Steven Spielberg Director's Collection - The Sugarland Express - Blu-ray Review

'With its baby-snatching premise, quirky felonious couple and increasingly ludicrous scenarios, The Sugarland Express was surely an influence on the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona some thirteen years later'.

Widely considered as Steven Spielberg's bona fide inaugural feature (although it would eventually receive a cinema release, 1971's Duel was in fact originally made for television), in hindsight The Sugarland Express sits in a wholly unenviable position within the director's canon. Duel is the better remembered film despite its ignobler roots, still at times edging the position of Spielberg's true debut. And only a year after The Sugarland Express' release, Spielberg would direct Jaws, arguably the most important film he's ever made.

Taking that into account, it's perhaps understandable if not excusable that The Sugarland Express often gets overlooked. It's also a shame, as there's a great deal within the film to like. The central trio of William Atherton, Goldie Hawn and Michael Sacks, as husband and wife ex-cons and their kidnapped Texas patrolman respectively, form a solid core around which the plot can pleasingly unfold. Spielberg's direction, whilst not as striking as that seen in Duel, is consistently impressive especially when taking into account his relative inexperience at this stage of his career.

Spielberg's ambition in terms of tone is also impressive. The story veers from dramatic crime thriller to screwball comedy - with its baby-snatching premise, quirky felonious couple and increasingly ludicrous scenarios, The Sugarland Express was surely an influence on the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona some thirteen years later. It's a tonal blend which in less skilled hands could quite easily have fallen apart; although there are a few moments here and there where the shift in mood is a bit too severe to be comfortable, for the vast majority of his film Spielberg is in confident control.

There is intermittent evidence, however, as to why The Sugarland Express is less well remembered than many of the director's other films. After the palpably tense and often uncompromising Duel, Spielberg's approach to his own story (co-written with screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins) often feels a little too safe. Lou Jean (Hawn) and Clovis (Atherton) are set up as antiheroes, but we never truly believe them to be bad people, just desperate and stupid in roughly equal measure. On the opposing side are the Texas police department, who again come across as inept but never genuinely heartless. Even Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) is a bit too likeable for a senior Texas lawman. Spielberg sets up several opportunities to comment on or satirize law enforcement, the media and even the general public, but never musters the courage to really go for it, leaving The Sugarland Express enjoyable but lacking in genuine bite.

At around ten minutes short of the two hour mark, Spielberg's film feels like it could have been tighter. The story loses momentum for a stretch just past the sixty minute mark, and two relatively brief plot diversions - first onto a pair of Louisiana troopers, then onto a group of vigilante gun nuts - in particular feel like they could easily have been excised to make the whole thing feel more focused. As it stands, The Sugarland Express offers enough memorable moments of humour and drama to make it both a worthwhile and enjoyable watch, with the brilliantly tense finale a satisfying highlight on which to conclude. Overall, this may end up as one of Spielberg's more ordinary efforts, but the director's youthful spark is still apparent more often than not.

The Steven Spielberg Director's Collection is available from Monday 13th October 2014.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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