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With: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Michael Sacks, Ben Johnson
Written by: Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 110
Date: 03/31/1974

The Sugarland Express (1974)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Chase in Your Face

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's amazing to look back at Steven Spielberg's second feature film (his first full-length theatrical release, considering that Duel was made for television) and see, at age 26, just how completely in command of the medium he already was. There's no question that this is a director with a God-given talent.

That said, The Sugarland Express is really nothing more than a breezy entertainment, a chase film that has been repeated and duplicated many, many times since. Part of Spielberg's success lies in just how well it plays today, even in the face of such utter dilution.

Just a few years after her 1969 Oscar win for Cactus Flower, red-hot Goldie Hawn starred as a desperate mother whose baby has been taken away and given up for adoption while she and her husband (William Atherton) were incarcerated. Just before her husband's release from jail, she visits and breaks him out. Together, they steal a cop car, kidnap a cop (Michael Sacks) and begin a cross-country chase to snatch their son before the law catches up to them.

Spielberg brilliantly juxtaposes the comic absurdity of this situation (supposedly based on a true story) -- including over a hundred jumbled-up cop cars in constant pursuit -- with the actual heartbreak over a stolen child. He shows an uncanny sense of physical space, using the foreground for benign images and the background for important information, as well as sound. In one scene, two cops drive alongside one another. We can see both of them, but we only hear one of them over the radio.

Vilmos Zsigmond provides the film's glowing, shimmering cinematography, and John Williams provides the perfect, understated score, a long way from his overbearing anthems of later years.

Strangely enough, even with all these sweet ingredients, The Sugarland Express was not a hit and has never been considered one of Spielberg's major achievements. Certainly it's better than monster hits like Jurassic Park or self-important films like Amistad. Perhaps this new DVD will give it a fresh start.

DVD Details: The picture is mastered in 2.35-to-1 widescreen, and the sound in 2.0 Dolby Digital. The disc comes with optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.

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