1970s, Action-Adventure, Famous Firsts

The Sugarland Express (1974)


Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

The 26-year-old wunderkind who had wowed with Duel (1971), a TV movie that received limited theatrical release in Europe, received his first shot at feature directing under the aegis of Richard F. Zanuck and David Brown. The Sugarland Express underperformed badly at the box office (the bad news came in on the first day of shooting Jaws, 1975), and Sugarland is still treated as a footnote in the director’s expansive oeuvre. But The Sugarland Express, loosely based on a real incident from 1969 and written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins from a story they wrote with Spielberg, demands more than a casual glance. From any other director it would be a notable film, which might explain why Zanuck and Brown let him helm their next tricky production, Jaws, the film that gave birth to Spielberg the phenomenon.

Whilst Jaws represents the new model Hollywood, Sugarland is a film from an era that was ending—an era of open-road movies with a cynical, anti-establishment bent, rooted in folksy Americana, as disparate and yet of a common generation as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), Bad Company (1972), Badlands (1973), and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974). What tendencies does The Sugarland Express reveal that marks it, and the director’s later career, as so divergent, from, say, Terence Malick’s, despite the similar subject matter of their early works?

The differences are not hard to discern. Whilst it begins with a similar mood of a blasted, lonely, inhospitable land, Sugarland doesn’t develop the veneer of alienation and poeticism of Rafelson and Malick, or geared-up pulp fury. Sugarland is shot with clear, unaffected rigor, the artless artfulness of great American directors like Hawks, Ford, and Preston Sturges. The film tells a warmhearted tale that counteracts the mood of Easy Rider without actually contradicting its message. Spielberg is friendly towards his protagonists whilst admitting that it’s their own refusal to look facts in the face that leads to their downfall. Whilst the heroes of the other films are cursed by a desire, or by fate, to stand out and alone, Spielberg’s dopey heroes, Clovis (William Atherton) and Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), are asserting their right to be normal, to be a family. As is so often the case with Spielberg, a family spontaneously forms in response to adversity and includes their hapless hostage, state trooper Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), and even a stern patriarch, Police Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). Tanner’s efforts to prevent the situation from ending bloodily resemble a wise grandfather attempting to corral the high spirits of silly grandchildren.

The story kicks off with Lou Jean’s visit to Clovis, waiting out the last few months of his one-year sentence for shoplifting at a pre-release center in Texas. Lou Jean was sent down for the same offence, released earlier, and is now faced with the permanent loss of their son to the Loobys (Merrill Connally and Louise Latham), adoptive parents who live in Sugarland County, on the far side of the state. Lou Jean threatens to leave Clovis unless she agrees to bust out with her—it only requires her to change clothes and walk out the gate—and go to take back their baby. That’s the limit of her thinking. Lou Jean is entirely a creature of instinct. Her primeval desire to regain her son outweighs everything else. Clovis is her adoring, good-natured patsy. They catch a ride away from the center with the elderly, ornery parents of another inmate. A series of mishaps results in them taking Slide captive and fleeing in his patrol car, the object of a crisis that has every cop, patrolman, trooper, marshal, ranger, reservist, and dog catcher in Texas on their tail.

An aspect of Spielberg’s early work that comes into sharper focus—taking into account Sugarland, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and 1941 (1979)—is their vision of America not as a capricious, clapped-out country wearied by Vietnam and Watergate, but as a sassy, energetic, ebullient place, dogged by corruption and iniquity, but still full of raucous, everyday life. The American-life-as-carnival vision underlies the comedic moments of all those films, and it’s quite often more than a little dangerously anarchic, for example, the beach crowds and the gun-happy bumpkins of Jaws who treat a killer shark hunt as the world’s greatest kegger, or the civil defense volunteers in 1941 who shoot up downtown L.A. when they think the city is under attack.

Clovis and Lou Jean’s odyssey draws out crowds of gawkers and supporters who cheer them on with democratic aplomb. Twits who want to get in on the action make it a bigger sideshow, like the Louisiana cops who attempt to ram the hostage car and instead collect half the vehicles in the trailing fleet, thereby allowing Clovis, Lou Jean, and Slide to escape. They’re found hiding in a used car lot by a pair of retired reservists who proceed to shoot up the place, less a proper gunfight than a thigh-slapping good time for the good ole boys.

