The case of two dusty roads

In preparation for the (at time of writing) December 2020 release of Steven Spielberg’s 33rd feature as Director, West Side Story, I have decided to attempt to put some more Spielberg blogs together. I have previously written about how Spielberg’s films, themes and styles changed thorough each of the last 5 decades, you can read some of those here if you wish.

Interestingly enough, I thought one of the few advantages of quarantine would be I could watch more films and write more about them, this hasn’t been the case so far, as looking after easily bored kids take priority when I’m not doing my day job. I am however, the newly crowned house champion at Monopoly and Uno, although I’m trailing in last place in Twister due to being the most inflexible man on Earth.

Anyway onto the blogs, I like the idea of doing a series of Top 10 blogs based around Spielberg, so that is what I will be working on, however, to get me back into the swing of things, a more standard essay on Spielberg’s first two Cinematic films (in Europe at least) Duel and The Sugarland Express.

Both films are road movies, both feature scenes of desperation, one is a no-holds barred, seat of the edge thriller, the other, based on real events, is a story of divided families, mistrust, and a reckless pursuit of potentially unattainable goals.

If we take a look at Duel first, a battle of good against evil, a tale of triumph over considerable adversity, it is the story of man versus technical beast, as Dennis Weaver’s wimpish salesman, David Mann (that’s M.A.N.N) Duel’s the unstoppable, pollution spewing oil tanker, with it’s anonymous driver, culminating with one of them succumbing to a gear crunching, metal- scraping end. That is the simple premise and Duel, originally made and released in the US as a TV movie of the week, never needs to delve any deeper than that, just hold on and with a complete lack of pretension and pointless subplot, Duel just gets on with it. Imagine if you will the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a half hour short and you get the idea

The Sugarland Express on the other hand, allows almost begrudgingly a little bit of character introduction and development. We meet Lou Jean Poplin, an almost annoying Goldie Hawn, as she helps her very slappable husband Clovis, played with particular mardiness by the always watchable and sleaze inducing William Atherton, break out of a minimum security prison to go and reclaim their baby son who has been taken into foster care due to the inept couples various indiscretions. En route they steal a car from the fantastic Mr and Mrs Nocker and kidnap and hold hostage Police Officer Maxwell Slide. The problem with the Poplins, and this is one of Sugarland’s Achilles heals, is that they are very difficult to root for, they are not very nice people and watching it now we are on the side of the authorities.

What characterises both as Spielberg films is a sense of isolation, in Sugarland’s case from Officer Slide, here the latest incarnation of the normal everyday guy caught in extraordinary situations, a staple of Spielberg films that has continued through his entire back catalogue. Both Slide and Mann are caught in situations that neither prepared for and both to a certain extent, (especially Mann) are being toyed with by protagonists and in the case of the Slide in particular, are being used as a bargaining chip to greater goals.

Mann and Slide also share a redemptive journey, they both prove to themselves that they are more than the bookish worms that they start out at the start of the film, again another trait that graces Spielberg work for generations to come, such as Brody overcoming his fear of the water, or Dr Grant embracing his responsibility of surrogate parenting. Don’t forget both Brody and Grant could have left the impending chaos to the experts but choose not to.

Early on in Duel we eavesdrop on a phone call between Mann and his wife, who is haranguing him for not standing up for her whilst being harassed at a party the previous evening, asking Mann to be more manly. Note here how Spielberg point his camera slightly away from Mann whilst he is being berated. We are embarrassed for him, in the way when you can listen into an argument on a bus or a cafe, here Spielberg utilises his favourite shape to help hide the fact that we are listening in.

The Haunted Closet: Spielberg's Duel (1971) and The Incredible ...
We eavesdrop in the hope that he doesn’t notice

So the simple question I always ask myself when watching Duel is, why does he not just turn round? Why does he continue on this path into danger? I feel the answer lies in the fact that David Mann has never stood up to any challenge in his life, this is his chance to prove himself, pass this ridiculous test of manhood.

Likewise, there are a number of opportunities where Slide could have escaped his captives, but over time he starts to bond with them and almost develops a sentimental attachment to them, even though there were numerous occasion where as driver of the car he could have changed the course of the narrative.

From a direction point of view we have Spielberg desperately trying to showcase his abilities, Duel is insanely flashy movie, with Spielberg using every camera trick that he has in his arsenal, from close up tight shots of the petrified Mann to extravagant belong shots of Mann’s car screeching to a terrified stop as viewed from the under carriage of the trucks beast like belly.

Duel (1971)
The Long shot of isolation, a tale of man against beast

Likewise Sugarland contains a wondrous moment midway through when Spielberg produces a tracking shot through two moving vehicles including dialogue between both vehicles. Its a beautiful shot that once again showcases the young directors sheer dexterity with the camera.

Sugarland Express, The - Internet Movie Firearms Database - Guns ...
The dazzling 360 degree camera shot in Sugarland

What also dominates both films, and is in fact a rarely mentioned theme that runs through Spielbergs work in the 1970s in particular, is the Director’s almost disdain for the locals. In both Duel and Sugarland the general American public are almost looked down upon as redneck hicks, who have low IQs and are less that warm and welcoming to strangers. You can also throw in the local fishermen in Jaws and the white trash hill dwellers who Roy Neary of all people, looks down upon in Close Encounters.

Imgur: The magic of the Internet
Low IQ Locals in early Spieberg films

In one of Duel’s most captivating scenes, Mann is sat in cafe trying to figure out who the mysterious driver of the truck might be. In Mann’s head everyone is a suspect, he looks down on these people, he trusts no one, he has an air of superiority to him, he spells out RYE to the waitress in the cafe to ensure she gets his very simple lunch order correct. He ends up confronting a man simply because of the way he dresses.

In Sugarland, we have the previously mentioned Nockers who are easily hoodwinked by the Poplins, who are hardly the greatest of con artists. Add to this Buster Daniels the drunkard who Slide is taking home before he is accosted by the Poplins. What follows is a stream of incompetence from the strong arm of the law to local shopkeepers and townsfolk, who are never portrayed as being too high on the social scale.

The scoring of both films follows similar traits, with John Williams’s whimsical first Spielberg score captures the isolation and open highways in Sugarland perfectly, whereas Billy Goldenberg’s Hermann esq score perfectly adds to the tension and fear of Duel. Goldenberg’s score can be found in its glory on the following link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjEcmWvcmjY

All the Spielberg hallmarks are in both of these films as he hones his craft to enable him to move onto bigger things. What happened next propelled him almost by accident into the stratosphere, but what we witness in these two fraternal films, is a young Director packed full of self belief, something that almost 50 years later is still going strong.

The Spielberg Awards

Hi folks, following on from my look at Spielberg through the last 5 decades, blogs that can be found on the following links 2010s 2000s 1990s 1980s 1970s I decided to have a light-hearted look at his films and launch the first and no doubt last annual award ceremony, imaginatively titled “The Spielbergs”.

First up was the Spielberg World Cup where I asked the good people of Twitter to vote in the first round, which consisted of 8 groups of 4 with the top 2 progressing to the Quarter finals, for which the top 2 from 4 groups progressed to the semi-finals and the top 2 from each group produced a final 4 for a climactic battle. Each round was randomly drawn by my 7-year-old daughter so there was no danger of letting my own favourites gaining any advantage. Please note as creater of these polls I was not eligible to vote

Group 1 

Close Encounters 46% 
Saving Private Ryan 33%
Catch Me If You Can 17%
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - 4%
142 votes cast

Catch Me If You Can was an early casualty if drawn in a different group it may well have progressed. The fact it got 17% in such company was a testimony to its appeal. The top 2 were always going to progress here, Crystal Skull was merely making up the numbers.

