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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
Remind Me
,The Sugarland Express

Ben's Top Pick for September

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1977) - September 12

Watching The Sugarland Express, Steven Spielberg's feature film debut, it's impossible not to see its roots--and its tentacles. It is a salute to Billy Wilder's prescient examination of a profit driven press corps in Ace in the Hole, as well as an eerie window 20 years into the future, as Al Cowlings and OJ Simpson shut down Los Angeles during their slow speed chase.

The Sugarland Express is based on a true story. In 1969, a foolish young couple inexplicably ran from the police for no reason-- they were being pulled over for failing to reduce their high beams. They escaped on foot, only to later feign being assaulted and call the cops themselves, deceiving a state trooper into helping them before kidnapping him in his cruiser, triggering their own slow speed chase across southern Texas.

Spielberg changed the story significantly, making it more human, giving the couple motivation that would resonate with nearly every American. Then he added his Ace in the Hole component, turning the couple into Bonnie and Clyde-like celebrities and whipping the news media into a frenzy. In another moment of OJ-like fortune telling, regular Texans line the streets to cheer the couple on whenever they leave the highway.

The couple is played by William Atherton and Goldie Hawn, seeking to broaden her type beyond the ditzy characters she played on Laugh In. Maybe audiences weren't ready for a serious, darker Hawn in 1974, but watching it today, she's fantastic--consumed with innocence, passion and blinding naivety.

Initially, producer Richard Zanuck experienced some apprehension about giving Spielberg the reins on his first movie, but those concerns vanished as soon as Zanuck arrived on location in Texas. What he saw was a director decades beyond his experience. "He was in command. I could sense it, because I had been around long enough with a lot of great directors--the Robert Wises, the William Wylers, the John Hustons."

Spielberg was having that effect on people. The Sugarland Express marked the first collaboration between Spielberg and composer John Williams, the beginning of one of the great partnerships in movie history. As he received his AFI Life Achievement Award, Williams recounted his first meeting with Spielberg, recalling a young director trying to impress the more seasoned composer over lunch. "It was clear he'd never held a wine list before," said Williams. But when the conversation turned to films, it occurred to Williams that Spielberg, just 26, "knew more about movie music than I did."

Writing in The New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael called The Sugarland Express "one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of the movies," and suggested Spielberg was a "new generation's Howard Hawks." Hmmm--Wise, Wyler, Huston, Hawks. You know, this Spielberg fella might turn out to be someone to keep an eye on.

by Ben Mankiewicz