Sugarland Express, The (1974)

The Sugarland Express (1974), directed by Steven Spielberg.

Suggested by a true story: a young woman helps her husband break out of jail. Everyone responds with astonishment: "You broke out of pre-release with only four months left?" The reason: they have to get their baby back before it disappears into the social services machinery.

How this is supposed to happen is not entirely clear; long-range planning is not our characters' strength.

Eventually they kidnap a highway patrolman and with hundreds of police cars in pursuit stage a low-speed chase across Texas, trying to get to the baby in Sugarland. They become folk heroes and people cheer them on. It is sort of Badlands (1973) meets Vanishing Point (1971) by way of Raising Arizona (1987).

It's meant to be a dark comedy, but in retrospect the humor seems cruel. People in the prison system are poor, uneducated and not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Is that funny? Does the Texas accent make them seem unsophisticated and dim? Well, comedy isn't pretty. We can laugh and wince at the same time.

The cast:

Also spot familiar face Gregory Walcott as another officer, last seen in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and Prime Cut (1972).

Spielberg's first feature film. He had done TV episodes and movies before, including the acclaimed road chase thriller Duel (1971). Based on his management of exciting large-scale car chase and crash scenes he was asked to do Jaws (1975) the next year.

Photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance (1972), Heaven's Gate (1980), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)).

Score by John Williams, beginning a long fruitful association with the director.

Available on Blu-ray.