Group 2

E.T - 72%
Minority Report - 17%
Bridge of Spies - 7%
The Post - 4% 
208 votes cast

A clear favourite going into this one as the result showed. These are 4 exceptional films but I think a lack of familiarity with  Bridge of Spies and The Post saw them score lowly. When the draw was made I thought this would be a tight group……..I was wrong

Group 3 – 

Jaws - 69%
Hook - 13%
Munich - 10%
The Lost World - 8%

162 votes cast
There was only going to be one winner in this group so the intrigue would be who would grab second among three of Spielberg’s more divisive films. Family panto fun triumphed over controversial revenge thriller……but only just.
Group 4
Duel - 36%
The Terminal - 32%
The Color Purple - 23%
Amistad - 9%
174 votes cast
This was a group that allowed some of the more unfancied films to shine and it turned into quite a close contest. With 23% The Color Purple would have progressed in most of the other groups.
Sorry to see Amistad doing so poorly. Very underrated. @TheLoneWolf68
Group 5 – 
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - 54%
War of the Worlds - 22%
The Adventures of Tintin - 19%
Always - 5%
170 votes cast

It was all action and adventure in Group 5. It could be argued that Temple of Doom got a lucky draw here but over 50% of the vote can’t be wrong. Good showing for Tintin here I feel.

Group 6 – 

Jurassic Park - 87%
War Horse - 6%
The BFG - 5%
Sugarland Express - 2%
149 votes cast

The biggest first-round margin of victory was hardly a surprise. A great battle for 2nd place though.

Group 7 – 

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 66%
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - 27%
Empire of the Sun - 6%
1941 - 1%
166 votes cast

Tough draw for Empire here, it surely would have done better in a different group. The battle of the Jones’s would be an indicator of how the tournament would progress. Also worth acknowledging the one person who voted for 1941, good for you, whoever you are 🙂

People need to give Empire some love!, it’s one of his best! @smurfman75

Group 8 – 

Schindler's List - 64%
Ready Player One - 18%
Lincoln - 10%
A.I - 8%
148 votes cast

Whereas Schindler’s List’s progression to the quarter-finals was always likely, Ready Player One’s 2nd place ahead of Lincoln was perhaps the surprise of the first round.

QUARTER-FINALS

Group 1 –  

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 53%
E.T - 38%
War of the Worlds - 6%
Ready Player One - 3%
104 votes cast

The top 2 were never really in doubt from the get-go but what might be a surprise to some is how far ahead of E.T Raiders was.

Ready Player One is Spielberg’s worst film!, and he hasn’t had many. @smurfman75

Group 2 –

Jaws - 57%
Schindlers List - 23%
Saving Private Ryan - 18%
Duel - 2%
115 votes cast

This is the dictionary definition of the “Group of Death”. Blame the 7-year-old, not me. Saving Private Ryan is the most high-profile exit of the quarterfinals and surely would have progressed in less prestigious company. Even Duel would have fancied its chances of at least as second place in the next group.

This is why polls are inherently fraught with unintentional bias. You really cannot compare any film with Schindler’s List. @CinemaPhileTX

Group 3

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - 67%
Hook - 13%
War Horse - 11%
The Terminal - 9%
97 votes cast

Hook will have annoyed some Spielberg aficionados making it to the semi-finals ahead of films such as Saving Private Ryan, but to coin a famous sporting cliche, you can only beat what is in front of you.

 

Group 4

Jurassic Park - 49%
Close Encounters of the Third Kind - 28%
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - 15%
Minority Report - 8%
123 votes cast

Similar to the first round another strong Jurassic performance, this time in much more esteemed company, Close Encounters in its second tough draw continues to hold its own, whilst Temple of Doom and Minority Report had to settle for making up the numbers here.

Argh! Toughest one. How can anyone choose between temple of doom and close encounters? @patrickdeudon

Close Encounters every time…For me of course – Rob @thebeardedtrio

SEMI-FINALS

At this stage of the competition I had in my mind the 4 films that would progress to the final, regardless of the draw, I was wrong and quite shocked if honest.

Group 1

E.T - 31%
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - 30%
Schindler's List - 21%
Close Encounters of the Third Kind - 18%
311 votes cast

You could argue that Indiana Jones has a larger fanbase than Schindler’s List but with over 300 votes cast, you would have thought that Schindler’s, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of modern cinema would have pulled through. At this stage, though we really are splitting hairs, as all 4 are wondrous pieces of filmmaking

That was tough between close encounters and last crusade but I have to give it to last crusade. By far the best Indy movie and even though I love close encounters… Connery+Ford=gold. @RoadRaider3

How can you separate these…its the Sophies Choice of the movie world @filmbuffbaker

Look forward to the second group. If Jaws, Jurassic Park and Raiders are in the final, there’s no way I can choose. May have to close my eyes and just blind tap. @BoxOfficeBeyond

Group 2

Jaws - 41%
Raiders of the Lost Ark - 29%
Jurassic Park - 25%
Hook - 5%
367 votes cast

The battle of the franchises saw Jurassic Park fall at the last hurdle. Jaw’s margin of victory coupled with a potential split vote for Indiana Jones fans in the final, surely meant that Jaws went into the final as the clear favourite. Hook’s fun ride to the semi’s predictably ended there.

Where did you get the nerve to ask such impossible questions???@OakAyling

Raiders-not only his best, but THE best. In. Tha. World. @BossyToo

THE FINAL

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 35%
Jaws - 32%
E.T - 22%
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - 11%
313 votes cast

So the winner is…….Raiders of the Lost Ark. The final four demonstrated what I have always suspected that Spielberg fans have tremendous taste. The split vote didn’t happen and Raiders just pipped Jaws to the grand prize.

Arrrghh!!! This is so hard. Jaws….No! Raiders….No….Yes…No…Arrghhh! Voted for Jaws in the end. It gets my vote, just. Don’t put me through that again. I feel like I’ve cheated on the other three now. – Rob @thebeardedtrio 

My decision for ‘Raiders’ is in part totally subjective (in the mid 1980s, I made a Super8 short film with a couple of friends and was having the time of my life). The other part is the brilliant cast & perfect Spielberg mix made of adventure, action, suspense, awe and humor. @SpielbergChron

Image result for Raiders of  the Lost Ark

Following on from the World Cup which crowned everyone’s favourite Archaeology teacher’s first screen adventure as the Greatest Spielberg Film, I decided to run a few more polls to answer the questions about Spielberg films that quite frankly nobody had ever contemplated or felt the need to ask.

