The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg / U.S., 1974):

The only things more alarming than Duel's vacant desert are the used-car lots, drive-ins, fried-chicken diners, and centrifugal, arrested energy that here fill its spaces. The fugitives are "nothiní but a couple of kids," the distraught young mother (Goldie Hawn) who bullies the husband (William Atherton) out of jail to retrieve their toddler from its foster home; the state trooper (Michael Sacks) whose patrol car they fumblingly seize is the tip of the tour through a Texas with more motors than sense. The cavalcade proceeds with Ben Johnsonís caravan of deputies behind them and people honking from the sides, the Fordian horizon is recreated with a pair of police cars vanishing into the black-and-orange sunset. ("Register communists, not firearms," a bumper sticker reads.) Steven Spielberg in Malickland, with dolly and zoom and a wagonload of familial issues. Astonishingly kinetic, with screen movement continually compounded by camera movement -- folks rush to try out their wheels and the young virtuoso tracks after them, the camera in the backseat of the speeding auto turns a full circular pan while dialogue unspools over the police radio. The restlessness finally unsettles, for it is the anxious agitation of stunted children in a landscape of grasping carnivals and disappointed, impotent parents. The family is but a tenuous fantasy, Johnsonís paternal cowboy cannot prevent the violence. Hawn compulsively collects Gold Stamps (cf. the boy and his labels in Catch Me If You Can), the coupleís transitory sanctuary is the motor home in which they watch a Roadrunner cartoon: When the Coyote topples into the abyss, the image freezes along with Athertonís smile before fading to black. (The morning brings Elmer Fudds in the form of trigger-happy vigilantes.) Spielberg avails himself of Sturges (Hail the Conquering Hero) and Wilder (Ace in the Hole) and, still raw and hungry, pushes the fable of distorted parental devotion to its brackish limit -- the heroineís brassiness finally erupts into hysteria (and then catatonia), the husband is allowed a single moment of clarity ("My wifeís so loud..."). Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. Music by John Williams. With Gregory Walcott, Steve Kanaly, Louise Latham, and Harrison Zanuck.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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