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Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express: A Viewing Guide

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The Sugarland Express is a peach of a picture. Spielberg’s debut theatrical feature is a perfect blend of spectacle and character, a much tougher film than his sentimental rep suggests. From first shot to last, this is the lowdown on Spielberg’s undiscovered masterpiece...

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The Sugarland Express

00.19 The “real event” alluded to here first came to Spielberg’s attention from a headline — NEW BONNIE AND CLYDE — in the Los Angeles Citizen News on May 2 1969. Ex convict Bobby Dent, egged on by his wife Ila Faye, kidnapped highway patrolman Kenneth Crone and forced him at gunpoint to drive to Texas to pick up their two year-old daughter from foster parents.

The Sugarland Express

01.46 This is a historic moment. This is the first time we hear John Williams music in a Steven Spielberg film. The director was a fan of the composer’s score for the Steve McQueen film The Reivers and invited him to watch the picture. Spielberg originally imagined the score as a big bold orchestral score (like The Reivers) but the composer suggested the small human story needed a smaller more intimate score, using a harmonica to evoke the Texas milieu.

The Sugarland Express

02.06 The film went through two titles — American Express and Sugarland — before landing on the fairytale-esque The Sugarland Express.

The Sugarland Express

02.37 This is a real pre-release centre located near Sugar Land in Texas.

The Sugarland Express

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The Sugarland Express

10.00 This complicated tracking shot is typical of the intricate blocking and complex camera moves born fully formed in the young director.

The Sugarland Express

12.02 The hijacked patrol car is a 1973 Dodge Polara. Spielberg bought the car and drove it around Los Angeles for a while before donating it to a museum.

The Sugarland Express

12.02 This is a similar image to the shot that opens the TV version of Duel.

The Sugarland Express

25.29 Mr. Knocker (Al Camp) and Mrs Knocker (Jessie Lee Fulton) are another in a line of folksy old couples that populate Spielberg films. Also see Duel, Close Encounters.

The Sugarland Express

25.29 Officer Jessup is played by Steve Kanaly. Kanaly later found fame as Ray Krebbs in hit ‘70s soap opera Dallas.

The Sugarland Express

27.44 Captain Tanner is played by Ben Johnson. A former rodeo champion and Hollywood stuntman, Johnson was part of John Ford’s repertory company, appearing in Three Godfathers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and the lead in The Wagonmaster. He also appeared in Shane, The Wild Bunch and won an Oscar for The Last Picture Show. He is perfect to portray Tanner as a cowboy born in the wrong era.

The Sugarland Express

27.44 Spielberg and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond used the new compact Panaflex camera for the car interior scenes. This is the first 360 degree pan in a car interior in film history. As the Panaflex camera arrived late into the schedule, Spielberg waited to do the complex shots at the end.

Because the Panaflex was so quiet, sound recordist John Carter could record the sound live, the car fitted with multiple microphones in the police walkie-talkies. In the end, only ten lines were looped at a later date.

The Sugarland Express

33.48 Baby Langston is played by Harrison Zanuck, the son of producer Richard D. Zanuck.

The Sugarland Express

43.57 Slide’s patrol car was mounted onto a low slung trailer, which in turn was fitted with a small platform that allowed the camera crew to perform tracking shots along the car while it was in motion.

The Sugarland Express

46.50 William Atherton plays Clovis Poplin. Prior to that point, Atherton only had two credits to his name — The New Centurions and Class Of ’44. Subsequently he has found cult appeal playing a couple of tight-asses, stuffy bureaucrat Walter Peck in Ghostbusters and pushy reporter Richard Thornburg in Die Hard.

The Sugarland Express

53.46 After the end of the shoot, Spielberg took this revolving chicken sign with him back to his LA office for a souvenir.

The Sugarland Express

55.34 Clovis holding a torch to his face echoes a childhood prank Spielberg used to play on his sisters, shining the light on his face from underneath while spookily saying "I am the mooooooon!"

