What I realized watching Spielberg’s early films in close succession is that they are all about movement, often involving transport and travel. If not cars, then planes, if not planes, then trains. And if you are wondering which Spielberg movie has trains, then you haven’t been paying attention—they pop up in the oddest places.
Whether you consider his first film to be Duel (1971), which was originally made for television but later expanded with additional footage to be released as a feature film, or The Sugarland Express (1974), the road was clearly Steven Spielberg’s middle name from the beginning.
Duel (1971) is a psychological thriller about a businessman who sets off on the road and is terrorized by a truck driver whose face we never see. This movie, which has almost no dialogue, was as creepy and intense as I remembered. You can see why the director who made this would go on to make Jaws: that enormous truck is every bit as menacing as a shark, perhaps even more so, since it is driven by a person, a deliberate stalker with no apparent motivation. Stylistically, you can definitely peg this as early Spielberg, with a number of interesting framing shots, such as viewing the protagonist (Dennis Weaver) on the phone through the round window of a washing-machine door. Duel also marks the first of many Spielberg sunset shots.
Train sighting: Part of the additional footage shot for the European theatrical release was of the car above being pushed into passing train.
The Sugarland Express (1974) is a different kind of suspense-driven road movie, one that is more like an O.J. highway chase, i.e., a slow-burn police convoy that may self-destruct at any moment. The film, based on a true story, opens with Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) convincing her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), to break out of his (very) minimum security pre-release facility in order to “rescue” their child from a foster home in Sugarland, TX. On the road, they soon panic and kidnap a patrolman who is chasing them, steal his police car, and use him as a hostage to keep other officers at bay. Most of the film focuses on the friendship between the couple and their hostage, with a senior officer (think Harvey Keitel from Thelma and Louise) monitoring everything in the distance.
While Duel had almost no dialogue, Sugarland is all dialogue, and it’s better and more natural than most Spielberg movies. However, one of my favorite scenes has almost no dialogue, as the couple watches a Road Runner cartoon playing on a distant drive-in screen, with Clovis providing the missing sound effects. This is just one of many light touches in what is ultimately a fairly depressing story that will feel vaguely familiar to most people. So, unless you are interested in the cinematic aspects, and the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is quite beautiful (we get not one, but two, sunset shots!), I might recommend skipping this one.
Train Sighting: I don’t think there is a train in this one, but I watched it before I started to notice the train thing, so there may be one in the background somewhere. They definitely cross train tracks in the initial car chase.
It continues to amaze me how early Jaws (1975) comes in Spielberg’s filmography. But, having just watched Duel, one can totally see why this film appealed to Spielberg and why he would have even been allowed to execute such a potentially difficult project. And it was a challenge, especially given the inherent difficulty of shooting on the ocean and the unanticipated problems with the mechanical shark.
Is there anyone that hasn’t seen this, or doesn’t know the plot? If so, a great white shark menaces the small island community of Amity, and a police chief (Roy Scheider), a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss), and a gritty fisherman (Robert Shaw) set out to hunt it down. Also, why haven’t you seen this? You need to cancel your weekend plans and get your hands on a copy now.
Even though Jaws traumatized me as a kid (I snuck into a weekend showing in the student union of the prep school campus I grew up on), I have a certain fondness for it, especially after spending many vacations on Martha’s Vineyard where it was filmed. In fact, my favorite part is when Chief Brody rides what is in fact the Chappaquiddick ferry, which crosses the teeny tiny channel leading into Edgartown Harbor, but the camerawork makes it seem as if it is traveling a great distance. Because, even in Jaws, with its inherent setting limitations, most dialogue and action takes place on boats (naturally) but also on improvised rafts, ferries, or otherwise on the move.
The film contains a number of examples of interesting camerawork, including the phenomenal series of close-ups (via swipes) of Chief Brody on the beach fixated on the ocean. There’s also great dialogue, especially once the three lead actors get out onto the Orca. Besides Quint’s story about the USS Indianapolis, my favorite conversation is when he compares scars with Hooper. Apparently, one of the most famous movie lines ever, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” was improvised by Scheider on set.
