Duel/The Sugarland Express (1971/1974, Steven Spielberg)
The previous movies have all been comedies, and with good reason: real-life roadtrips can be so disaster-prone and hellish that you need a good laugh; the episodic nature of the films also lend themselves to comedy. But two of my favorite road movies are more serious stories from early in the career of Steven Spielberg, before he became a household name with “Jaws.”
“Duel” was, quite famously, a TV movie that received a brief theatrical release. Dennis Weaver stars as an everyman (named Mann) who becomes stalked by a faceless driver in a hulking semi truck. Spielberg’s first film still holds up as a taut, primal little thriller, a white-knuckled chase movie that is also a thinly veiled look at masculinity. Weaver commands the screen the entire time and Spielberg manages to create menace even though we never see the man in the cab of the truck. Worth seeking out, and Spielberg gives us a taste of the thrills that will come when he replaces the semi with a Great White.“The Sugarland Express” is a gear shift for the director. His first theatrical feature stars Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as convicts who take their infant child from an orphanage and make a run for it. It’s a slick, sometimes funny little chase movie that works because of the portents of doom Spielberg seeds throughout the piece. There’s a shot involving Atherton watching a Wile E. Coyote movie through the back window of a car that is as good as anything the director’s ever captured, and the ending is a rare downer for a director who would come to be known for his uplift and wonder. Also an early look at Spielberg’s themes of mothers and children. Both films are worth seeking out to see how fully formed the director was right out of the gate and hold up as highly enjoyable experiences.