During the early 1970s the Hollywood studios, for the only time in their existence, were interested in art-cinema. After the success of Easy Rider (1969), at a time when audiences were in decline, directors got to ‘call the shots’. The Godfather‘s (1971) success gave hope that the mass audience would appreciate the auteur-driven films but most, by directors such as Robert Altman, Alan J Pakula, Bob Rafelson and Martiin Scorsese, were not successful enough to stop producers taking control again after the summer blockbuster success of Jaws (1975). Ironically Steven Spielberg contributed The Sugarland Express to art-cinema Hollywood (it was produced through Universal) the year before Jaws ‘ate the movies’.
Spielberg had learned his craft directing three TV movies, including the celebrated Duel (1971), before making Sugarland, his first feature. Duel was broadcast on ABC where Barry Diller and Michael Eisner had developed the TV movie as a way of creating cheap programming. They realised that small screen movies had to be easy to market as they wouldn’t be pre-sold by cinema exhibition and so developed the High Concept. This allows films to be summarised in a sentence and so are easily understood by audiences; Duel, for instance: ‘A duel is about to begin between a man, a truck, and an open road. Where a simple battle of wits is now a matter of life and death.’
Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who like fellow Hungarian Laszlo Kovacs had a great influence on the look of New Hollywood films, The Sugarland Express is based on a true story: Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) breaks her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), out of an open prison to get their son back. It’s a road movie that descends into farce as they kidnap a policeman and are then tailed by a phalanx of police cars as they make their way to Sugarland and their son. The film features three American obsessions: cars, families and guns and if Spielberg over-emphasises the car smashes he does leave room for character development and the eccentricities of American life. Like many cinematic outlaws before them, such as those in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the ‘people’ are on their side and shower them with gifts. Hawn (who frighteningly looks the same as she does now) is an entirely dumb blonde but you could argue that Clovis’ (Atherton) inability to oppose her situates him in the same intellectual bracket. An interesting review in Jump Cut points out the film’s misogyny as well as Spielberg’s inability (like much of American cinema) to deal with social class.
Ben Johnson’s casting as the sympathetic police captain gives us a clue to the film’s despair at contemporary America (still embroiled in the Vietnam war at the time). His associations (usually as a good guy) with Westerns, and the fact he sports a ten-gallon hat, harks back to the ‘old days’ when you could tell what was right from wrong. The America of this film, like the one now unfortunately, is full of trigger-happy men and you know, like most of New Hollywood films, it is going to end badly. Which, of course, is why audiences didn’t flock to the films as they are more interested in the ‘cinema of reassurance’, where narratives end ‘happily ever after’.