The Sugarland Express

55.40 Captain Tanner says, “If I can’t call him by his first name, I don’t what him out there.” Spielberg must have liked the line because Spielberg practically replays it in his next film Jaws, with Roy Scheider dropping the line about amateur shark hunters.

The Sugarland Express

57.13 The film on the Drive In Movie screen is Sssssss produced by Sugarland’s Richard Zanuck and David Brown. Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, it starred Strother Martin and The A Team’s Dirk Benedict and concerns a serum that can turn a man into a giant snake.

The Sugarland Express

1.06.47 Spielberg uses the doomed comedy antics of Wile E. Coyote to foreshadow the doomed tragedy of Clovis and Lou Jean. Cartoons feature regularly in Spielberg’s work both literally (Close Encounters shows Daffy Duck, 1941 features Dumbo. E.T. features Tom And Jerry) and figuratively — the UFOs in Close Encounters are nothing if not Roadrunners bombing down a dusty highway.

The Sugarland Express

1.13.19 The three members of the Reserve Guard are figures that recur in Spielberg: the amateur bozo. They also appear in Jaws serving up the weekend roast as shark bait and Always, fishing as a plane powers towards them.

The Sugarland Express

1.13.19 This is perhaps the closest to a Spielberg surrogate in the film — a savvy bespectacled kid surviving on his wits.

The Sugarland Express

1.23.55 Spielberg visually makes the point here that Clovis and Maxwell are basically the same guy (think Indy and Belloq) In fact part of Michael Sachs casting was down to his resemblance to Atherton.

The Sugarland Express

1.28.47 Merrill Connally, who later played the Team Leader in Close Encounters for Spielberg, plays the foster father of Baby Langston.

The Sugarland Express

1.37.47 When Lou Jean shouts that the piglet, given to her as a gift by a well wisher, is peeing on her, the piglet actually peed on her and Spielberg decided to keep the moment in.

The Sugarland Express

1.39.52 In the real life procession, around 100 cars took place in the cross-country chase. Unit production manager Bill Gilmore bought 23 cars at a police auction, then secured 17 cars from other sources. The Universal publicity machine boasted the production boasted 250 cars.

The Sugarland Express

1.39.19 Jaws was not the first time that Spielberg used the dolly zoom technique made famous by Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Here he uses the dolly in and zoom out to intensify sharp shooter Walters (Frank Steggall) taking aim, the track in suggests anticipation, the zoom out waiting.

The Sugarland Express

1.39.19 Clovis is shot by the Ranger Fino (Jim Harell). In reality, Bobby Dent was shot by a ranger named Elliott, a bizarre foreshadowing of a future Spielberg hero. Harrell and Frank Steggall who play the gunman were real life Texas Rangers.

The Sugarland Express

1.43.08 Goldie Hawn found fame on TV as a ditzy blonde on Laugh In before winning a Best Supporting Actress for Cactus Flower. Her Lou Jean is a complex character and the first in a long line of ballsy, vaguely tomboyish women — Close Encounters’ Jillian Guiler, Raiders’ Marion Ravenwood, Always’ Dorinda Durston, Jurassic Park’s Ellie Satler and even Hook’s Tinkerbell.

The Sugarland Express

1.45.22 A throwaway detail in the movie, this teddy bear made one of the posters, perhaps as a signifier of a child.

The Sugarland Express

1.45.42 Spielberg reused the camera car mount built for Bullitt he used on Duel to capture exhilarating low angled shots of cars speeding along.

The Sugarland Express

1.46.10 The final shots of the film were shot adjacent to the Amistad Dam — Spielberg made a slave drama called Amistad some 23 years later.

The Sugarland Express

1.46.10 Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shot Sugarland and this final image feels very in keeping with his work on Peter Fonda’s film The Hired Hand. The final image of the film is also very reminiscent of the end of Duel — a moment of reflection set in blazing sunshine. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade ends on a very different, more shamelessly heroic sunset.