Twitter limits every poll to 4 options, which means that I had to leave some strong contenders out of some of the categories, some of them even caused me to have sleepless nights as names popped into my head that I hadn’t even considered. This was never more apparent than in this first category

Best supporting actor in a Spielberg film

Image result for Robert Shaw Jaws Robert Shaw Jaws 58%

Related image Sean Connery Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 19%

Image result for christopher walken catch me if you can Christopher Walken Catch Me If You Can 17%

Image result for tommy lee jones lincoln Tommy Lee Jones Lincoln 6%

Robert Shaw’s cantankerous old sea dog has always been a Spielberg favourite. On reflection, the four men above would have been all worthy winners, but just take a look at some of the outstanding men I left out/forgot about before the poll was launched. Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, Anthony Hopkins Amistad, Robert MacNaughton E.T, Jeff Goldblum Jurassic Park, and perhaps the most glaring oversight Ralph Fiennes in Schindlers List.

This could be close.. and in this short of race, there’s no shilver medal for finishing shecond..!@_ThatFilmGeek_

Best supporting actress in a Spielberg film

 

Image result for drew barrymore e.t Drew Barrymore E.T 41%

Image result for teri garr close encounters third kind Teri Garr Close Encounters of the Third Kind 25%

Image result for samantha morton minority report Samantha Morton Minority Report 19%

Image result for margaret avery color purple Margaret Avery The Color Purple 15%

In E.T Drew Barrymore gives the impression that she doesn’t even realise she is in a film. The story is happening around her the childlike wonder she displays is reflected in the emotion that the audience goes through. Teri Garr is possibly the standout performance in Close Encounters as the doubting Thomas figure who is presumably left to explain all of this to the three children. Its great to see both Samantha Morton and Margaret Avery score reasonable percentages in two breathtaking performances.

Not the four performances I would’ve chosen to represent this category, I don’t think. But from this group I guess it’s got to be Garr. Drew comes close, though. Great performance at that age. @853_OKG

Whilst we are looking at acting performances, let’s see what you voted as best lead performances

Best Performance by a Leading Actress

Image result for whoopi goldberg color purple Whoopi Goldberg The Color Purple 48%

Related image Meryl Streep The Post 24%

Image result for goldie hawn sugarland express Goldie Hawn The Sugarland Express 14%

Image result for holly hunter always Holly Hunter Always 14%

All 4 of these women would have been a worthy winner here but what a delightful surprise to see Whoopi Goldberg’s astonishing debut get the lion’s share of the vote in this category. As for the “overrated” Meryl, she can do no wrong in my eyes, Goldie Hawn “Aw shucks” her way through Sugarland Express and Holly Hunter is beyond adorable and by quite some distance the best thing about Always.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor

Image result for daniel day lewis lincoln Daniel Day-Lewis Lincoln 52%

Image result for richard dreyfuss close encounters Richard Dreyfuss Close Encounters of the Third Kind 36%

Image result for tom hanks saving private ryan Tom Hanks Saving Private Ryan 12%

Image result for eric bana munich Eric Bana Munich 0% 😦

When putting these polls together I anticipated that Day-Lewis would win regardless of who I put him up against and I was proved correct with his powerhouse performance as America’s 16th president. Dreyfuss treads the line between excitable and maniacal in Close Encounters, whereas Hanks probably gives the most human performance out of the nominees. Spare a thought for Eric Bana who didn’t receive a single vote which is massively unfair as he is the very heart and soul of Munich, one Spielberg film that requires further reflection. Also just outside the top 4 were the likes of Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds, Hanks for The Terminal and even Henry Thomas for E.T, but more about him next.

Best performance by a child in a Spielberg film

Image result for henry thomas et Henry Thomas E.T 51%

Image result for christian bale empire of the sun Christian Bale Empire of the Sun 38%

Image result for dakota fanning war of the worlds Dakota Fanning War of the Worlds 8%

Image result for ruby barnhill the bfg Ruby Barnhill The BFG 3%

The best child performance in a Spielberg film is Haley Joel Osment (A.I.), but out of the four you chose to highlight, I’d go with Henry Thomas.  

Out of all the categories I ran, I had more comments over who I had left out than any other category. The opinion from @ViverdeCinema was just many who claimed the Haley Joel Osment should have been on this list. I could have also quite easily had had Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton from E.T, Jonathan Ke Quan from Temple of Doom, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello from Jurassic Park, or how about Carey Guffey who played Barry in Close Encounters. Spielberg’s ability to bring out very believable performances from youngsters is all too apparent. Out of the 4 I did go for, Henry Thomas is the standout. His performance, in my opinion, is right up there with the very best from any actor in a Spielberg film.

Ok, lets now take a look at the bad guys.

Best non-human villain

Image result for shark from jaws “Bruce” the Shark from Jaws 39%

Image result for t-rex from jurassic park T-Rex from Jurassic Park 23%

Image result for velociraptor from jurassic park Velociraptor from Jurassic Park 19%

Image result for truck from duel The Truck from Duel 19%

One of the more closely fought contests, with “Bruce” proving once and for all that things that don’t work quite as they should are actually terrifying. The iconic T-Rex turns in some ways, from monster to hero by the end of Jurassic Park but she wouldn’t thank you for saying that. The sinister Raptors probably scored less than the T-Rex because nobody likes clever clogs. As for the truck, well it can rest in the knowledge that without it there probably wouldn’t have been any of the others and I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog (stop cheering at the back).

Most despicable Human villain

Image result for amon goeth schindler Amon Goeth Schindler’s List 88%

Image result for captain hook hook Captain Hook Hook 6%

Image result for sorrento ready player one Sorrento Ready Player One 3%

Image result for mola ram Mola Ram Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 3%

The biggest “winner” in any category voted on, as its widely regarded as one of the biggest bastards in history was realistically portrayed in Schindler’s List. Fiennes depiction of pure evil was so accurate that when survivor Mila Pfefferberg was introduced to Ralph Fiennes on the set, she began shaking uncontrollably, as he reminded her too much of the real Amon Goeth.

as is terrible, he has no redeeming qualities at all! He’s pure evil, and unfortunately ‘s depiction is historically accurate… 

After that bunch of evildoers, I wanted to take a more light-hearted look at some of Spielberg’s characters.

Most slappable character in a Spielberg film

Image result for ray winstone crystal skull Mac Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 56%

Image result for willie scott temple of doom Willie Scott Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 32%

Image result for clovis sugarland express Clovis The Sugarland Express 8%

Image result for hollis p wood 1941 Hollis P Wood 1941 4%

Ok firstly in the case of 2 of these I am not criticising the performance, as I think Kate Capshaw is fantastic in Temple of Doom, also William Atherton in Sugarland gives an early precursor to future whiny slimeballs that we see in Ghostbusters and Die Hard, just that their characters are so frustrating as in need of a good wedgie. Ray Winstone plays the same character in EVERYTHING and the last thing Indiana Jones is a cockney gangster who one-half suspects is going to break the fourth wall and give me the latest odds on whether Indy is likely to get out of his next tight spot. As for Slim Pickens in 1941, well to say he is the loudest and most annoying person in 1941 pretty much says it all about what I think of him in that film.

Hollis P Wood? Slim Pickens? Slappable? NO! He’s one of my favorite characters in 1941.

If we want to slap the four above which of the following females makes us want to punch the air with their stunning exploits

Most kickass female character in a Spielberg film

Image result for marion raiders of the lost ark Marion Raiders of the Lost Ark 60%

Image result for dr sattler jurassic park Dr. Sattler Jurassic Park 20%

Image result for artemis ready player one Art3mis Ready Player One 10%

Image result for sarah harding jurassic Sarah Harding The Lost World 4%

Marion from Raiders has long been a fans favourite but I am still surprised how large her winning margin was against Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park who for my money is the ultimate Spielberg action hero, smart, witty with an edge of vulnerability that prevents her from requiring a cape.

