As of 2013, Steven Spielberg is a legend. Meaning, he is first and foremost, the most well-known, most trusted, most bankable director in Hollywood, because he can do anything, and he can do it well. But in 1974, Spielberg didn't have that kind of status. He was a then unknown with talent still growing.
"The Sugarland Express", his feature film debut, may not be as established as many of his films (even though "Jaws" was made only a year later), but it still is a great deal better than most debuts, let alone most movies in general. But yet again, could you expect less from a filmmaking genius?
The story follows Lou Ann (Goldie Hawn) and Clovis Poplin (William Atherton), a young couple who lose their baby to the authorities when Clovis lands himself in jail. Lou Ann isn't an idiot, and doesn't plan on being labeled an "unfit mother". So she helps Clovis escape from jail, and they hitch a ride to Sugarland, where their baby's adoptive family resides.
Their "hitched ride" doesn't go smoothly, as the driver is pulled over. When that happens, Lou Ann, in desperation, steals it, and so begins a high-speed chase that eventually leads to the Poplin's kidnapping a young police officer (Michael Sacks) who gets in their way at the perfect time. The action lasts for days - and of course, it doesn't end smoothly.
Easily, "The Sugarland Express" could have a "Gun Crazy" feel: with an attractive couple in their mid-twenties who just so happen to have a dirty past, it would be easy to love to hate them. But Spielberg somehow directs with a very light touch, turning in popcorn fare that he later perfected.
The car chases, the shoot outs, the clever dialogue, the rural setting, etc., lead to B-movie gold, but everything is filmed with such knowingness that it isn't a cheap adventure in an exploitation theater. The scenes often times are forced to balance both action and drama, and there's a realness in its midst that makes even the nuttiest events feel as though they are really happening.
It's a very fun romp, and much of that fun is great contributed to by its actors. Hawn gives one of the her best performances as the determined Lou Jean, who is reckless, dangerous, but sweet and well-meaning. Her on-screen husband, Clovis, played by Atherton, seems much more naïve, and the fact that he is in jail, rather than Lou Jean, is a bit shocking.
They aren't a fun-seeking couple, a la "Bonnie and Clyde". They simply are so desperate to get their baby back that they would do anything, even risk their own lives. They are young, in love, and inexperienced in life: that's what makes them all the more likable.
By the end, Spielberg reminds us that even the most entertaining stories, even with the most entertaining characters, don't always end with a rinky-dink happiness that we hope for. "The Sugarland Express" may be bittersweet, but it's a dramedy that gives us an idea of how early on Spielberg was a force to be reckoned with.