack for “playing with toys” (they even almost collide into a train at one point). Eventually the car crashes into a tree and as the officer tries to help Lou Jean out of the wreck she grabs his pistol and tosses it to her husband. The pair now have a hostage and a vehicle to take with them to Sugarland.
Before long the police learn that Slide has been kidnapped and forced at gunpoint to drive these two criminals across the state, so the character of Captain Tanner is called in. We first see him testifying at a court trial establishing him as an authority figure on the side of law and order. He has a road block put up to prevent the fugitives from going any further (much like the blockade at the climax in of E.T.) but after conversing with Clovis over the radio, learns that they “mean business” and orders the road block be taken down. Instead, Tanner and about twenty other police cars closely follow the hijacked vehcile carrying its three passengers on its journey. The sequence where Tanner and Clovis first converse over the police radio is expertly handled. Much like the extraordinary shot in Alfonos Cuaron’s Children of Men (which wouldn’t come for another thirty years and which would take the device even further) the camera does a complete 360-degree turn from inside the car in a two-minute extended take.
It also initiates what will be a series of exchanges between Clovis and the captain throughout the film. Once again, the theme that was only hinted at in Duel is now established in a far more blatant and significant manner: communication. The young Clovis and the elderly police captain can only talk via the technological device of the two-way radio and even then neither person is completely “hearing” the other since both want entirely different things from the situation. In a way, they are trying to communicate not only across physical distances and opposing legal sides but across a generational gap as well.
As Lou Jean, Clovis and Stride get closer to Sugarland the procession of police cars following them grows and grows (eventually reaching hundreds of vehicles) as does the public’s interest in their plight. In reality the drive took only a few hours (in the film it takes a couple days) and, according to Tony Crawley, the two actual fugitives—Robert Samuel Dent and his wife—became sort of “instant folk heroes” and their escapade a “media event.” In the film the press’ coverage of their mission earns them the respect and admiration of many ordinary folks who come out to wave at them, wish them luck and even shower them with gifts as they pass slowly through towns. This does provide somewhat of an interesting sidebar to the story but, unlike what Arthur Penn was able to accomplish with Bonnie and Clyde, Spielberg doesn’t develop the media’s coverage of the event (the press being represented in rather silly, over-the-top fashion) nor the characters’ reaction to their newfound fame to really make any sort of significant statement out of it.
Added to this is the fact that Clovis and Lou Jean, while eminently likable (with even the kidnapped deputy gradually growing fond of them as the film progresses), aren’t nearly a charismatic or well-developed as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Although they don’t even approach a comparable level of mayhem and destruction as their murdering/bank-robbing counterparts, the Poplins are also not quite as interesting or engaging. Indeed, the deepest and most complex character in the story is the police captain who does his darndest to keep a handle on the situation throughout, but even he suffers from an apparent lack of motivation at one point. His eventual decision to bring in two sharpshooters to dispatch Clovis and Lou Jean when they try to retrieve their baby is abrupt and inconsistent. Spielberg himself has said that were he given the chance to make the film again he would devote more screen time to Tanner’s character, explaining how an essentially peace-loving man who, through an 18-year career in law enforcement where he managed to avoid even a single death in any of his dealings, would suddenly decide to end the situation violently.
It must be taken into account, of course, that Spielberg was himself very young at the time and obviously identified more with the two parents trying desperately to reuinite with their child than with the state that was trying to keep them apart. By comparison to Tanner, though, the Poplins seem like children themselves (the captain even calling them “kids” at one point). They seem more like a couple “playing house” than actually starting a family. The character of Lou Jean especially comes off as rather spoiled and stupid a lot of the time. Although Goldie Hawn received generally good notices for her performance, her character could arguably be called a simple stereotype; an immature, backwoodsy “hick” who refuses to go to the bathroom when they’re stopped at a gas station and then complains later on down the road that she “has to go pee.” The Poplins’ childish tendencies are no more blatant than in a sequence where, after managing to elude their police “escort,” they spend the night in the back of a parked RV at a used car lot. Looking out the back window they can see an old Chuck Jones/Warner Bros. cartoon on a nearby drive-in movie screen. “Wish we had sound,” Lou Jean says. “I’ll be your sound,” responds Clovis who then proceeds to provide his own “sountrack” to the violent antics of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner: explosions, yelps, crashes, etc. Lou Jean laughs like a little girl and Clovis himself starts to enjoy it. Interestingly, Spielberg ends the sequence on a rather foreboding note when a look of dread slowly spreads across Clovis’ face as the animated images are reflected in the glass in front of him, ultimately becoming superimposed over him. It’s almost as if he knew what were awaiting him at the end of this journey. For a few moments he and the coyote, another character who never actually achieves his goal, become one and the same.