No contest. Marion. Hands down. @kkcorby14

I’m now going to take a look at the moments that make Spielberg, well, Spielberg, starting with scenes that shook us to our core.

Most harrowing scene in a Spielberg film

Image result for liquidation of ghetto schindler's list Liquidation of Ghetto Schindler’s List 48%

Image result for omaha beach saving private ryan Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan 39%

Image result for monica abandons david a.i Monica abandons David A.I 13%

Image result for amistad boat scene thrown overboard Below the deck Amistad 0%

A close run thing here between the two World War Two epics. The thing with all four of the scenes listed above, the viewer wishes to turn away from the screen but we can’t. On Omaha Beach we feel that we are in amongst the battle, ducking to avoid the bullets and shrapnel heading our way. The liquidation of the Ghetto is a different type of desperation, we want to help, we want to know why the cameraman isn’t stopping to help, can’t they see what is happening, why are they filming this? Monica abandoning David perhaps hits home more to parents, especially those who have dropped a screaming child off at nursery, but in this film, there is no glass of milk and a Spot the Dog story to pacify David, and we know Monica is not coming back 4 hours later to collect. As for Amistad receiving 0%, well it’s possibly the most brutal scene of the lot but the least relatable hence the zero votes.

So the flip side to the most harrowing, what is the most wondrous scene.

Most Wondrous Scene in a Spielberg film

Image result for mothership lands close encounters Mothership lands Close Encounters 34%

Image result for raiders of the lost ark opening scene Opening scene Raiders of the Lost Ark 31%

Image result for t rex attack jurassic park T-Rex attack Jurassic Park 20%

Image result for dolly zoom scene jaws Alex Kittner beach scene Jaws 15%

So with this one, I was looking for the scene that best epitomizes Spielberg and his films and as you can see it was a very close contest. For me, the last 30 minutes of Close Encounters is the finest piece of Cinema ever put together, whereas the opening of Raiders is possibly the finest opening to any film. The T-Rex attack has Spielberg at his most terrifying and the Alex Kittner scene in Jaws is the dictionary definition of the slow build, littered with red herrings and exquisite camera work.

It’s the Kitner scene, the way he draws u in to different characters who u believe will be the sharks next victim is brilliant!. The zoom in shot on Brody, splashing of water, and the final death of Alex who so happened to be wearing red which stood out but no one noticed @smurfman75

If those scenes were breathtaking, I wanted to know if there was one particular image that stood out as the most iconic in a Spielberg film.

Most iconic image in a Spielberg film

Image result for e.t fly past moon E.T and Elliot fly past the moon E.T 75%

Image result for The Aliens arrive Close encounter The orange doorway Close Encounters of the Third Kind 10%

Image result for red coat schindler's list The girl in the red coat Schindler’s List 8%

Image result for jurassic park glasses of water The glasses of water Jurassic Park 7%

All four images are instantly recognisable and emotive for very different reasons. Nothing captures that feeling of childlike wonder and amazement, however, than E.T and Elliot flying past the moon, it’s debatable whether there is a more iconic image in the history of cinema.

I’m now going to take a look at some of the very familiar faces who have appeared in Spielberg films who have either gone on to bigger and better things or already had achieved monumental things before appearing in a Spielberg film.

Best before they were famous performance in a Spielberg film

Image result for oprah winfrey color purple Oprah Winfrey The Color Purple 54%

Related image Samuel L Jackson Jurassic Park 33%

Image result for benedict cumberbatch war horse Benedict Cumberbatch War Horse 11%

Image result for ben stiller empire of the sun Ben Stiller Empire of the Sun 2%

Samuel L Jackson was a successful actor before Jurassic Park having starred in Menace to Society, Coming to America and Goodfellas but this pre- Pulp Fiction starrer as the chain-smoking technician Arnold was the first time he really put a stamp on a film. It’s sometimes easy to forget how good a performance Oprah gives in the Color Purple. Here the majority of you seem to agree.

I love Cumberbatch in that film but I gotta go with Oprah. @kkcorby14

Best after they were famous performance in a Spielberg film

Image result for richard attenborough jurassic park Richard Attenborough Jurassic Park 51%

Related image Francois Truffaut Close Encounters 32%

Image result for audrey hepburn always Audrey Hepburn Always 15%

Image result for michael lonsdale munich Michael Lonsdale Munich 2%

Big winner here for Richard Attenborough who played the often misinterpreted genius, John Hammond. Spielberg spoke about his nervousness of working with one of his heroes in Truffaut in Close Encounters but Truffaut is the audiences representative in this film with his sense of wide-eyed wonder and excitement. The stunt casting of Audrey Hepburn pays off with a charming little cameo in Always and ex-Bond villain Michael Lonsdale add a certain gravitas to Munich

Can’t measure with existing technology how fabulous Truffaut was for CE3K. His demeanor, his sense of wonder … so essential! ~P @Sibling_Cinema

Next up I want to take a look at his possibly misunderstood or lesser known films

Most derided Spielberg film which is actually pretty good and deserves a second chance.

Related image A.I Artificial Intelligence 40%

Image result for hook poster Hook 34%

Image result for indiana jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull movie poster Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 15%

Image result for 1941 movie poster 1941 11%

There was actually quite a lot of love shown to each of these films, they all obviously have fans, but they do also have a number of critics. There is no doubt in my mind that A.I is a stunning piece of work and should be respected by a much wider audience. Hook is a lot of fun and is great family entertainment, Crystal Skull is seen by many as the biggest disappointment in Spielberg’s career but that could be down to expectation more than anything else. As for 1941, well 11% are willing to stick up for it………good for you 🙂

if anyone says AI is bad, they have zero knowledge of filmmaking. AI is immortal! @CinemaPhileTX

Hook, A.I. Crystal Skull all could easily be deserving of this vote. But A.I. is a truly incredible movie that is criminally underrated. It gets my vote. @853_OKG

Best Spielberg film that nobody has seen but really should

Image result for always movie poster Always 30%

Image result for The Terminal movie poster The Terminal 26%

Image result for Amistad movie poster Amistad 25%

Image result for Sugarland Express movie poster The Sugarland Express 19%

Another close run contest this one. I am very fond of all of these movies and they should all be seen by a wider audience as each one tells a very different story of Spielberg’s career at the particular point of which they were made. In my opinion, The Terminal, in particular, is a charming film that was a rare lighter effort from Spielberg in a post Millenium decade where he was at his darkest

I voted Always. Saw it years ago when it first came out but had forgotten much about it. Rewatched on the recommendation of a friend and it was lovely and heartwarming. Holly Hunter was terrific. @kkcorby14

All are great films but Amistad is also important. A message that resounds especially today. @aillsley3

I’m now going to take a look at the sounds that we remember from Spielberg films by giving out awards for the best one-liner and the best music score

Best One-Liner

Image result for you're gonna need a bigger boat “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” Jaws 62%

Image result for life finds a way jurassic park quote “Life uh finds a way” Jurassic Park 23%

Image result for She talks in her sleep Indiana Jones quote “She talks in her sleep” IJ and the Last Crusade 15%

Image result for would it help bridge of spies “Would it help?” Bridge of Spies 0%

The often misquoted “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” was always going to win this one and to be fair why the hell not, it’s almost as iconic as the film itself. Ian Malcolm’s realisation in Jurassic Park is the culmination of one of the finest scripted scenes in a Spielberg film. Connery’s piece of perfect improvisation is possibly my favourite line ever and as for the 0% Bridge of Spies quote, well hopefully longevity will see this line immortalised in time to come.