Spielberg employs an attuned eye and ear in The Sugarland Express to provide a texture that would give Jaws and Close Encounters much of their effectiveness—the rich sense of a languidly fecund, everyday world, full of ice-cream-cramming kids, cussing old folks, tinny transistor radios perpetually ringing out bubblegum pop, and people who’d drive a hundred miles for a cheap thrill. Spielberg’s early style is sleek and naturalistic. If, in the late ’80s, his style became excessively glossy and arthritic by leaving behind his essentially new wave roots, it was still a vital component of his style in the ’70s. Spielberg’s heroes, male and female, young and old, are usually in search of a grail of some variety, arming themselves with varying levels of self-delusion to protect against the cruelest facts of life. They take journeys that have no guaranteed end quite simply because they can’t afford to stay still.

The quest is vital, even if the ultimate goal often is a delirious enigma. The prototypical Spielberg everyman, Dennis Weaver’s David Mann in Duel, is driving theoretically to reach a business meeting, but he’s really in search of his lost masculine sense of propulsion that will enable him to return to the family that has no use for him. Lou Jean and Clovis certainly fit this mould. Neither thinks much further than the next move, and whilst both prove canny—Clovis especially, as he dismantles every move the cops throw at him—they’re clueless when it comes to the world at large. Adult and child behavior rarely have a neat dividing line in Spielberg’s films, especially in the infantile nature of American pop culture.

The grind of gears when clashing perspectives meet is realized in the film’s strongest scene: as Clovis and Lou Jean watch a Road Runner cartoon on a drive-in movie screen, Clovis registers the ridiculous violence that befalls Wile E. Coyote as prescient of their own approaching disaster. Another consistent Spielberg theme taking root is his version of the ghost in the machine, the process that, once begun, cannot be stopped, even by those who propagate it. Even the Indiana Jones films are, in their absurd way, illustrations of snowballing cause and effect. Be it a monstrous shark, dinosaur, Nazi tank, or alien killing machine, force always consumes itself through its own momentum. Usually this process aids his heroes, but in Sugarland (and this is probably why the film flopped), the Poplins set fate in motion themselves and leave it for others to try to stop. Tanner gives them every opportunity to escape this fate, but they continue to drive toward it, held together by their aim as much as society is held together by the laws that must stop them.

As in Catch Me If You Can (2003) and The Terminal (2004), where Spielberg returned to this sort of material, the clash between individualism and authoritarianism is essentially a friction of temperaments. It’s not, ultimately, an innocent joyride. Clovis and Lou Jean put lives in danger, and Clovis, despite knowing better, is more frightened of crushing Lou Jean’s hopes than of police bullets. They find something harsh beneath the surface of their nation. A group of FBI marksmen offer their services to Captain Tanner, which at first he spurns, but eventually accepts, placing them in the Loobys’ house. Mr. Looby hands over his own rifle, requesting that they “shoot the sonofabitch” with it. When Clovis and Lou Jean finally arrive at the house, Slide spots the trap and urgently pleads with Clovis to hand over the gun and end it now.

The last 20 minutes are a model of slow-burn tension sustained under a frosting of frivolity, until the frantic explosion of the characters—Slide’s appeals to Clovis; Lou Jean wailing first in betrayed rage at Clovis who hesitates, and then, realizing the danger at last, calling for his return. Clovis gets a bullet in the gut for his pains, but he manages to drive the car through the border checkpoint and crash in the mud of the Rio Grande before expiring. Lou Jean is left a shell-shocked wreck, and Slide and Tanner stand on the riverbank shaking their heads in sorry bewilderment.

Sugarland is a fine film, succeeding in balancing whimsy, drama, and sentiment, beguiling before reaching its forlorn ending. It certainly deserves a much larger reputation than it still has, often only vaguely recalled as a warm-up act for Spielberg’s blockbuster emergence, when it is in fact an artful sketch introducing his most obsessive themes. The final title card tells us that after her imprisonment, Lou Jean does recover her son, a sign that the desperate display that has underpinned these whimsical and tragic events has proven something. As he often would later in his films, Spielberg emphasizes a singular human ability to survive.

1960s, Auteurs, Drama

Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)

aka I Call First ; JR

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

by Roderick Heath

More than a decade ago, in the wee hours of the morning, watching television with the despairing diligence of a teenage film fanatic in a boring town. In between episodes of Night Court and infomercials, a blast of black-and-white shocked my eye. On screen, a seamy flat, a mother preparing dinner and feeding it to her kids, set to weirdly percussive rock music. The mother looked familiar, the caterwauling filmic style, too. Cut to a street scene. Macho epithets between scrawny youths, and is that a young Harvey—shit, it is a really young Keitel. “Jenny Jenny” cranking up as the youths get busy, batons hidden behind backs now slapping skulls, two guys kicking another along a pavement, brawlers colliding with wire fences in the grimiest Brooklyn backstreet.

