Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Sugarland Express

This week's TCM Essential, at 8:00 PM tonight, is also Steven Spielberg's first feature film: The Sugarland Express.

Goldie Hawn plays Lou Jean, a young woman whom we first see at the start of the movie getting off a bus at an intersection in the middle of nowhere in Texas. That middle of nowhere happens to be the entrance to a minimum-security prison, where her husband Clovis (William Atherton) is currently incarcerated. It's a big visiting day, with most of the inmates having people visit them, so Lou Jean's presence here is nothing remarkable. Or, at least, to outsiders it would be nothing worth mentioning. But this is a movie so we know that there's a good reason for Lou Jean to be visiting her husband beyong the hopes of getting a conjugal visit.

It turns out that Lou Jean had been in jail herself, getting arrested on an accomplice charge when Clovis had committed some larceny or another. It's a tragedy that a husband and wife both end up in prison, but the bigger tragedy is that they had had a child together before winding up in prison. That child was put into foster care while the two were in prison. Now that Lou Jean is out she'd like her child back, but the social services department has decided they'd rather give full custody of the kid to the foster family. A mother scorned is a dangerous thing, and Lou Jean is no different. She's determined to get her child back by any means necessary, even if those means are highly illegal.

As illegal as springing her husband from prison, in fact. Somehow her crazy plan to have Clovis change clothes and just walk out of prison -- don't they have a log book of who goes in and who goes out? -- works, at least to the extend that they wind up in the parking lot on the other side of the prison fence, where they hitch what Lou Jean probably plans to be the first of a couple of rides to the town of Sugar Land, where they'll be able to get their child. Except that of course it's not going to be quite so simple. The salt of the earth couple with whom they've hitched their first ride from the prison parking lot have a burned out taillight, which rookie highway patrol officer Slide (Michael Sacks) notices, so he pulls the car over. Clovis, fearing he's going to be caught, takes off with the car while Slide has the older couple outside! So Slide takes off after them, and after a chase and a botched apprehension, Clovis winds up getting a hold of Slide's gun and taking him hostage in his police car, planning to drive to Sugar Land. It doesn't quite work out like that, resulting in the comical and bizarre spectical of a whole line of police cars from multiple jurisdictions chasing aftre them in a long line in what seems more like a procession, or maybe the following of OJ Simpson's white Ford Bronco back in 1994.

Goldie Hawn, certainly when she was younger, always looked like she was stereotypically ditzy, and winning an Oscar for a movie like Cactus Flower probably didn't help any. But she does an admirable job here playing a woman who is in many ways nothing more than understandably desperate to see her child. Her plan may be hare-brained, but that's to be expected, and even fits well with the ditz stereotype. Sure Lou Jean and her husband are committing all sorts of crimes, but the viewer can't help but have sympathy for them. Michael Sacks is also pretty good as Slide, the young patrolman who probably still has all those platitudes he learned at the academy ringing in his ears, and is now confronted with a situation that he never would have been trained to handle, with the result that he develops a case of Stockholm Syndrome before the term had been coined. (In fact, the original hostage case in Stockholm in 1973 thet coined the phrase was handled problematically.)

The story is supposedly based on a true story, although I have to think a lot of liberties were taken by the screenplay, as it seems thorougly unreal. It gets the geography of Texas particularly wrong, positing that going from the prison outside of Texas to Sugar Land would be a long cross-state drive, while the drive from Sugar Land to the border with Mexico would be maybe a half hour or so; in fact it's almost the reverse in that Sugar Land is about an hour from Houston and the border would be five or six hours away. It's quirky and successfully mixes both comedy and drama, as in a scene where they hole up for the night in a motor home dealership and watch cartoons at the drive-in across the way. There's also that poor couple Lou Jean and Clovis first hitch a ride with. Steven Spielberg uses the camera effectively, which is especially noticeable when he films inside the cars.

When The Sugarland Express last aired as part of the Essentials, co-host Drew Barrymore, who had of course worked with Spielberg on E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, had an interesting story to tell about Spielberg, so stay tuned for that.

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