Best Score

Image result for jaws theme sheet music Jaws main theme 37%

Image result for welcome to jurassic park sheet music Welcome to Jurassic Park 29%

Image result for the raiders march sheet music The Raiders March 24%

Image result for e.t flying theme sheet music E.T Flying theme 10%

I have to be honest I would be lost without the music of John Williams in my life. I listen to it daily, it has got me through some tough times, I feel it is a privilege that I am able to hear such wondrous music. It truly is a part of the cinematic experience. I want all readers to imagine for a moment what Elliot and E.T flying past the moon would be like without the music. Williams’s music has almost at times become a character in some of the movies, never more so than when his two-note motif in Jaws still to this day can send a shiver up the spine of all potential ocean paddlers, more than a malfunctioning rubber shark could ever want to.

I’d say Jaws. For me personally, I was familiar with the idea of a dorsal fin above the water accompanied by “daa dum” long before I had seen Jaws and even before I knew who John Williams was! I’d know a lot of other people who’d say the same thing. @JWilliams_Fan

Personally, Jurassic Park’s main theme gives the chills everytime. Raiders theme means pure adventure, but Jaws is the most iconic simply due to how pervasive it has been. People that haven’t even seen Jaws know it. It’s been used in endless parodies etc. @BoxOfficeBeyond

My final category involves a group of people who most people who have read this far will know the name but maybe not the face.

Spielberg’s unsung hero

Image result for michael kahn editor Michael Kahn Editor 39%

Image result for kathleen kennedy Kathleen Kennedy Producer 22%

Image result for janusz kaminski Janusz Kaminski Cinematography 22%

Image result for kate capshaw Kate Capshaw Wife 17%

All 4 of the above have played an integral part in the career of Steven Spielberg. He would possibly be half the filmmaker without one or more of them offering guidance and support. I salute them all.

Kahn is the man. Being an editor it is a very hard job to make the edit invisible. That is the brilliance of a film editor. Michael Kahn has done that for decades with Spielberg. @theburbsman

A tough one, but I have to go with Michael Kahn. The work of editors is often discussed/critiqued in reviews, but the editors themselves often go unmentioned. In a way, they’re like sculptors. What they do is nothing short of amazing and Kahn certainly has his mark on that. @GoNerdYourself

So there we go that is it for my Spielberg blogs, for now at least. I hope you have all enjoyed reading them. I have certainly enjoyed writing them, especially the research side of it.

As with all good award ceremonies and quite frankly some bad ones, I have some thank yous. I want to thank in particular the following people who have retweeted and promoted my blogs over the past year, and have also on occasion helped me with certain detail. They are Paul Bullock @apaulbullock, The guys at the Bearded Trio @thebeardedtrio  , the Spielberg Chronicles @SpielbergChron and all the following who have contributed in some way. 

If you like to follow people on Twitter who have intelligent, humourous and occasionally excitable conversations about film, you could do a lot worse than to give the following fine people a follow Darren Murphy @smurfman75  , KK @kkcorby14  , Marc Uren @uren_marc , That Film Geek @_ThatFilmGeek_ , EasyRidingRagingPodcast @ERRPodcast  , The CinemaPhile @CinemaPhileTX, Music By John Williams @JWilliams_Fan, Stephen Haller @theburbsman, Jim Rockford @853_OKG, Go Nerd Yourself @GoNerdYourself, A Film Club @afilmclub Amblin Road @AmblinRoad.

Thanks mainly go to anyone who has taken the time to have a read of these blogs, you’re all excellent people, and also thank you to Mr Spielberg for continuing to produce pieces of cinema that just put a smile upon my face. Here’s to many more over the coming years.

 

Spielberg the 1970s

Duel Poster The Sugarland Express Poster Jaws Poster Image result for close encounters of the third kind  1941 Poster

This blog was first posted in May 2017, and has been edited and updated in April 2019.

Welcome to the first of a series of blogs looking at the Cinematic work of Steven Spielberg across the decades starting here with a review of his work in the 1970s

I will take a look at each film in turn and comment on styles, trademarks and how he has changed over time as a filmmaker. I will look at how he was influenced and how his films have influenced others.

Obviously as a fan I highly rate the majority of his work but if you are concerned that this is going to turn into slushy love in for Spielberg then fear not, there are some of his films that I am not a fan of, including one that I rate as one of the most frustrating 10 films I have ever seen.

Each blog will take a look at each decade separately starting with the 1970s, a decade that began with Spielberg being talked about as director of taut thrillers in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Almost by accident, he was then catapulted into the stratosphere as the new Hollywood golden boy with astonishing, unexpected success. However, by the end of the 70s, his career had taken a considerable knock. The decade that had started so brightly was coming to an end with a monumental thud.

1970s

In the summer of 1968, Spielberg released Amblin, a mainly (apart from an ever-present soundtrack and the occasional giggle) silent 28-minute short film that was made in part to showcase his visual flair and shot construction. This charming tale of two strangers who meet whilst trying to hitchhike down a nameless American highway has no script and relies almost entirely on suggestion and apt visuals. It’s a curious piece that foreshadows upcoming road movies but scarcely hints at what was to come. The full 28-minute movie can be watched on YouTube and for devotees and completists, it is worth a viewing.

As a result of Amblin’s success, Spielberg found work directing episodes of TV shows such as Columbo and the middle segment of Night Gallery which starred Hollywood legend, Joan Crawford. Despite her diva reputation and initial reservations about “this kid” Spielberg and Crawford got on very well and remained close friends until her death in 1977.

Spielberg continued to progress and was finally given the green light to direct his first feature-length movie. It was to be a TV movie of the week in the USA but thanks to word of mouth and strong support it would receive a longer cut and theatrical release in Europe.

DUEL (1971)

I’d like to report a truck driver who’s been endangering my life

Duel Poster

 

13th November 1971 was the date that Steven Spielberg first began to tap away at the public consciousness of America when ABC aired his first full-length feature film Duel, the tale of mild-mannered suburbanite David Mann being chased along desert highways by a malevolent truck.

For an original running time for TV of 74 minutes, plot development and backstory are not required, terror and tension are the only items on the viewers’ menu. However, the more familiar cut of the film, that was played in cinemas across Europe in 1972 ran to a more theatrical 89 minutes and incorporated more subplot such as a heated telephone discussion with his wife who is frustrated with him for picking a fight at a party they had both attended the previous night.

The film survives purely on its slim concept and idea. A truck, whose driver is never seen, seems to have little motivation for the terror it afflicts on Mann, it is a cold killing machine, a bully of the highways, a forerunner perhaps to future nemeses such as the shark in Jaws or the calculated velociraptors in Jurassic Park.  There are early touches of Spielberg iconography throughout Duel, such as the sunburnt arid landscapes.  The handheld first-person camera techniques, a future staple of Spielberg films, are employed and used to create a sense of claustrophobia and tension experienced by some people in nightmares when an individual struggles to run away from a potential assailant.  The whole film is taken from David Mann’s point of view, we are with him all the way, we are desperate for him to get away, we want locals to help him, we want the car to have a bit more horsepower, we want him to be safe. David Mann himself is the first of a long line of lead protagonists who exist as an unremarkable everyday kind of guy who gets caught up in extraordinary situations.

