'The Sugarland Express': THR's 1974 Review
On March 31, 1974, Universal premiered Steven Spielberg's feature directorial debut The Sugarland Express in New York. The drama arrived a year before the filmmaker broke out with his first blockbuster, Jaws, the next summer. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.
In his first feature film outing, director Steven Spielberg has captured in fine, accurate detail America's love-hate fascination with the outlaw, but an uneven performance from star Goldie Hawn often dangerously weakens the film's total impact.
When her child is put in a foster home, Lou Jean Poplin (Hawn) forces husband Clovis (William Atherton) to escape from a pre-release prison farm to rescue the child. Commandeering a police car and kidnapping a highway patrolman (Michael Sacks), they begin a cross-country, low-speed chase for the child, followed by an ever-growing string of police cars, onlookers, gun nuts and other members of the "silent majority" who revel in the diversion.
Leading the pack of policemen is Ben Johnson, who turns in a sensitive, understated performance. As Capt. Tanner, Johnson's desire is to avoid bloodshed and afford the young couple respect. A silent moment of contact between Johnson and Hawn through their respective car windows is a minor gem of subtlety in a film filled with those subtle kind of moments.
Spielberg's eye for detail is stated visually rather than through dialogue and the film offers many accurate vignettes of America's obsession with "heroes" and heroism.
As the kidnapped trooper Slide, Sacks provides one of those moments when he registers disappointment at not being mentioned by name in a news broadcast of the caper, later autographing a picture of himself carried in a newspaper account of the chase for the fleeing couple.
And while it appears to be a bit broad at times, Spielberg's attempt to show the carnival atmosphere which soon engulfs the procession by having Boy Scouts directing traffic following the couple's car, again with little dialogue, is a precious scene.
The fledgling filmmaker, however, often fails to keep a tight enough rein on Hawn. Too often, she breaks into her Laugh-In giggle and bubble-headed blonde routine, destroying the image of a distraught, driven mother whose desire to have her baby returned makes her oblivious to the consequences of her actions. When she remains in character, however, her portrayal is solid and convincing.
As her husband, Atherton is just right, offering up a controlled portrait of a confused, fearful man who follows a path he does not understand and cannot change to his own ultimate destruction. His open-faced expression and youthful uncertainty is a solid plus for the film.
Vilmos Zsigmond's photography helps capture the roadside chicken-stand sterility of the Texas landscape which creates the need for diversion. It, like the film in its entirety, delivers the message without need for excess words or artiness, and that is arty.
Based on an actual incident in 1969, the film was written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins based on a story by Spielberg, Barwood and Robbins. Their work is well-done, as is the editing by Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields. — Cynthia Kirk, originally published on March 15, 1974