If the Poplins are like children than Captain Tanner becomes an almost surrogate father, trying desperately to help them out of the fix into which they’ve gotten themselves. At one point Lou Jean’s real father is brought in by the police to try to talk to her over the two-way and we realize what a horrible home life she must’ve had since his words to her are mean and abusive. Tanner, on the other hand, actually does have some affection for the two of them and despite their being on opposite sides, the two of them come to trust Tanner. In fact, the morning after the late-night cartoon viewing, when they are in danger of being killed by a couple of redneck gunmen who fancy themselves “reserve” officers, their inclination is to get on the police radio and immediately call for help from Captain Tanner (much like a child running to their parent when they can’t handle the problem by themselves). Lou Jean even adds “Captain Tanner, I do believe you’re a good man.” This bond of trust makes his eventual “betrayal” of their deal all the more devastating.
When they arrive at the foster home in Sugarland, unbeknownst to them the child has been removed elsewhere and two sharpshooters have been put in place to “take out” Clovis and Lou Jean. Spielberg cleverly employs the Hitchcock Vertigo shot (also known sometimes as a “push-pull”) as their car approaches the house. It is seen through the window frame in which the assassin is perched with his rifle. They stop in front of the house and Slide tells them that something is wrong. Their child is not in there. Clovis slowly realizes that he’s right but Lou Jean forces Clovis to exit the car and go “get their son back” eventually resulting in his getting shot. Clovis manages to climb back in the car and drive off toward the Rio Grande with the “Sugarland Express” again hot at his heels. As Slide tries to stop the bleeding Lou Jean, in true juvenile fashion, starts to wail, cry and throw a tantrum. Hurling the gifts for their baby boy (including a stuffed bear, a toy train, etc) and her motherly trappings (hair curlers, make-up, etc) out the car window and into the road where they are run over by the pursuing vehicles. It is not unlike the tantrum thrown by Joan Crawford in the Night Gallery episode.
Finally, the car comes to a stop in a river and Slide, still handcuffed, staggers out. The police surround the vehicle but the Poplins no longer pose any sort of threat. Tanner peeks in and sees Clovis’ lifeless body slumped over the wheel and Lou Jean sitting silently in the backseat, her tear-stained cheeks frozen in an expression of horror and disbelief and her eyes gazing off into space catatonically. In a way she has lost not only her husband but her own innocence. It’s as if her fantasy of being the “perfect family” has at last been shattered by harsh reality. In an image reminiscent of the capper to Duel, the film’s final shot shows the silhouetted Slide standing by the river as the sun reflects in the rippling water. A scroll reveals that after serving six months in prison, Lou Jean was eventually able to convince the state that she wasn’t an unfit mother and was awarded custody of her baby again. Thus, in the end, the mother did get her child back but she had some major “growing up” to do first and it took the death of her husband (which was ultimately caused by her) to achieve that. Earlier in the film, while eating dinner with her husband and their hostage, Lou Jean finds a wishbone in a piece of chicken. She and Clovis each take an end and pull. Lou Jean wins. What she wished for is never revealed, but most likely she wished that she would get her baby back… which she eventually does, so if that were the case then her wish is granted. It is also very possible that, in the spontaneity of the moment, she neglected to include Clovis in her own wish since that part of her “fantasy” is left unfulfilled. In her determination to retrieve her son, Lou Jean ends up sacrificing her husband. As the saying goes: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”
It should be mentioned that before completing the film Spielberg started to doubt the widsom of this ending and considered changing it to a far more pleasing outcome. Even though it didn’t resemble at all what happened in real life, Spielberg almost had the Poplins reunite with their child and make it to Mexico where they’d live happily ever after. Referring to themselves as “artists,” the producers Zanuck and Brown assured Spielberg that he didn’t need to second-guess his initial vision; that it was far superior to what he wanted to do now and that his original ending was one of the things that compelled them to join the project in the first place. Spielberg has since thanked them for “putting some backbone into him” by forcing him to “stick to his guns” and not “sell out” simply to make a more commercial product and Sugarland Express is a much stronger film as a result. It is interesting to note that, despite the epilogue, it happens to be one of the few films Spielberg has made with a real “downbeat” of an ending. Throughout his career Spielberg would become known for traditional, Hollywood-style happy endings. Though sometimes his endings (particularly his more recent ones) are a bit more ambigious than he is given credit for, most people seem to agree that endings tend to give Spielberg some trouble. It is, of course, a legitimate criticism that Spielberg can oftentimes add a happy ending to a film that really doesn’t seem to deserve it. At the same time, however, it could be argued that Spielberg’s unabashedly hopeful outlook on life is merely at odds with a culture that’s growing increasingly more dissatisfied with happy endings in general. It seems pretty evident, to me at least, that our worldview as a whole is gradually becoming more pessimistic, cynical and nihilistic. Thus, when we look at the world and apparently see suffering without purpose, evil without consequence and death without meaning, we naturally look to the movies to confirm those ideas and a filmmaker like Spielberg, who is ultimately an optimist, simply rubs us the wrong way. Whether it’s either of these options or some combination of the two, Spielberg has taken some heat for the preponderance of happy endings to his movies. In my mind it’s not really a question of whether Spielberg ends a story happily or unhappily, but whether or not he earns whatever ending he does have. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t.