In fact, here’s the real testament to how amazing this film is: Even with the number of times I’ve seen it, I still watched it twice just now. It’s that frakking good. But one thing I didn’t realize before this project was how rewarded this film was in its day, winning Oscars for Editing, Score, and Sound. It was also nominated for Best Picture, losing to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Given the fact that the other nominees that year were Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, and Nashville, I’d say that’s pretty darn good.
Train Sighting: No trains in this one, alas, but there is a great sunset shot of Quint on the bow of the boat, just before night falls and he tells his chilling story of survival at sea.
While perhaps less obvious than Duel or The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is also a road movie, of sorts. Seeing it on the heels of Jaws made me realize how important the quest narrative is to Spielberg. Quests and the hero’s journey is something I more readily associate with George Lucas, but it is very strong with this one as well. Again, transportation looms large, with the opening scenes featuring the recovery of WWII fighter planes, air traffic controllers on the job, and the model train of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss).
Close Encounters is not exactly a film for children, as E.T. is, but it is the first great example of what Spielberg often does so well, tapping into the wonder and fears of childhood. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched it, but this story of the UFO encounters of one man, one woman, and one little boy has lost none of its power. In fact, I see now how influential it was on some of my favorite television shows, recalling to mind some of the best episodes of The X-Files and the entire run of The 4400. Although it lost out on most of its eight Oscar nominations* to Star Wars, released that same year, it deserved every accolade it got. In fact, I would have added acting nominations for Dreyfuss and Truffaut. In the end, it won for Vilmos Zsigmond’s incredible cinematography and for Special Achievement in Sound Effects Editing.
In addition to serving as the first true introduction of the Spielberg Face, Close Encounters also marks our introduction to Spielberg’s adorable child syndrome. Yet, adorable boy aside, one thing I loved about this film was just how normal everyone looked—it made me a little sad to think how this would be cast today. [Side note: The DVD I was watching had a “making of” special that included an interview with the grown-up Barry (Ladies, he’s still tots adorbs!).]
Train sighting(s): Our introduction to Roy Neery opens on a model train being raced around a track until it crashes. Later, when people need to be cleared from the site of Devils Tower, it is with news of a rail disaster. And trains are being used to clear people out of the area.
We now arrive at the first of Spielberg’s many films about the Second World War. Yet, 1941 (1979) is very different from his later prestige projects dealing with the war—films such as Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998). For one thing, it’s a comedy. Sort of. Apart from a few scenes, I don’t find it very funny. And, with Tim Matheson, John Belushi, and Dan Ackroyd as part of the large cast, it plays like a poor imitation of Animal House, released just one year earlier. (However, this film will go down as the one that revealed Belushi’s acting talent to me—he is brilliantly restrained as pilot “Wild” Bill Kelso.)
Which is a shame, because the premise (the paranoia that sweeps Southern California one week after Pearl Harbor) showed incredible potential for great farce. Instead, it’s an unholy mess. There are some great set pieces (the jitterbug contest, the Ferris wheel) and witty Hollywood references (the destruction of the “land” part of the Hollywood sign, the nod to It Happened One Night’s hitchhiking scene, Robert Stack parodying himself), but everything is thrown together in one big jumble with no strong central character tying it together. If you are wondering what a Spielberg film without a soul might be like, you need only check this one out.
This isn’t the state of California, this is a state of insanity.
—Robert Stack as Major General Stilwell in 1941
That said, it certainly was not as bad as I feared, and for those who love movies it is worth sitting through to catch the myriad cinematic references. My favorite was a bit of choreography that seemed to come right out of silent movies (or maybe Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), when the Japanese spies, all “descendents of Ninja assassins,” disguise themselves as Christmas trees. For Spielberg fans, there are also a number of direct references to previous Spielberg films, including a witty parody of the Jaws opening.
Train sighting: The model trains in the street riot scene.
