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  Sugarland Express, The Baby Come Back
Year: 1974
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks, William Atherton, Gregory Walcott, Steve Kanaly, Louise Latham, Harrison Zanuck, A.L. Camp, Jessie Lee Fulton, Dean Smith, Ted Grossman, Bill Thurman
Genre: Comedy, Drama, ActionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) arrives at a correctional institution to visit her incarcerated husband Clovis (William Atherton), but she has something else planned. When Clovis sees her, he rushes up and hugs her warmly, but is confused when she won't respond and insists that he accompany her to the bathroom. There, in one of the cubicles of the men's room, she's a lot more passionate, but has a story to impart: their infant son has been taken into care and they will never see him again. Taking off some of the clothes she's wearing, Lou Jean reveals her intention to spring Clovis from jail disguised in those clothes and together they will reclaim their son...

Around this time of the seventies, there were plenty of American films that centred around the lure of the open highway, and director Steven Spielberg's first feature for the big screen, as opposed to his previous television movies, was one of them. Of course, Spielberg had made his name with another road movie, Duel, but while this film held similar tension it had a higher emotional charge with its strong bonds of family and the cold-hearted forces that try to keep this particular one apart, even if they're trying to reunite in a hopeless manner. Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, from a story by them and Spielberg, it was, according to the title card, a true story that happened in Texas during 1969, and the result is a film that mixes action with laughter and tears.

Or that was the intention, anyway, and for the most part it pays off, not least because the stunt work is so good and the terminally impulsive plans of Lou Jean are so obviously doomed to failure. In tone, it's sort of a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and Convoy as Lou Jean and Clovis's scheme attracts plenty of attention, both welcome and otherwise. It starts out smalltime at first, with the couple brazenly walking out of the gates and hitching a lift with an elderly couple who have been visiting their son. This seems like a good idea until the husband turns out to be the world's slowest driver and he attracts the ire of a patrol car.

Inside that patrol car is Officer Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), a young man of Clovis and Lou Jean's generation who has chosen the straight and narrow path. Not that the couple put much thought into their crimes, they're merely a way of getting from A to B, or from here to Sugarland where their son is living with an older married couple. It so happens that when Slide approaches, Lou Jean seizes control of the car they have been left alone in, and a chase ensues - the first of many. When that ends with Lou Jean crashing into a tree, they commandeer Slide's car, and an uneasy relationship develops. Hawn proves herself admirably in a dramatic role, by turns hysterical and vulnerable; in fact not one actor hits a wrong note, even as the story is drawn out for a little too long as if reluctant to end it the way we are sadly expecting.

Although Lou Jean and Clovis, now in possession of Slide's gun and rifle, have no intention of killing their hostage, he does come in useful as a bargaining tool with Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) who heads the operation to stop them. Taking in digs at the cops and would-be bounty hunters who want nothing more than to get the fugitives in their sights, and the media who gleefully lap it up, the film makes Tanner a far more sympathetic character who knows the couple are naive and misguided, as the film makers do. He wants to see the situation resolved peacefully, but is well aware that there's only so much the law will stand. One of the more complex chase films of the time, Spielberg's detail is excellent (a fight breaking out in the background, the snipers with bullets in their ears, the gifts of the sightseers), but it's the depth of feeling for its hapless, danger-to-themselves protagonists that impresses, more Wile E. Coyotes than Roadrunners as Clovis realises in a moment of clarity. Music by John Williams.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Steven Spielberg  (1946 - )

Currently the most famous film director in the world, Spielberg got his start in TV, and directing Duel got him noticed. After The Sugarland Express, he memorably adapted Peter Benchley's novel Jaws and the blockbusters kept coming: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Indiana Jones sequels, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, 2005's mega-budget remake of War of the Worlds, his Tintin adaptation, World War One drama War Horse and pop culture blizzard Ready Player One.

His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.

 
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