My budding cineaste’s brain immediately recognised that somebody made this, somebody who had capital-T talent. The somebody was Martin Scorsese. The mother was familiar because it’s his mother, Catherine, not the beloved frizzy-white-haired granny who cropped up in his later work, but a thick-armed, double-chinned, suburban momma. The distance between that kitchen montage and his recent work is vast in every respect, except that, 40 years later, Marty’s feel for the cubist contours of montage is just as fundamental. The New York cinema scene of the ’60s was a warrior movement of hipster guerrillas under the aegis of Warhol and Cassavetes, the film schools, the new critical league with its Sarris, Kael, and Schickel, soaking up the French New Wave vivacity, the British Free Cinema veracity, the pan-European cine-cultural conversation, and wedding it to quintessential American energy. Spitting creative heat like an oiled hotplate, this landscape produced an ocean of experimental shorts, and some features.

Scorsese survived youthful infatuation with the idea of becoming a priest to become the pet student of NYU film lecturer Haig Manoogian (he coproduced Who’s That Knocking at My Door? with wife Betzi, who contributed to the script). Scorsese impressed with shorts like What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! The Great Society going bush and bust in Vietnam, and a private depressive fit, resulted in his breakthrough short The Big Shave (1966). Scraping together $75,000 at age 25, Scorsese set about making a short feature, variously titled in development Bring on the Dancing Girls! and I Call First. He wanted chum Keitel to star, but Harvey was comfortably ensconced in a job as a court stenographer after being hungry too long as an actor. Nonetheless, Harvey took his chance and was joined by costar Zina Bethune, a stage and TV actress and the closest thing to a star of this bunch.

Blood-brothers of Fellini’s “little goats” (I Vitelloni, 1953), JR (Keitel) and pals Joey (Lennard Kuras) and Sally Gaga (Michael Scala) are spivs who spend most of their time hanging around Joey’s hole-in-the-wall bar, The 8th Ward Pleasure Club. JR, a former bank teller, and Sally are unemployed and run on credit, borrowing so much money that Joey whines that he can’t walk through Chinatown anymore without getting ambushed by their loan sharks. This trio spend their time in arguments each night about what to do, driving the neon veldt of the city and winding up back where they started. Scorsese establishes an argot and mise en scene that will eventually be placed into a narrative form in Mean Streets, but here remains a kind of experiential immersion into a place, a mood, a way of life. Their existence teems with chance—they live in the world’s biggest city—but is actually hermetic, self-involved, which is why JR is prone to zoning out in his friends’ company, and meditating instead on The Girl (Bethune).

Scorsese keeps the JR-and-friends and JR-and-The-Girl sequences formally separate. The fact that she is only known as “The Girl”emphasizes her singularity in JR’s otherwise generic life as a young Italian-American male. JR and The Girl meet waiting for a ferry ride and flirt nervously. JR spies a picture of John Wayne in her magazine, and movies proves the first, vital commonality of their attraction (cinephilia is, of course, a major theme). After his command of the possibilities of montage, Scorsese’s most impressive early trait is his ability to encourage Cassavetes-style improvisation controlled by a clear sense of desired effect and a fine ear for truth—both difficult for young artists. Such scenes crackle with verisimilitude, even though they drag and are not contoured into an easy narrative form. Strong narrative command lies in Scorsese’s future.

JR and The Girl establish a less nervous rapport as he impresses/bemuses her with his film-geek lexicon. The sense of excitement and newness is contrasted with the stale, grumpy exchanges of the three male friends in their drives about town (“That girl is bothering you!”). Scorsese uses experimental style (Kenneth Anger, again–shiny metal is sexy) to fetishize the happy interaction of the young men with their technology. The weird exhilaration of riding a car lift. Of pulling switches and raising electrified car windows. Fetishize the human form; JR and The Girl making out (but not making it) on his bed; super-close-ups of faces, skin, kisses, shoulders, the texture of flesh marked out, the weird exhilaration of human on human. Except that JR is young, and Catholic, and afraid. “Call me cold—anything you want—old-fashioned or what!”

The young men, gathered in someone’s family flat. Play-acting. A gun, wielded with excitement. Violence acted and sublimated, like static electricity, waiting for an arc to become active (but young Martin never gives an iota of gangland aura; no, they’re just dumb young wannabes, more in love with the movies than their women). They strike their poses, enact their parts—hood and victim. Scorsese uses slow motion, celebrating this transient transcendence from men to screen gods. Later, they make a foray into upstate New York; climbing a mountain stirs a wealth of comical whining from Joey but sparks something JR’s soul.