Before starting this project, I would have sworn that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) came before Raiders of the Lost Ark, but shockingly it did not. However, I will be discussing all of the Indiana Jones films in my next post on Spielberg’s adventure films, so E.T. is next up here. Note: As for all Spielberg’s films except 1941, I watched the original theatrical release.
A favorite of many, E.T. never really resonated with me. I’m not sure why, but it may be my complete lack of interest in outer space and most science fiction. Yes, I realize I said above that one of my favorite shows is The X-Files, but it was always the stand-alones that I preferred in that series. True, I love to stargaze, but that’s more about myths and storytelling than dreaming of other worlds. And also why I love Star Wars, but not Star Trek, and Firefly, but not Farscape. [Cue appropriate rabid fanbase reaction.]
And while I now know that E.T. is not really about aliens, but rather loneliness and friendship, I’m not sure I could get past the alien part when younger. Now, of course, it makes me sob like a baby, in much the same way that Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 do. I think the film gets a little muddy once Elliott gets sick, and the purpose of the government agents could have been made clearer, but I guess that’s not really the point.
Regardless, E.T. was an unqualified success. Upon release, it surpassed Star Wars to become the highest-grossing film of all time (until Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park ten years later) and was nominated for Best Picture as well as Academy Awards in Cinematography (Allen Daviau), Directing, Editing, and Writing; it took home Oscars for Best Score (John Williams), Sound, Sound Effects, and Visual Effects.
Train sighting: A model train is running around its track when the government agents in space suits first invade Elliot’s home.
Finally, there are two more “plane” films I watched out of order for this post: Always and The Terminal. Mostly because I couldn’t see where else they might fit in the grand scheme of things.
Despite occurring in the present day, Always has a clear link to one of Spielberg’s favorite subjects, the Second World War, as it is a remake of the World War II melodrama A Guy Named Joe. The basic plot and characters are identical—a daredevil pilot (Richard Dreyfuss) dies and his ghost must mentor a young pilot who has fallen in love with his “widowed” girlfriend (Holly Hunter)—but Spielberg transposes the action from the war to modern-day Colorado and a group of aerial firefighters. The original A Guy Named Joe was a favorite of both Spielberg and Dreyfuss and they talked about it often on the set of Jaws.
In my first post on Spielberg, I listed Always (1989) as my least anticipated rewatch, even though I didn’t really remember seeing it. I now realize why. Looking up information for this post, I saw the release date—just days before my mother died of cancer. And, yes, I went and saw this movie about death and moving on in the theater. It was actually just one in a series of Hollywood attempts to mess with my mind that fall, which also saw the release of Dad and Steel Magnolias. [Side note: Huh, it looks like Ethan Hawke was in Dad. I guess I blocked out a lot from that fall.]
Even without the traumatic memory, I wouldn’t recommend this one. The dialogue is particularly bad. Aside from being Audrey Hepburn’s final film appearance (in a very small cameo), there is not much to recommend it, unless, of course, you want to channel another Holly Hunter role and have a good cry. You’ll need lots of Kleenex.
Last but not least, we have The Terminal (2004). While featuring planes galore, The Terminal is actually more about being stuck somewhere than actual travel: almost the entire film takes place in the terminal of JFK, where a traveler must take up temporary residence when his visa expires mid-flight due to a coup in his home country. The premise might seem completely unbelievable, but it is apparently based on a true story.
I have to say, I was not looking forward to this film. Mostly because I’m not a fan of either Tom Hanks or Catherine Zeta-Jones. Especially Catherine Zeta-Jones. She was actually okay here. Hanks, however, was exactly as I imagined he would be. So grating. So Forrest Gump. Now, maybe this film wouldn’t have been made without him, but I think if The Terminal had featured a no-name actor in the lead role, I would be praising it from the rooftops. I still recommend it though, especially if you don’t have Hanks issues. It’s not an amazing film cinematically, but it’s very charming and funny in its own quiet way.
For the complete Spielberg filmography and links to other posts in this series, click here.
*Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Directing, Editing, Score (John Williams), Sound, and Visual Effects.