The Sugarland Express (1974)

Steven Spielberg directs Goldie Hawn, William Atherton and Ben Johnson in this police chase drama where a young mother breaks her beau out of jail to rescue their son from the Texas foster system.

Goldie Hawn is superb in this – oscillating from flighty mania to determined focus. It is a sharp, natural and attractive lead turn that slowly gets overpowered by car chases and shoot-outs. Spielberg finds himself a little lost in the set-pieces here… happier to remake an Americana, down home, fried chicken It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and leave his key pair (Hawn and an intense, young Atherton) in the back seat once they are put in motion. When he does touch base back with them and their naive Highway Patrol hostage, his character work is nimble and nice… But you can tell his heart is out there in the wide shots and action sequences. He doesn’t quite trust the humans in his toy box just yet. Like Duel and Jaws, this is a film of constant movement… like a shark or a truck. This one changes lanes quite often… sometimes cruising towards a sweet silliness, other times hurtling towards impending tragedy. By the midway point we stay in that adverse direction too rigidly… someone has definitely seen Bonnie & Clyde and taken copious notes. The unavoidable downer on the horizon sucks the small pleasures out of the ride. Marvellously shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (magic light, permanent sunset) this is a fine little film but, again like Duel, judged among the Spielbergian oeuvre it is mere scratch work before the masterpieces to come.

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