In the beginning, before there were Goonies or Gremlins, before T-Rexes and Thalberg Awards, before Kate and Amy and little Max, before there was an Amblin Entertainment much less a DreamWorks SKG, before Schindler and Tom Hanks sobbing--in the very beginning, long before these things, there was Sugarland.
And it was good.
The story is moth-eaten by now: Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg, the big boys in the "Black Tower" of Universal Pictures, took a shine to a 23-year-old schlep from Arizona with one avant-garde short (fatefully called "Amblin'") and a lot of moxie to his credit. Yes, the schlep conned his way into a closet-size office on the Universal lot. Yes, he talked his way into directing the pilot for Rod Serling's Night Gallery, impressing a wary Joan Crawford. ("No, ma'am," Spielberg is reported to have told Mommie Dearest over tea, "I don't have any relatives who work for Universal.") Yes, he made what remains the gold-standard kick-ass movie-of-the-week: 1973's Duel, starring Dennis Weaver versus a truck.
But the 23-year-old schlep wanted more. Better. Something else. His buddies were goading him to make art pictures. His snarky pal Brian DePalma just got kicked off a bizarre Orson Welles/Tom Smothers comedy, Get to Know Your Rabbit, at Warner Brothers. And little Marty Scorsese was about to make his Little Italy version of Fellini's I Vitelloni, called Season of the Witch (later called Mean Streets) for about ten cents. Meanwhile, the schlep was reading nothing but one drecky genre script after the next--not an 8 1/2 or a Seventh Seal in sight.
But let us recollect: The schlep's name was Steven Spielberg. And the crap he turned into gold was a misbegotten little script called The Sugarland Express. Shown this week in a newly minted print at the Oak Street Cinema, Sugarland Express is sure to astonish those who haven't seen it. Frankly, even if you saw it awhile ago, a crisp new print will knock you flat on your ass. The astonishment in Sugarland is not merely in the picture itself--which to my eyes remains Spielberg's best movie by a landslide (with the possible exception of Schindler's List). It's in the feeling of the Spielberg that might have been. Had the maestro not felt frustrated by the commercial failure of Sugarland (which opened and closed simultaneously) and gone on to that shark picture, a whole different American genius might have emerged. In brief, the Spielberg seen in Sugarland--and only fleetingly thereafter--suggests an artist with the warmth and intimate human know-how of Jonathan Demme, and with the sheer craft of Martin Scorsese. In other words, Paul Thomas Anderson before his Magnolia megalomania.
The plot is hardly grandiose: Goldie Hawn (never sexier, wilder, freer, better) busts her tough-luck baby (William Atherton--loose, confused, fiery, scary-hot) out of jail and takes him on a cross-country chase. The destination of their journey: to reclaim their child, an infant unjustly robbed from these "unfit" parents by the (sympathetic, just-playing-by-the-rules, wish-it-needn't-be) long arm of the law. Playing for the men in blue is a reluctant Ranger in the form of Ben Johnson. Here, this actor is masterly at conveying the regret, the slowness to violent action, of a man bound and determined to follow the book to the letter. Johnson isn't given a single line that voices this sentiment; the way his eyes turn away after giving orders says all that needs to be said.
As the outlaws traverse the highways, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond--perhaps the greatest and most lyrical of contemporary American shooters--hits rhapsodic peaks equaled only by his opium-soft work on McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The dominant image of Sugarland is of cop cars at nighttime in a pursuit so wayward it somehow lends the vehicles almost human personality: Truculent, cagey, anxious, this circus of squad cars becomes as animated as the vehicles' pokerfaced inhabitants. And the twilit Americana that the outlaws and flatfoots speed by--the Dairy Queens and go-cart estates flanked by tall grass--has never looked more achingly beautiful.
In every facet of film direction--from concocting a soft, bollixed-up, tangle of shtick to composing Goldie Hawn's bare feet plunked against a car window, Spielberg proved himself a master of the medium. The peculiar adrenaline kick of Sugarland is that in this movie, as in almost none other, Spielberg is working on all cylinders in every scene: the tragic, the comic, the formally rigorous, and the suddenly found-at-four o'clock. The pluperfect lens choice and the right-on setup to a gag are present at every moment. Like his pal Scorsese, Spielberg seems to experience filmmaking as a kind of stimulant--and it's that brain-ablaze sensation he communicates so abundantly here.
But let's have just a moment of silence for what lies beneath this incredible look-at-me picture. Sugarland is a harrowing film--sweet, wrenching, and, in its denouement, finally shocking. But in his brilliant use of countrified nonactors as extras and bit players, Spielberg added a boyish softness that marks the movie as different from such early-Seventies slices of downbeat as John Huston's Fat City or the alienation fests of Bob Rafelson. This film's peculiar flavor--funny, wry, pokerfaced, and without a mean bone in its body--was unique to Spielberg. One sees glimmers and whispers of that Spielberg in the small-town humor of Jaws, in the deadpan eccentricities of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even in the cheerfully bumptious comedy of the underrated 1941.
Then, what Pauline Kael called "the fun machine" took over, and Spielberg became a mogul: the millennial Walt Disney. Nothing could be further from Sugarland than the crinkly-eyed Tom Hanks piously elegizing Our Boys in the cratered landscape of Saving Private Ryan. Sugarland is like the classically American but informal bop of Robbie Robertson and the Band. Late Spielberg, by contrast, suggests the bugling of awards shows, political conventions, and celebrity funerals.
Grieve not the Spielberg that might have been (Steve the Player made some masterpieces anyway). See Sugarland and bask: There was a time when audiences were trusted to be entertained by the face Goldie Hawn made behind a surly guy's back, or the catch of moral hesitation on Ben Johnson's face as he turns away from his police radio. Sugarland is a time warp back to paradise: O golden age, that had such character actors in it!
The Sugarland Express plays Friday, August 12 through Wednesday, August 23 at the Oak Street Cinema; (612) 331-3134.