Emerging from a revival-house showing of Rio Bravo, JR joyously explains that Feathers was a “broad”. The Girl, of course, must remain pure. Madonna/whore complex, natch, but it’s a cover. Suggestion of homoeroticism in JR and his friends would send them into paroxysms, but they are loathe to engage with the feminine. In explaining the Broad identification to The Girl, Scorsese plummets into one of JR’s sexual fantasies. This bit, shot later at a producer’s insistence, to which Scorsese adds skin to make the film marketable as a sex flick, is actually the best in the film, a scene of great technical show and vertiginous dream-speed, anticipating such orgiastic montages as the cocaine locomotion of GoodFellas. JR’s beautiful boy-manhood is celebrated in quick, carving edits, his flesh desperate for erotic realization, and he beds anonymous whores in a carnal funhouse of an attic room, whilst imagining, but not screwing.

The Girl, who stands, naked in Grecian inviolability. The Doors’ “The End” bellows oedipal climax; JR throws a handful of cards across a woman’s body—ejaculation as contempt. On one level, it’s dumb. But it’s breathless and compulsive, that it is to say, pure Scorsese (and also, pure Thelma Schoonmaker, who erupts with her own editing genius). Back to walking arm-in-arm with The Girl after the movie. What’s JR’s problem? Virginity? Arrested development? Religion? We know his friend’s opinion of women. We’ve seen Sally making out with his girl in the 8th Ward, stealing money out of her handbag. The big crash? The Girl confesses that she has had a sexual encounter—a rape by a former boyfriend, when parked in a car. Well, that’s not her fault surely? JR thinks not: good girls don’t park with men of doubtful character, do they? To JR, it reeks of violation, defilement, terror, sex as bestiality. That it’s rape he’s up against makes the distaste more intense.

Scorsese’s staging of The Girl’s confession has no sound effects, just a rock ballad dubbed over, made to skip, repeat, distort as we see The Girl’s brutal rape, wrestling on snowy ground and being pinioned on the front seat. It’s filmed in stark and chilling terms (the movie was shot in uneven, but sometimes impressive, high-contrast by Richard Cillo and Michael Wadleigh, who would direct the epochal rock doc Woodstock, with Scorsese as an assistant editor and director). JR gets drunk with Sally and Joey, transfigured in his giddy laughter by imaginings of the rape. The boys get together and obtain a pair of prostitutes, Susan and Rosie (Susan Wood and Marrisa Joffrey). Watching a bad movie on the couch whilst the first pair of boys get busy, the remaining boys raffle turns to go in. JR loses, and in sweaty, fake-comic panic, drags the girls out, vowing if he can’t go first, no one’s going. Things turn almost nasty when one of the girls lashes out, scratching Joey’s neck; he angrily throws them out. It’s an orgasm in itself, ejecting the whores from the boy’s circle.

JR, tipsy and in sexual-emotional anguish, goes to The Girl’s apartment. Reunion seems blissfully possible. “I understand now, and I forgive you,” JR drunkenly offers. The Girl goes rigid, and rejects his entreaties: “I won’t marry you on that basis.” Driving him to insults, including the inevitable “You who-ore!” he attempts apology, but things are done. JR flees, drowned in alienating white light, to church. He confesses, prays, bows and kneels before iconography. Shots and actions repeat; the ritual of religion encages JR, or, rather, he encages himself in it. Kissing the foot of Jesus, his lips bleed—or so he hopes. His religion seems fit for Hellraiser; it puts hook and chain in your flesh and condemns you for eternity of body-ache. The song “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” plays—cheesy pop, but evoking the insistent demand of conscience, responsibility, religion, sex, everything cacophonous in JR’s immature ears. The last we see of JR, he and Joey take leave of each other outside the 8th Ward.

By the end of Who’s That Knocking, we might not like JR much, but we understand him. Scorsese would later confess his intellectual stance as one of an anthropologist who begins here with own milieu. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is a moral and a sociological study, of the failures of everyday morality and socialization to educate a young man in dealing with real life. Scorsese shows that JR has gone through an experience that has shaken him to the core but refuses to indicate that JR has learned a lesson. Autobiographical, but with an artist’s clear distinction of self from self-study, Keitel’s JR may or may not, Stephen-Dedalus-like, be Scorsese. He’s an alter-ego, possibly doomed to mediocrity through a failure of growth, or who may, as his poet’s expressions in watching the sunset from the mountain hints, one day escape himself. This type of film making is far more common today; in fact, Who’s That Knocking deserves some credit for inventing a whole genre in bildungsroman American indie films. Messy, occasionally naif, and dated, it still possesses an urgency, a bravura technique, and a fumbling towards a new lucidity that makes most of what came after it look pallid.

The finale of JR in church promises the opening of Mean Streets–still in the church, still praying for guidance, still receiving silence.