In the final analysis, Sugarland Express turned out to be a very good, though still very flawed, film. Upon its release, it was highly praised by numerous critics. Although it has oft been quoted, Pauline Kael's glowing review of the film seemed to anticipate the success Spielberg would later enjoy as well as some of the criticisms he would be facing for the rest of his career:
"He could be that rarity among directors – a born entertainer – perhaps a new generation's Howard Hawks. In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies. If there is such a thing as movie sense… Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn't have much else." --Pauline Kael
One aspect in particular to be received well was the film's excitingly choreographed driving scenes. Paul Zimmerman praised Spielberg’s “breathtaking command of action” and talked of his “vision, satiric but strangely beautiful, of an America on wheels.” He claims:
“In this world the cars are as eloquent as the characters… The pursuing police cars are like four-wheeled robots… they hunt in packs and caravans, greedily sucking gas stations dry… crash into each other in acts of spectacular stupidity… [and] trail the trio with prudence that prudence that borders on cowardice.”
In fact, this is a uniquely impressive aspect to Spielberg’s filmmaking, one that we will see played out quite conspicuously in many more of his movies: namely, his tremendous gift for bringing life to the lifeless, for animating the inanimate. Spielberg’s ability to give a “personality” to non-living, mechanical objects is remarkable. Even though the “life” is in fact only imaginary, onscreen it can take on the appearance of objective reality. While the truck in Duel and the cars in Sugarland Express are never intended to actually “live” on screen (only, for metaphorical purposes, to have the appearance of living; to seem alive) Spielberg would eventually take the conceit further and create inanimate objects that would actually literally be alive in the movie (the robotic shark in Jaws, the alien puppets in Close Encounters and E.T., the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, etc). Outside of Jim Henson and Walt Disney there are very few filmmakers who have consistently accomplished this feat so successfully.
Although Sugarland Express received positive reviews, it did not do terribly well at the box office. Part of the problem was an ad campaign that changed several times in the hope that a workable marketing strategy could be found, but friend and co-worker Carl Gottlieb attributed the lack of success to two similar “youth movies” released around the same time:
“Sometimes the competition can work against everyone: three well-made movies about outlaw couples on the run from organized society were released nearly simultaneously last year, by three different distributors/studios, and they all died—Steven’s Sugarland Express, Terry Maclick’s Badlands and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us. Any one of them might have had an individual success, but I think they split the ticket and divided the market, and everyone suffered.”
Then again, perhaps it was simply the case that the culture had moved on from the kind of dark, gritty realism of Easy Rider-like stories that had been so popular in the late 60’s-early 70’s. With the Vietnam war coming to an end, audiences seemed ready for more lighthearted, escapist fare again. After all, the most commercially successful movies at this time were big-budget spectacles like Earthuake, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure (movies that wouldn't necessarily be called "light" but would certainly be called "escapist") and in a few years Lucas would capture everyone’s imagination with his unapologetically entertaining space fantasy Star Wars. It seemed that the “future” of cinema now lay in its past, in a return to the kind of good old-fashioned “popcorn flick” fun that going to the movies used to provide. Well, Spielberg’s next film would supply just that very thing... and so much more.
TOMORROW: Spielberg makes a big splash