The Sugarland Express (1974)

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Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Sugarland Express is a bit of a wild ride, pun intended.  It follows young couple Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) and Clovis Poplin (William Atherton) as they kidnap a police officer when their plan to see their estranged child goes off the rails.

Maybe estranged isn’t the right word, but Lou Jean and Clovis both have criminal records that forced them to give up the child who now lives in a supportive household with much older and presumably wealthier parents.

The story begins with a visitation day at a correctional facility in which Clovis currently resides.  He only has 4 months left on a year and a half long sentence, but Lou Jean wants him to escape with her right then and there.  She smuggles in extra clothing to give to him, and after a quick change they are able to walk right out with the other family visitors.  Lou Jean is full of adrenaline and wavers back and forth between despair over having her child taken away and ecstasy at the thought of getting away with a prison escape.

They hitch a ride with the parents of a fellow inmate, but the elderly man is a terribly inattentive driver, and this gets him pulled over by a police officer named Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks).  Though he only issues a warning, Lou Jean is spooked enough to leap into the front seat and speed away in the sea blue car.  Clovis, who never wanted to escape in the first place, is losing his mind.

A short car chase ends with Lou Jean crashing the car, seemingly signaling the end of their joy ride.  She feigns an injury, and when Officer Slide carries her from the car, she grabs his gun and tosses it to Clovis.  They force the officer to drive the car at gunpoint.

What follows is a long, comically drawn out car chase that gains more narrative momentum even as the chase slows way down, as if to stretch the plausibility and drama possible from a low speed car chase.  It has all the hallmarks of any great car chase: stopping in the middle of the road when the car runs out of gas, being pushed by another cop car into a gas station, stopping to go to the bathroom, a parade, etc.

The movie sets up this dynamic where the guy with the gun, Clovis, is so far in over his head that his desperation becomes a little hilarious.  He and Lou Jean never seem like a real threat, so the officer doesn’t seem to be in danger.  Lou Jean and Clovis begin to heal wounds in their relationship, and they bond with the officer.  Their story gets national news coverage, and people start to cheer them on like a nonviolent Bonnie and Clyde.

There is a shootout midway through the film in which a few vigilantes take it upon themselves to do something to put an end to this farce.  They don’t have much of a plan beyond trying to kill the couple, even if it means harming the police officer.  In this sequence, Lou Jean and Clovis are presented as sympathetic figures, faced with this onslaught of bullets.  Then Police Captain Harlan Tanner (Ben Johnson), scolds the vigilantes, damages their car and orders them to be arrested.  It’s a fist-pumping moment for the audience.

So the movie enforces this idea that the main characters aren’t bad even if they are doing a bad thing.  The public at large starts to support them because they can relate, on some level, to Lou Jean wanting to get her child back.

In that scene with the shootout, the vigilantes are well-meaning citizens, probably.  They drive in a station wagon with a bumper sticker that reads “register communists, not guns.”  They operate within the law, but they clearly want to push it a little.  So when they hear about these convicts, they take it as an opportunity to do a little wish-fulfillment and go hunting.  It’s a bit funny now that I think about it.  It’s an early morning, they warm up the station wagon, bring the young son along, get the coffee, get the neighbors.  It looks like they’re going out for a Sunday morning hunt, but they just start unloading on our heroes and the police officer.

There’s a similar scene earlier on when Lou Jean, Clovis and the police officer run out of gas.  Because of the gun pointed at the officer, they force another cop car to gently push them to the nearest station.  They fill up, with the police officer in the front seat, and he then speeds away without paying.  He just tells the guy “talk to the captain.”  Then, as if taking his cue, every other cop car pulls in and begins to fill up on gas without paying, repeating Slide’s words to “talk to the Captain.”

These are special circumstances, so they take that opportunity to get away with little things like not paying for gas.

So there’s a little wish fulfillment going on as a whole.  I mean, the most obvious example is Lou Jean and Clovis, mainly Lou Jean.  The whole affair should not be fun, and yet it is.  They enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame and the gifts people give them.  It looks like they’re having the time of their life.

