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Universal Studios Home Video presents
The Sugarland Express (1974)

"I want my baby back."
- Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn)

Review By: Matt Peterson  
Published: August 24, 2004

Stars: Goldie Hawn
Other Stars: Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks, William Atherton
Director: Steven Spielberg

MPAA Rating: PG for (some language, violence)
Run Time: 01h:49m:53s
Release Date: August 17, 2004
UPC: 025192558122
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+B+B D-

DVD Review

Young and ambitious Steven Spielberg observed the goings-on at Universal Studios, and noticed all the executives wore the same charcoal suit and black tie. Spielberg went out, bought a comparable outfit, and simply walked onto the lot, took a self-guided tour of the grounds—watching film shoots, talking with crews—and actually set up his own office in an abandoned space. Before long, people began to catch on to the fact that this bold individual was not employed by Universal. In today's security conscious world, Spielberg would have been hauled away in shackles. However, executives were so impressed by the young man, he was given a job. Ah, those were the days.

After the surprising success that was the made-for-TV movie, Duel, Spielberg seemed to have a possible typecast in the works; his first feature, The Sugarland Express, has a similar setting and a few decent car chases, but it's no psychological thriller, delving instead into melodrama. Based on a true story, this film marked the return of Goldie Hawn after her Oscar win for Cactus Flower. She slides into the role of young Texas mother Lou Jean Poplin with amazing ease, creating a sympathetic character that is ultimately responsibile for her past mistakes.

Lou Jean and her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), are trying to right their wrongs. Both are criminals, and Lou Jean has served her time. Clovis is four months away from release, and the pair looks forward to a quiet life with their newborn son, Langston. However, this dream becomes fleeting when the Texas welfare system takes Langston away from Lou Jean, placing the young tike with a foster family. Lou Jean hatches a bold plan to get her son back; while visiting Clovis in pre-release prison, she puts her plan into motion, beginning with Clovis' escape. Her husband is reluctant at first, knowing that this action will certainly earn him more hard time, but the idea of losing his son is too much to bear.

A kind of ragtag Bonnie and Clyde—with family-oriented motives—sets off across the dusty countryside. A stolen car and a carjacking later, the pair finds themselves in a Texas highway patrol car, forcing its occupant, Officer Slide (Michael Sacks), to drive them to Sugarland, where Langston waits among unfamiliar faces. As the odyssey continues, the story of their mission spreads, gathering support from the citizens of Texas, who line up along side the road. Despite the sympathies that grow for the Poplins, Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) must determine what force is necessary to squelch the situation, the outcome of which becomes increasingly dangerous.

This is a solid piece of work that shows all the hallmarks of a Spielberg film, save a good drenching of sentimentality. The legendary director's hand is clearly seen in the realistic performances; background characters interact with casual, sometimes messy realism that makes the world on screen all the more convincing. Goldie Hawn is the true star here, and this is possibly her best performance. William Atherton is also convincing as the husband who knows he is in a no-win scenario, as is Michael Sacks' Slide, who grows to befriend his captors. Ben Johnson's Tanner is a layered character that sees the complexity of the case, and is unwilling to exact forceful "Texas justice" without cause.

Despite critical acclaim, Sugarland Express did not perform at the box office. The script has little more than basic action and melodrama (with a splash of comedy), but the performances and visuals elevate the material. Lensed by Vilmos Zsigmond, this is simply beautiful to watch; his use of the anamorphic frame is stunning, creating gorgeous compositions and images with energy and vibrance. Zsigmond was the first to use Panavision's new Panaflex camera, which was ideal for shooting within the cramped confines of cars. This outing also marks the first collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams.

I certainly enjoyed noticing the beginnings of later classics to come in this entertaining romp. It stands with some of Spielberg's best films.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Universal's anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is rendered well, but varies in quality. Some early scenes exhibit rather heavy, fine grain, creating a gritty image. Later on, the image cleans up considerably, showing the solid, typical 1970s muted colors with fine contrast and good detail. Not perfect, but very watchable.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby 2.0 track seems more monaural than stereo. It has a few pops, and dialogue can be hard to decipher at times, but this is a source issue, not a transfer defect. It can sound harsh, but is serviceable. Sorry, no remastered 5.1 here.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Universal decided to put all the extras on their concurrent release of Duel, so this one has nothing more than a theatrical trailer, and an insert advertising these two new Spielberg titles.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Steven Spielberg's first feature film is an enjoyable melodramatic ride that showcases stunning visuals and performances. Trace the origins of a legend with Universal's barebones, yet quality disc.


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