The characterisation of Mann is an interesting one, initially, he is a wimpish character, crawling back to his wife to apologise in a public petrol station, but as the film progresses I get the feeling that Mann may have been getting some kind of masochistic kick from the ordeal he was going through. Take the dramatic hooks out of it for a moment and ask “Why didn’t he just turn around and go home?” Well if that viewpoint is too simplistic and plays into the hands of the plot hole seekers of online internet forums, does Mann continue on his journey in an attempt to face up to his responsibilities, prove his manhood if you will, is he secretly enjoying himself?

The scene in the cafe where Mann is trying to remain calm and figure out which one of the cafe’s patrons is the driver of the killing beast is full of enough nervous tension to be able to chew on. It’s ruined slightly by the intrusive narration which the studio insisted on for the TV movie, it’s a shame that Spielberg didn’t remove this from the theatrical release, after all, we are in no doubt at this point what is going through Mann’s mind.

As a viewer Duel is non-stop action that fills every second of the taut running time and is not layered with any sentimentality, a facet that would burden some of Spielberg’s later films. The climactic chase up the mountain as Mann’s car begins to lose fuel and power is nerve-shredding tension at its best. It is right up there with the likes of the shark attack on young Alex Kitner in Jaws or the T-Rex attack on Lex and Tim in Jurassic Park for sheer Spielberg adrenaline rush moments.

It’s incredibly showy in places, Spielberg camera movements are almost balletic with a “hey look what I can do with this shot” feel to them, but this is to be expected from a young director desperate to impress.  The overall balance of the film goes from taut Hitchcockian thriller to terrifying road movie. More than 40 years after its release it has aged remarkably well and still manages to scare the hell out of viewers. It is the first in a long line of Spielberg films that demands repeat viewings.

Why should you watch it?

Duel is packed full of themes and calling cards that Spielberg would continue to use throughout his career, such as the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Spielberg demonstrates to all his ability to build high tension and excitement whilst using the basic of techniques. Further to this at 83 minutes long why would you not want to take a second look.

The Sugarland Express 1974

I want my baby back

The Sugarland Express Poster Image result for Sugarland Express

Each decade that I will write about in these blogs features one film that passes under the radar for the casual Spielberg observer. These are the ones that would probably score single figures in the TV quiz Pointless should the contestants ever be fortunate enough to get a round asking to name a Steven Spielberg film. Despite being his Theatrical release debut in the US, Sugarland Express is the film from the 1970s that people tend to bypass on their way to bigger, and only in some cases, better things. This is a shame as there is plenty to enjoy in Sugarland and if looked at closely you will see many traits that will come to dominate Spielberg films for the next 4 decades and beyond.

Like Duel, Sugarland, which is loosely based on true events, is essentially a road movie as desperate mother, Lou-Jean (Goldie Hawn) helps her husband Clovis, (a typically weasly William Atherton), escape from prison to attempt to kidnap their young son who has been taken into care. Things do not go according to plan and before long they have what appears to be the entire Police force of Texas on their tail, which is heightened when Lou Jean and Clovis take hostage Highway Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks here somewhat fulfilling the Spielberg every day ordinary fella in extraordinary situation role). As the trio race across Texas, they start to become minor celebrities as local townsfolk begin to side with the young parents, and a media circus begins to develop around them. If the above all sounds a little dour, prison breaks, attempted kidnapping, hostage taking etc, then it’s worth pointing out that the first hour, in particular, is very light and is played subtly for laughs.

The issue I have with Sugarland is that it tonally shifts wildly in the final act as the breezy, humourous road movie descends into a dark, desperate conclusion that quite frankly has perhaps never been repeated by Spielberg since. It is clear in the final reel that this isn’t going to have the happy, victorious ending the viewers had invested in. Lou Jean and particularly the waspish Clovis both push the levels of goodwill that the audience built up for them and raise the real possibility that the authorities made the right decision to take their young son into care. Similarities between Bonnie and Clyde and to a lesser extent, Kit and Holly from Badlands are accurate, but unlike those two movies, it’s very difficult to root for a character like Clovis when in reality you would just like someone to give him a good slap.

That apart, Sugarland does have some high-quality set pieces, including a deafening shootout in a car lot and a police chase that demonstrated that Spielberg could handle action on a larger scale. Vilmos Zsigmund’s cinematography of dour and burnt landscapes is a welcome throwback to the superior Duel, and the performances, in particular from Sacks are engaging enough. I may not be Clovis’s biggest fan but Atherton plays him well in what is an early blueprint for future slimeballs in films such as Ghostbusters and Die Hard.

Sugarland also saw the first collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams. Williams and Spielberg collaborations have led to some of the most recognisable and popular film themes of the past 40 years, here William’s score can be seen as an analogy for Sugarland in general, a quiet, subtly effective score that gives little hint of what was to become in future partnerships between the two. A harmonica led bluesy score that never feels the need to be intrusive. The score never attempts to tell the audience what they should be feeling at any point, unlike say the score for Jaws which practically ratchets up the tension before anything is seen on the screen and works as a riveting plot device. The Sugarland score, is effective yet quiet and unassuming, a score that doesn’t necessarily jump out at you or live long in the memory, a gentle introduction of what was to follow for one of cinema’s greatest partnerships, which is startlingly similar to The Sugarland Express as a whole.

Why should you watch it?

Despite Sugarland’s low key reception and lack of appearances on most people’s Spielberg Top 10 lists, it does resoundingly reward repeat viewings. All the hallmarks are there, the family theme runs throughout, Zsigmonds’ beautifully parched and sunburnt landscapes paint the background to what is in all sense and purpose a tragic tale. It cannot be underestimated the contribution The Sugarland Express makes to the annals of popular culture as audiences bear witness to the first collaboration between John Williams and Steven Spielberg.

Jaws 1975

You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Jaws Poster Image result for jaws

Jaws is actually quite a difficult film for me to write about as it is very difficult to find things to say that hasn’t already been said many times by many people, so I will stick to what the film means to me. Firstly I probably watch Jaws 2 or 3 times a year, it’s on ITV4 all of the time so I don’t even need to get off my backside and faff around with DVDs, it’s very accessible. Earlier this year I showed it to my 12-year-old son, in an attempt to see what the current generation would make of a film built on tension, where the “monster” is only glimpsed in the final 3rd of the film.

It is well documented that the shoot was a tough one, an original 55-day schedule ballooned to 159 days, the mechanical shark steadfastly refused to perform and the young Spielberg was under enormous pressure to deliver with the plug threatened to be pulled at any time. However, it is with great credit to producers Brown and Zanuck that they stuck with their young apprentice as movie history was about to be made. The problems with the mechanical shark actually worked to Spielberg’s advantage. With so little usable footage of the oversized prop, Spielberg had to hint at the presence of the beast using clever camera techniques and the power of suggestion.  A personal favourite sequence of mine involved the two elderly fishermen who use their wives Sunday pot roast to attract the Shark. The shark naturally takes the bait and sets off back to the open water demolishing and dragging off the wooden jetty that the fishermen were perched on. As the fishermen flounder in the water, Spielberg produces a piece of subtle magic. Without any sight of the shark, the floating bits of wood stop heading in the direction of the vast open ocean and menacingly turn 180 degrees and start heading back to the fishermen. This visual flair and innovation would become staples of his work over the next few decades. The entire Alex Kittner beach sequence is a masterful scene full of visual red herrings and daring camera work that leaves the audience breathless after its alarming completion.

