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Thursday, September 29, 2016

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1956)

Steven Spielberg’s feature debut didn’t find much of a general audience on release (it still hasn’t).*  But just about everyone in the biz soon knew all about it; and that a new, assured voice had arrived. Sheer technical control gives off an almost fizzy delight in the constant multi-plane staging, a necessity in a story that’s basically one long car chase . . . with about fifty cars. Even better, he seemed able to get warmly funny perfs out of just about anyone: newbie stars like Goldie Hawn; old-hands like Ben Johnson; even toddlers. (Check out the wail when the little tyke gets hauled in front of reporters.) Dramatic balance in a story that moves from goofball to suspense to tragic is another issue, but it gets by, much helped by Vilmos Zsigmond’s handsome Americana lensing. (Watch for a spectacular sunset as two Louisiana cops drive down a highway; and a neat precursor to Spielberg’s signature zoom-in/pull back trick shot made famous in JAWS, seen here in a try-out shot from behind a sniper.) All in service of a sweetly appalling, fact-inspired story about a slightly dense young mom who cons her husband out of a Pre-Release Jail Facility after state authorities take away her little boy. The poor guy (exceptionally well played by William Atherton) would have been out in four months, but possible consequences don’t register to Hawn’s squirrel-brained character. Spielberg pushes the BONNIE AND CLYDE meets SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT aspects harder than he has to, the real couple were more White Trash than Folk Hero, but the kinetic rush of the action scenes is so precisely staged (and readable) that the cars, traffic & crashes take on a near human personality. The next film for Spielberg and producers David Brown & Richard D. Zanuck, the one with a fish called Bruce, had a lot less trouble finding an audience.

DOUBLE-BILL: Clint Eastwood’s A PERFECT WORLD/’93, with a surprising Kevin Costner, tells a similar story with a more consistent, downbeat tone. OR: See what Jonathan Demme gleaned from this for MELVIN AND HOWARD/’80.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: And yes, right from the start, Spielberg has John Williams on music.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Truly, one of the all-time worst ad campaigns. Just look at that poster.

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