The Sugarland Express is seen as the black sheep of Spielberg’s early career. A low-key drama, it bears little in common with the likes of Duel, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and has become something of a forgotten movie.
This is a real shame because not only is a wonderful film, it helps illuminate one of Spielberg’s later films, Catch Me If You Can.
Both films feature innocents who embark upon a life of crime to reunite their family: Clovis and Lou-Jean Poplin are trying to take their son back from his foster family, while Frank Abagnale is trying to bring his divorced parents back together.
During the course of the film, both Lou-Jean and Clovis and Frank become seduced by their new lives, Frank attaining infamy as ‘the Skywayman’, Clovis and Lou-Jean becoming folk heroes thanks to media exposure.
Spielberg asks his audience to share his characters fame. Both films are visual feasts which envelop the viewer in a desirable world, Sugarland Express through some wonderful hazy Texan landscapes, Catch Me If You Can through bold colours and John Williams’s Mancini-esque score.
Beneath the glamour, however, both films are deeply melancholic explorations of how destructive the lure of fantasy and irresponsibility can be.
By going on the run, Clovis, Lou-Jean and Frank are ultimately making their goals more unattainable, Clovis and Lou-Jean only proving they are unworthy parents, Frank abandoning his father, who suffers financial troubles and ultimately dies a lonely death at a train station.
Catch Me If You Can closes on positive note, but it’s a conclusion rendered bittersweet by the time and relationships Frank wasted chasing a dream he would never attain. Clovis, meanwhile, won’t even get that. His death at the end of The Sugarland Express means that he’ll never see his son again, and that a little boy will grow up without a father.
Both scenarios could have been avoided had the characters focused on reality rather than a fantasy.
“Steven Spielberg, the twenty-six-year-old director, has built up Texas as a major character in his movie. As the herd of cars races and heaves and crashes through the landscape, the state’s personality surfaces like a sperm whale. Mr. Spielberg has also made marvelous use of many Texans, some of whom haven’t acted before. And he has choreographed his cars in a way that almost makes me want to learn to drive.”
Nora Sayre gives The Sugarland Express a positive write-up in The New York Times.
“If the movie finally doesn’t succeed, that’s because Spielberg has paid too much attention to all those police cars (and all the crashes they get into), and not enough to the personalities of his characters. We get to know these three people just enough to want to know them better. We’re burdened instead with countless telephoto shots of squad cars. But the movie has its moments, and when the fugitives parade down Main Street and are presented with gifts by their newly made fans, we admit: Yes, that’s the way celebrity works in America — no matter what you’re known for.”
Roger Ebert’s largely negative review of The Sugarland Express.