Apart from the vicious shark attacks, breakneck tension and thrills, Jaws would be nothing without the strong characters on screen, from the three leads to the colourful town folks who are cast perfectly from Murray Hamilton who plays the head in the sand County Mayor with particular slime and regret, to small but memorable turns from the likes of Jeffrey Kramer and Fritzi Jane Courtney, but its the three leads who all have placed themselves firmly into the annals of pop culture.

Roy Scheider plays Police Chief Martin Brody, a Police Officer who is scared of the water who spends the majority of the film trying to please everyone, from the business owners and mayor of Amity to his responsibilities as a father. Brody knows nothing about sharks and is the latest of Spielberg’s ordinary men in an extraordinary situation, Brody leads the exposition of Jaws, asking the questions that the audience wants to know “Is it true that most people get attacked by sharks in three feet of water about ten feet from the beach?”

Richard Dreyfuss makes the first of his 3 appearances for Spielberg as oceanographer Matt Hooper. Hooper is the conscience of the film, the doubting Thomas too much of the town’s hysteria. Hooper is the expert, the voice of reason that only Brody really listens too. Here Dreyfuss plays the exasperated Hooper as an embodiment of Spielberg’s personality. Hooper’s onscreen frustrations matching the offscreen problems that Spielberg went through making the movie.

Robert Shaw plays the most cliched character as the grizzled old sea dog Quint, a pro-fisherman who takes Brody and Hooper out to sea to catch and kill the shark. Quint barks and growls through the second half of the film, making life for his two companions, in particular, Hooper, difficult. As an audience member, we see the cantankerous Quint meet his untimely end and actually don’t feel too bad about it. We care about Brody and Hooper, we put up with Quint.

It is also impossible to write about Jaws without mentioning the iconic score from John Williams. Initially dismissed by Spielberg as a joke, the two-note shark motif has now passed into folklore as a sign of impending doom. Spielberg later confessed that not only was the score effective it was scarier than the mechanical shark itself and was a phenomenal tool in the tension building that particularly dominated the first 2 acts of the film. The problems with the mechanical shark were beginning to benefit Jaws. The nerve-jangling score coupled with rare glimpses of the shark, playing along similar lines to never seeing the driver of the truck in Duel, only heightened the fear that the audience was going through.

The success of Jaws was a surprise to everyone, none more so than Spielberg himself after the torturous shoot that had nearly broken him. After the distinctly under the radar Sugarland Express, Spielberg was now catapulted into the stratosphere, movies were big business again, the summer blockbuster was born, the mass merchandising was launched, the pressure was firmly on Spielberg now……how will he top or even match this? The answer to that will come in 2 years time with a film that even today stands as the definitive Steven Spielberg film.

N.B. my son loved it and it will also be remembered as the first time I  heard him utter a swear word when Ben Gardiner’s head popped out of the boat.

Why should you watch it?

Ok, if you are reading this blog it is highly unlikely that you have not seen Jaws at least a dozen times, but watch it again. Watch it for the quieter more subtle moments. Considering Jaws is widely regarded to have given rise to the bloated Summer Blockbuster it is an abject lesson in understatement. Due, in no small part to technical difficulties, the less-is-more, hidden terrors provide far more scares than if everything had gone to plan.

1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Have you recently had a close encounter… A close encounter with something very unusual?

Image result for close encounters of the third kind  Image result for close encounters of the third kind

The last 30 minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind are in my opinion the finest 30 minutes in the Spielberg canon, they may well be the finest 30 minutes in cinematic history. However, if you take away the aliens, the light show, the sheer wonder of the movie you are still left with a classic human drama of (this is a Spielberg film after all) an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Roy Neary starts the film as a nondescript family man, who has model trains in his living room and an inability to keep his young family under control. His life changes forever when Roy, who is an Indiana Electrical lineman, has his Close Encounter whilst investigating one of the large-scale power outages. The UFO files over Roy’s truck and burns part of his face, he then pursues the UFO, along with the Police over the Indiana highways. Roy’s encounter leads to him developing an obsession with UFOs much to the chagrin of his increasingly frustrated wife, Ronnie. He continues to see visions of a mysterious mountain,  in inanimate objects such as shaving cream and mashed potato, that seems to him to have a connection with the UFO. Over the course of the film Roy continues to alienate (pun very much intended) his family with his erratic behaviour , it is quite heartbreaking to witness Roy’s apparent descent into madness as his children openly weep at the dinner table ” I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.”

Spielberg has, you could argue, made a living out of portraying father figures as absent or abject failures. Here we have Neary, played at times almost maniacally by Richard Dreyfuss,  as the suburban dwelling father of 3 by the end of the film, he has deserted them all and set out on a life of his own. He be-friends Gillian, who also is having visions of the mountain after her son Barry is abducted by the Aliens. In one of the stand out scenes, that balances wonder and spectacle with elements of pure horror that leave the viewer checking their fingernails to see if there are any left, Spielberg again encourages the audience to use their imagination by not showing the abductors but by dazzling us with a light show that is just a prelude to the films last 30 minutes. Along with the lights, the manipulation and use of kitchen appliances add to the claustrophobia witnessed in some of the more graphic horror films of the 1970s. The constant orange glow recollecting the horrible scorched earth house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre as one example. As terrifying as Barry’s abduction scene is, and let’s be frank here, it is as nerve-jangling as anything in Jaws, there is a feeling that Spielberg’s is in full control and is showing to the world that Jaws was not a unique success and that he can produce spectacle on the biggest scale.

Spielberg’s personal coup with Close Encounters was to cast French New Wave director Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe a French government scientist in charge of UFO-related activities in the United States. Lacombe is the antithesis to Roy throughout the film, whereas Roy is battling personal demons and is descending down an almost Dante inspired path, Lacombe views the events unfolding before him with a childlike wonder. He reminds me in a way of Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, (a film that Close Encounters owes a massive amount too), by offering what little exposition is needed to the audience and by guiding Roy and the audience through the almost wordless ballet of the last 30 minutes.

So to the last 30 minutes which uses the old adage that a script should only have dialogue if the picture cannot tell the story. It is a masterclass in visual cinema. Using an old, disused, aircraft hangar, Spielberg designed the biggest set of its kind at the time. The mysterious mountain was revealed to be Devils Tower in Wyoming, which acted as a backdrop to the grand finale. The arrival of the majestic mothership keeps the promises that the audience has been made throughout the film. The sense of wonder and some may say childhood abandon that the cast of characters show as they watch the ship move into place is beautifully observed. The interactions with the aliens themselves are perfectly done, using sign language instead of actual dialogue. The odd line of dialogue, concurs with what the audience is thinking, “I just want to know that it’s really happening.” says an awestruck Roy.

