The Cinematic Work of Steven Spielberg: The 1970s
As a fan of Steven Spielberg, Dominic Holder took it upon himself to go back and analyze each of the legend’s films through each decade by highlighting their styles, trademarks, and the influences that Spielberg had as well as future films that he would in turn influence himself. In part 1, Holder starts with looking back at the 1970’s. To check out the original article, check out Holder’s website by clicking here.
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 flare and shot construction. This charming tale of two strangers who meet while 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 is 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, Crawford got along very well with him 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.
“I’d like to report a truck driver who’s been endangering my life.”
November 13th, 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 back story are not required. Terror and tension are the only items on the viewer’s menu. However, the more familiar cut of the film that was played in cinemas across Europe in 1972 ran at 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, who’s driver is never seen, seems to have little motivation for the terror it afflicts on Mann. It is a cold killing machine, a precursor perhaps to future nemesis such as the shark in Jaws or the calculated velociraptors in Jurassic Park. There are also early touches of Spielberg iconography throughout Duel, such as the sunburnt, arid landscapes.
The hand-held 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 horse power; we want him to be safe. David Mann himself is the first of a long line of lead protagonists who exist as an unremarkable every day kind of guy who gets caught up in extraordinary situations in Spielberg films.
The characterization of Mann is an interesting one. Initially he is a whimpish character, crawling back to his wife to apologize in a public petrol station. But as the film progresses, I got 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, does Mann continue on his journey in an attempt to face up to his responsibilities — prove his manhood if you will — and 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, however. 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.
For the viewer, Duel is non-stop action that fills every second of its 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 techniques have 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.
The Sugarland Express (1974)
“I want my baby back.”
Each decade that I will write about in these articles features one film that passes under the radar for the casual Spielberg observer. 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 weaselly 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 Patrol man 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 shifts tone 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 shoot out 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 throw back 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 recognizable and popular film themes of the past 40 years, here William’s score can be seen as 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. It’s 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.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Jaws is actually quite a difficult film for me to write about as it is very difficult to find things to say that haven’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 TV 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 until 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 and the mechanical shark steadfastly refused to perform. 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 favorite 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 onscreen. 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, it’s obviously 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 like “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 an oceanographer Matt Hooper. Hooper is the conscience of the film, the doubting Thomas to much of the towns 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 match the offscreen problems that Spielberg went through making the movie.
Robert Shaw plays the most clichéd 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 more scary 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 fears that the audience were handling.
The success of Jaws was a surprise to everyone, but none more so than Spielberg himself after the tortuous shoot that had nearly broke 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 came in 2 years time with a film that even today stands as the definitive Steven Spielberg film.
Note: my son loved it and it will also be remembered as the time I first heard him utter a swear word when Ben Gardiner’s head popped out of the boat.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
“Have you recently had a close encounter… A close encounter with something very unusual?”
The last 30 minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind are in my opinion the finest 30 minutes in the Spielberg cannon. They may well be the finest 30 minutes in cinematic history. However, if you take away the aliens, the light show, and 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 inability to keep his young family under control. His life changes forever when Roy, who is an Indiana Electrical lineman, has his Close Encounter while investigating a large-scale power outages. The UFO flies 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 that seems to him to have a connection with the UFO in inanimate objects such as shaving cream and mashed potatoes. Over the course of the film Roy continues to alienate (pun very much intended) his family with his erratic behavior. 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 — one could argue — made a living out of father figures or indeed a lack of and their influence over the ensuing story. Here we have Neary — played at times almost maniacally by Richard Dreyfuss — as he starts 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 befriends 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 of the movie that balances wonder and spectacle with elements of pure horror that leaves 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 adds 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 is one example.
As terrifying as Barry’s abduction scene is, and let’s be frank here, it is just as nerve jangling as anything in Jaws. There is a feeling that Spielberg 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 descending down an almost Dante-inspired path, Lacombe views the events unfolding before him with 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 opera of the last 30 minutes.
The last 30 minutes uses the concept 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 that the cast of characters show as they watch the ship move into place. 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 immediately. 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 is 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 and the aliens still leave Earth in the end.
What is interesting when watching Close Encounters alongside Spielberg’s subsequent work is that Spielberg would make a very different film if he was to make it today from a thematic perspective. 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.
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. It’s primarily about one man on a voyage of discovery and his treatment of his family is an unfortunate consequence of his change in psyche. If Spielberg made Close Encounters post-2000 then I think some of the wonder may have been lost in a potentially over-sentimental ending that has dogged some of his more recent work.
Performance wise, it’s note perfect. The aforementioned Dreyfuss and Truffaut are perfectly cast, but top marks must also go to Melinda Dillon as the single mom 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 Teri Garr as she 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, stories of fractured, suburbanite families, a wondrous score and a finale that makes you realize 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.
“Madness –- it’s the only word to describe it. This isn’t the state of California, this is a state of insanity.”
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 gain public interest. 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 bated 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 questioned whether this was the sort of material that he could make worse. Furthermore, this was a comedy set to the backdrop of the Pearl Harbour bombings that ultimately led to the US joining World War II. What was ultimately produced is in my opinion Spielberg’s poorest film to date.
The very first scene is a terribly misjudged spoof of the opening scene of Jaws, and it sets the tone for a film that at its best is wildly out of control. At its worst offensive (is attempted rape ever funny???), and it’s just plain annoying (Slim Pickens is the stand out of awfully grating performances here). It’s an incredibly noisy film, every line is 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. However, 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 in a theater watching Dumbo while 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 careen 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 that, in an attempt to impress, they threw every idea they had at the script without the realization that a semblance of order and plot is required to make a film watchable. Spielberg shows a chink in his armor with material that he never seems to have a firm handle on. I doubt it is no coincidence that he has not directed a full-on 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 favorite of his theatrical movies so far.
So there you have it — 5 films made with wild abandon and imagination. A steady if at times unspectacular start that then exploded into mega box office success and mega stardom. The decade then finished with a quite frankly abysmal film. Spielberg’s confidence was knocked by this set back. He needed a hit and 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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