Steven Spielberg wasn't always — well, Steven Spielberg.
He wasn't always this mawkish movie-making giant with major parental issues he just had to insert into each new fantastical blockbuster. Back in his early days, he was a budding-genius pop entertainer whose enthusiasm for engrossing, intelligent, brilliantly crafted popcorn cinema was evident in every frame.
This Saturday and Monday, The Belcourt runs a double feature of the early movies that put Spielberg on the map, so to speak, as part of its ongoing "Road Movies of the '70s and '80s" series. The discovery, for most people, won't be how much talent the young Spielberg showed straight out of the gate: It's a glimpse of how much different his career might have been without the lure of all those Oscars.
First up is one of Spielberg's career highlights, the scrappy suspense thriller Duel, which caused an instant sensation when it premiered as an ABC Movie of the Week in 1971. Already an established TV director, the 24-year-old Spielberg helmed this relentless sick-joke nightmare about a traveling salesman, David Mann (Dennis Weaver), en route to a business meeting. While tooling his Plymouth Valiant through the California desert, he's stuck behind a grimy, exhaust-belching tanker truck, until he gets fed up and guns past.
Bad move, dude. What follows is a wire-taut cat-and-mouse game between Weaver and the vehicular behemoth, whose driver goes unseen. It could have been little more than a fleshed-out pun: Mann vs. machine. As directed by Spielberg from a Richard Matheson script that's a model of terse construction, it does for 18-wheelers what Jaws did for great whites, connecting with the primal fear (and latent road rage) seething in every outmatched motorist. Shot in 13 days, Duel shows Spielberg using all the limited tools at his disposal — especially cutting that emphasizes the truck's implacable brute force — to give the diesel-powered predator a kind of macabre wit and cunning. Duel remains a tip-top B-movie from a future A-lister — a shape of things to come.
Duel's success led Spielberg to helm another road movie, 1974's The Sugarland Express. His first true theatrical release, it's the fact-based story of a Texas woman (Goldie Hawn) who busts her husband (William Atherton) out of jail so they can get their baby boy, who's been living with a couple in the wealthy suburb of Sugar Land. Things get complicated when they kidnap a cool-headed cop (Michael Sacks, who would retire from acting and become a Wall Street whiz kid), take his vehicle and draw chase from every cop car in the state (led by the late Ben Johnson) as they punch it for Sugar Land.
This could have turned maudlin in more earnest hands (aka Spielberg in 30 years). But while the movie hints at the sentimental style that would later become Spielberg's trademark, his handling here plays up the garrulous humor and folksy location flavor even as we sense how deluded his heroes really are. This proto-Coen Brothers movie is a comedy until abruptly it's a tragedy — it starts as Raising Arizona and ends as No Country for Old Men — but not because the director steers us wrong.
As in Duel, you may end up marveling at Spielberg's assured visual sense. Not just the expert staging of the many chases and crashes — under Vilmos Zsigmond's lens, even the cop cars flip in near-sync — but widescreen moments that say more about the story and characters than any dialogue could. Take the shot of an uncertain Atherton sitting in the police car's front seat, getting assurance from Johnson's sheriff over the CB radio that his son will be waiting for him, as a quiet, furtive Sacks sits in the foreground. The framing doesn't just underscore the fragile bond between the characters, it prepares us that this story won't have a happy ending — another crucial break with the later Spielberg.
The boilerplate view of 1970s Hollywood is that it starts with soul and ends with Spielberg and Star Wars ruining it for everybody. But the Spielberg of these films shows a lot of the virtues associated with the early decade: offbeat protagonists, a taste for location shooting, a downbeat take offset by wit and an intuitive grasp of movie language. Those things don't combine to sell action figures, though, or win gold statuettes.
That's what great about this double feature. These road movies take us back to a time in Spielberg's life when he wasn't making larger-than-life event movies drenched in prestige or dashed off with sleepwalking skill. He was a young-and-hungry auteur, wowing audiences with resourceful, witty, humanly scaled genre filmmaking and an eagerness to stretch. For two nights only, we've got him back.
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