Spielberg himself was unhappy with the final cut and wanted Columbia to allow him a further 6 months which was denied due to the severe financial troubles the studio was in at the time, they needed a big hit and now. To Columbia’s immense relief the film was a box office success, not quite to the excess of Jaws or another science-fiction movie released in 1977, but a success it was. Due to this Spielberg was allowed to go back and revisit the film in 1980 and produced what’s known as the Director’s cut. Columbia allowed him to do this on the proviso that he showed the inside of the mothership. Spielberg reluctantly agreed and added 5 minutes of footage at the end as Roy enters the mothership. It was not a popular move from the fans point of view and takes away from the wonder of the original, however, it is not as disastrous as some have reported. It certainly doesn’t bring anything new to the plot, Roy still abandons his family, the Aliens still leave Earth.

What is interesting when watching Close Encounters alongside Spielberg’s subsequent work, is that thematically Spielberg would make a very different film if he was to make it today. Spielberg himself has alluded to this in many interviews over the past 4 decades. He has publicly stated that if he was making the film now he would not have Roy abandoning his family and as a result, the story arcs would be different. Personally, I’m glad that Roy did abandon his family because it works for the story being told. We don’t know what happens to Ronnie and the family once Roy arrives at Devil’s Tower but quite frankly are we that bothered? I like most people like to see happy families but domestic bliss is not what Close Encounters is about. Its primarily about one man on a voyage of discovery, his treatment of his family is an unfortunate consequence of his change in psych. If Spielberg made Close Encounters post 2000 then I think some of the wonders may have been lost in a potentially over-sentimental ending that has dogged some of his more recent work.

Performance wise, its note-perfect. The aforementioned Dreyfuss and Truffaut are perfectly cast, but top marks must also go to Melinda Dillon as the single mum left devastated by the Alien abduction of her son Barry (a non-precocious gem of a child actor Carey Guffey). Bob Balaban gives able support but the stand out for me is Terri Garr, demonstrated what a fantastic but often underused actress she is as the put-upon and doubting Ronnie.

I make no secret of my love for Close Encounters, I try and find time to watch it 4 or 5 times a year and I always spot things I have never noticed before with repeat viewings. To me, it is the quintessential Spielberg film, with its sense of unending wonder, practical simple effects that makes the audience work, stories of fractured, suburbanite families, a wondrous score and a finale that makes you realise why you fell in love with cinema in the first place. I implore all of you to watch this film in the dark without any distractions….. you are repaid handsomely with every frame.

Why should you watch it?

As stated above, even to this day, this is the film that thematically sums up what Spielberg is about as a film maker. It is clearly a film about wonder, magic, childhood inquisitiveness and exploration. However it is more than that. It is a story about family, about self discovery, about trust and most importantly about hope. Despite the abandonment of the family, Close Encounters ending is a tale of success, acceptance and above all optimism.

1979 1941

Madness – it’s the only word to describe it. This isn’t the state of California, this is a state of insanity.

1941 Poster  Image result for 1941 film

After the critical and commercial success of Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg was now box office gold, the press labeled him the new golden boy of Hollywood. Studios were falling over themselves to offer him their upcoming projects. He was at one point linked with Superman, eventually made by Richard Donner and circled a number of projects before settling on his next choice. Spielberg had become a megastar, as famous and as sought-after as some of the leading box office stars of the 1970s. Films were marketed around the leading actors of the time. In the 70s it was the likes of Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and to some degree the likes of Jane Fonda and Barbara Streisand. Now there was a director, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg’s name above the title of a film was all that was needed to get public interest piqued. His last two films had changed the way that films, in particular, summer movies were made and marketed to the masses and Spielberg along with fellow movie brat and Star Wars creator George Lucas were seen as the main instigators in this. The world waited with baited breath to see what magic Spielberg would produce next.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Spielberg chose a comedy as his next project. People close to him, those who knew him well, questioned whether this was the sort of material that he could make work. Furthermore, this was a comedy set to the backdrop of the Pearl Harbour bombings that ultimately led to the US joining World War 2. What was ultimately produced is, in my opinion, Spielberg’s poorest film to date.

The film from the very first scene, a terribly misjudged spoof of the opening scene of Jaws, sets the tone for a film that at its best is wildly out of control, to at its worst offensive (is attempted rape ever funny???) and just plain annoying (Slim Pickens is the stand out of awfully grating performances here). Its an incredibly noisy film, every line delivered as if someone 10 miles away needed to hear it at the time, and the attempt to fill the screen with non-stop spectacle constantly gets away from Spielberg. Looking at it now it would appear that the young director was untouchable with studio execs not daring to reel in their young superstar when what 1941 desperately needed was an Editor who would have steered the film to safer water. This is surprising when you think of the work that Michael Kahn had just produced on Close Encounters and would continue to do over the next 40 years of Spielberg, but I guess like the director himself everyone is entitled to a bad day. The shoot alone took a staggering 247 days and reports suggest that Spielberg shot over a million feet of film during that time. If that doesn’t demonstrate the chaos that was the shoot then I’m not sure what does.

Sadly positives are as rare as a quietly spoken line of dialogue, however, I will offer praise to Robert Stack who gives a charming performance as Major Stillwell who spends the majority of his screen time sat in a cinema watching Dumbo whilst the carnage continues unabated outside. There is also a terrific visual gag that involves an out of control (what else) tank going through a paint factory and getting splattered as it crashes into giant vats of paint only for it to then career through a paint thinner factory and come out the other side looking brand new. That scene apart however, 1941’s biggest problem is that it’s just not funny. It tries really hard and the ideas are there but the execution is completely out of control.

Co-written by Robert Gale and Robert Zemeckis who would go onto much better things such as Back to the Future, it seems in an attempt to impress they threw every idea they had at the script without the realisation that a semblance of order and plot is required to make a film watchable. Spielberg shows the chink in his armour with material that he never seems to have a firm handle on, I doubt it is no coincidence that he has not directed a straight out comedy since.

The film was a box office and critical failure. It is too long and could easily lose 30 minute of subplot that adds nothing of interest. For the first time, the knives were out for Spielberg and questions were raised whether his previous output had been some kind of glorious fluke. Here was a director who had largely been left to his own devices but had gone months over schedule and budget and delivered a mish-mash of a film that frustrated and annoyed in equal measure. I personally find it very difficult to watch and is by some distance my least favourite of his theatrical movies so far. I stated at the start of this blog that one of the films from the 1970s was in the top 10 worst films I have ever seen, obviously, this is 1941 but I think that is down to disappointment as much as anything.

STOP PRESS Since first publishing this blog I have written a further piece on 1941 explaining why, despite its flaws, it remains an essential part of Spielberg’s filmography. You can read that here Why we should all be eternally grateful that Spielberg made 1941

Why should you watch it?

You should watch 1941 to demonstrate an old cliche that you learn more as a person from your mistakes than your successes. The films bombastic excess has never been repeated by Spielberg and his films are more professionally put together as a result of 1941. I have watched it again recently and I smiled more than I did previously. It is still a tough watch for me but I am aware that it has it’s fans which is great. If you haven’t seen it before, give it a go.

Summary

So there you have it, the 1970s, 5 films made with wild abandon and imagination. A steady if at times unspectacular start that then exploded into mega box office and mega-stardom. The decade then finished with a quite frankly abysmal film. Spielberg’s confidence was knocked by this setback, he needed a hit, he needed people to believe in him again, luckily a close friend was on hand to offer Spielberg an opportunity to show that 1941 was a blip. This opportunity would be the creation of one of the most iconic characters in movie history.

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