But then they reach Sugarland, and of course the child has been taken from his house.  A police officer shoots Clovis, and he hurries back into the car only to end up a little ways away, dead.  Officer Slide is unscathed but a bit shaken, and Lou Jean sobs in the back seat, her plan foiled.

It’s surprisingly but maybe appropriately disastrous and horrifying.  But then we get a text scroll that tells us Lou Jean only served fifteen months of a five year sentence and upon her release was given custody of her baby, Langston.  I find that all a little unlikely, but maybe it was a studio note given to Spielberg so that the movie wasn’t so somber.

Steven Spielberg’s career is full of amazing spectacles, creatures, aliens and events.  One of the common elements of all these stories is both wish fulfillment (for some) and torment for others.  I’ll touch on this more in Jaws and probably his later films, but I’ll try to limit it to this film along with Duel and Something Evil.

First, in The Sugarland Express, Lou Jean and Clovis get the wish fulfillment.  This is fun and crazy, and in many ways they can’t believe their luck.  But to Officer Slade it’s pure torment, at least at first.  The whole situation is out of his control, just like the man being run off the road by the tanker in Duel and Marjorie’s torture at the hands of the devil in Something Evil.

But a character in Sugarland easy to overlook is the baby, Langston.  Early in the film there is a shot of Langston playing innocently in the yard.

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In the background a police officer informs the adopting parents that the Poplins are heading their way to get the baby back.  Langston’s mother then comes out to pick him up, ruining his playtime and making him cry.

It’s a little hard to watch this baby being yanked away from his little slice of heaven and then immediately start howling.  That’s probably because this is a baby, and babies that young can’t act, so he’s really crying, obviously.

But there seems to be a trend of innocence and getting caught up in something out of your control in Spielberg’s films.  This is especially true in Jaws, but, again, I’ll get to that next time.

Officer Slide is like the baby in that he has no control, and he’s suffering for the storm that has swallowed him.  In Duel, the protagonist suffers at the wheel of the demonic tanker truck, and in Something Evil Marjorie and her children are similarly tormented.  These are all things that ordinary people just sort of stumbled into, so it could happen to any of us, I suppose.

We are the children when faced with these monsters or these monstrous incidents.  That sounds not so great when I write it out, but there’s something there about these events invading our innocence or our bubble of safe living.

Now, back to wish fulfillment.  In Duel, the protagonist is harassed, sure, but he’s also this guy happy (initially) to leave LA and hit the open road.  The film begins with first person shots from the car’s perspective of the congested LA roads.  The story only begins when that traffic has been left behind, and his red sports car has hit the empty highway.  So just like he is waiting to ditch the traffic, so are we, because we want the damn story to start.

You have this guy in his sunglasses, windows down, cruising down the highway like an ad for anti-anxiety medication or viagra.  He wants to be on the open road, driving fast, even if it’s only because he’s trying to get from point A to point B.  His car is made to go fast, but of course you introduce the punishing tanker truck, and things go to hell.

In Something Evil, Marjorie (and Paul to a lesser extent) is faced with the literal devil.  It’s horrible, but the devil can be held at bay by round medallions that Marjorie has already been making.  Like the driver in the red sports car made to go fast, Marjorie is prepared for something like this even if no one could have seen it.  There’s a small part of her that’s ready to fight this.  It’d be like if I was faced with a demon that I could only keep away by writing 1,500 to 2,000 words on an online blog every day.  I might say “damn this sucks, but at least I’m somewhat conditioned to do that.”  That’s what Marjorie is like.

Now compared to Sugarland, those ideas of wish fulfillment are a pretty big reach.  It’s not so much “wish” as much as something they’re equipped for.  But I think it still stands, kind of.  I’m less and less convinced as I write it out, but it was a thought I had, so it has now been documented.

Maybe this is all a way of Spielberg saying something like “we’re all normal people with ordinary lives, but once in a while something happens that pushes us to our limit, but we also kind of seek that thing out because it shakes us from our normal every day lives.”  Though we may suffer through it, part of us is happy it happened so long as we survive.


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