Saturday, November 5, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2 Sidetrack: Steven Spielberg's Duel/The Sugarland Express

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. This week, we backtrack a bit to his first two films, Duel and The Sugarland Express.

Duel Grade: 70 (B)

Some of the great filmmakers of the 1970s took time to find their own voices. Francis Ford Coppola struggled through the 60s before his critical and commercial breakthrough The Godfather. William Friedkin’s debut was a Sonny and Cher vehicle. Robert Altman spent decades in the business before MASH made him a name director. Others, however, gave some hint to what defined their films from the very beginning. Steven Spielberg didn’t make major waves until 1975’s Jaws, but his first two films, 1971’s TV movie Duel and his 1974 theatrical debut The Sugarland Express helped define his talent as a director and gave him enough clout to make Jaws.

Duel begins with traveling salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) on the way to an important business meeting, one he’ll never make. He gets stuck behind a 40-ton truck that vomits exhaust fumes like it’s nobody’s business. His attempts to pass the truck are fruitless;  the driver keeps speeding up, preventing Mann from moving forward, passing him whenever he gets in front. Mann only gets glimpses of the driver: his hand, his arm, his boots whenever he and Mann make the same stops. Soon, the truck driver is trying to run Mann off the side of the road. Whenever Mann thinks he’s gotten away or that the trucker has made his point, the truck appears again. Increasingly paranoid, Mann begins to suspect any and every man he meets at his stops, and he’s still on a frantic race to the death with the driver from hell.

It’s a simple story, but Spielberg gets a lot of mileage (yuk yuk) out of a simple cat-and-mouse game. Duel works as a dry run for Jaws in its portrayal of the truck as an unstoppable force of nature (the truck’s eventual destruction uses the same sound effect as the death of the shark). There’s never a full glimpse of the truck driver, and he’s never given a motive (although the multiple state plates on his bumper suggest he’s preyed on drivers before). The driver and the truck are one, and they simply do. It’s a simple trick, but an effective one, and a strong precursor to the Hawks-ian “man vs. unstoppable force” used in Jaws. Similarly, Spielberg’s first film is Hitchcock-on-the-road in the same way Jaws is Hitchcock-at-sea. Billy Goldenberg’s unconventional score is like Bernard Herrmann on psychedelics, and Spielberg drags out the tension on the road and in the stops to great lengths.

Character actor Dennis Weaver gives a memorable performance as a yuppie taken from his everyday worries into a far more immediate threat. Weaver is increasingly frantic, and his inability to relate to everyday people starts as his irritation by and condescension towards others (his spelling the word “rye” for a waitress is a nice touch). It becomes more pronounced as he starts to believe every trucker and yokel could be the guy behind it (his confrontation with one poor guy leads to his getting his ass kicked for starting a fight for no perceived reason). Mann is Spielberg’s first man out of his element among everyday people, something he’d repeat in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Only this time, he’s the one who’s the jerk.

If Duel has a flaw, it’s the that even for a 90-minute movie, the premise feels awfully stretched out. The scenes in which Weaver considers his options through narration are the weakest. Spielberg drags some tension out of the close-ups and quiet moments, and Weaver reads the narration just fine. No doubt these lines worked well in Richard Matheson’s original short story, but they tell too much of what Weaver’s already conveying so well through his facial expressions. Perhaps the 74-minute TV version plays better. Still, as an exercise in mounting tension and simple storytelling, Duel provides the backbone for later Spielberg films.

The Sugarland Express Grade: 62 (B-)

Spielberg’s second film is a little different. The Sugarland Express lacks many of the more typical Spielberg touches: no “men vs. unstoppable force” Hawks touch, little of the mounting Hitchcockian tension until the end, no “Disney warmth meets Kubrick weirdness” blends, and while Goldie Hawn and William Atherton go on an “adventure”, so to speak, it’s far more rambling and less propulsive than typical Spielbergian fare. So how does the film fit into this time and place in Spielberg’s filmography? In its own way, The Sugarland Express is a warm-up for Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The well-crafted thriller Duel may have created a frame for a Spielberg adventure, but The Sugarland Express has the New Hollywood flavor Spielberg would inject into his later, more successful films in the decade.

Lou Jean Poplin (Hawn) has busted her mild-mannered convict husband Clovis (Atherton) out of jail. Clovis and Lou Jean’s son Langston has been taken by the child board and placed into a foster home, and Lou Jean isn’t having it. Clovis knows Lou Jean’s plot isn’t going to work, but he knows better than to cross her. The two take patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) hostage as they make their way to Sugarland, Texas. The police are on their trail, led by Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). As the Poplins lead a trail of police cruisers (the “express”) across the state, increased media attention makes them heroes to the small town people they meet. Slide and Tanner know the two don’t mean any harm, but they’ve gotten themselves into a bad situation, and there’s no way there won’t be a mess at the end.

Sugarland is Spielberg’s first foray into New Hollywood filmmaking: there’s overlapping dialogue, subtle split screens, use of local color, gorgeous wide shots of the cars passing through landscape, and a conflict with authority. Spielberg makes good use of these tropes in addition to bringing his irreverent humor and strong craftsmanship to the car chases and pile-ups. The film is also Spielberg’s first collaboration with composer John Williams, whose unconventionally bluesy score suits the atmosphere well. The loose, shaggy feel of the film serves as an early warning for Jaws, and the hubbub over Hawn and Atherton’s pilgrimage is similar to that of the town meetings in Jaws and the press conference in Close Encounters. It's clear Spielberg is on his way to something great.

But being on to something great doesn’t quite equal greatness. The performances are strong all around, but the characters are defined mostly as archetypes, and Sugarland feels too in debt to other love-on-the-run films (almost like Badlands-lite). The film’s meandering eventually feels a bit too aimless, particularly in the middle section. Spielberg eventually tightens the reins in the tense finale and melancholy denouement, but the film’s leaning towards the lightly plotted moments nearly sinks it. The next year’s Jaws would find the director on more balanced ground.

This week on Director’s Spotlight:

Monday: Steven Spielberg’s 1941
Thursday: Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark
Saturday: Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist

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