The Films of Stephen Spielberg

  1. Duel (1971)
  2. The Sugarland Express (1973)
  3. Jaws (1975)
  4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  5. 1941 (1979)
  6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition (1980)
  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  8. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
  9. The Color Purple (1985)
  10. Empire of the Sun (1987)
  11. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
  12. Always (1990)
  13. Hook (1991)
  14. Jurassic Park (1993)
  15. Schindler's List (1993)
  16. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
  17. Amistad (1997)
  18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
  19. A.I. (2001)

Duel (1971)

Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Starring Dennis Weaver.

The 24-year-old Spielberg was under tremendous time pressure with this feature-length television movie. Universal wanted it on the air three weeks after shooting finished (and though I don't know the particulars, I imagine that the shooting schedule was similarly abbreviated). Given these restraints, he had no time to be fancy, no time to fuss around with elaborate set-ups the way most first-time directors tend to do. Instead, he brought all of his young talent and experience to bear on just getting the damn thing done on time. Thus, what we see in DUEL is serviceable filmmaking, for the most part. However, the script was a good fit for Spielberg. It has very little dialogue and a huge emphasis on suspense, the kind of suspense that is created solely by visuals, by crosscutting. This young director somehow knows all of the tricks already, and he puts them to work with confidence. It's all grit and no flair, but it gets the job done.

The story is about a man trying to travel along spare California highways in time to make it to an appointment that his wife insists he keep. Played by Dennis Weaver, this man is a paper-thin character. He really doesn't need any backstory or depth; all that matters is that as soon as he gets on the road, he's at the mercy of a sooty black behemoth of a truck, a metaphorical fire-breathing dragon. One of the film's gimmicks is that neither we nor Weaver ever get to see the face of the truck's driver. Even though there is a driver, for the most part the truck itself seems to be the antagonist; an unstoppable, amok machine that belches smoke and roars with power. Weaver himself is driving a tiny red car with very little power. The only advantage he ever has over the truck is on steep grades, but at the crucial moment even this is lost; a bad radiator hose, long foreshadowed, craps out. More suspense.

It's all suspsense; it's one long Hitchcock groove, one long slow build and burn. The truck is at first an innocuous road annoyance; in the first few minutes of the movie, Weaver passes it. Somehow this sticks in the craw of the truck's unseen driver, who then begins to play games with Weaver. The truck pulls ahead of him and then drives at a snail's pace. When Weaver again tries to pass, the truck swerves to cut him off. Over the course of this long sequence, the truck driver's malevolence slowly becomes apparent. A brawny arm reaches out of the shadowy cab, waving Weaver on, allowing him to pass on a curve. When Weaver accelerates, an oncoming car suddenly appears, nearly colliding head-on with him.

The duel begins at about this point. Instead of being scared off, Weaver decides to assert himself. Swerving along a parallel dirt road at high speed, he manages to pass the truck and come out in front again. This proves to be a bad move. The truck becomes an angry giant, roaring up the road with a clear intent to smash Weaver's car. Helplessly, Weaver guns it, but his car just doesn't have enough oomph to maintain any sort of lead on the truck. As the chase accelerates to 90 miles an hour, Weaver makes a swift course-correction, pulling off the road near a diner, and crashing into a fence.

The movie itself takes a roadside detour here, entering a long suspense session centered around Weaver's attempts to guess the identity of the truck driver. At this point, the stakes have been established: life or death. Or maybe not? Weaver, in a voice-over interior monologue, tries to find a sane explanation for the murderous chase. Just when he's calmed himself down, he spots the truck parked outside the diner, waiting for him. The game isn't over, and it won't be over until one of them wins. It's a duel of cars and wits. The rest of this movie plays out this duel; there is a pivotal moment when Weaver's character actually figures out that it is, in fact, a duel between him and the truck driver. The truck driver has a chance to destroy Weaver's car, but stops, waits a beat, and then settles on the road's shoulder to wait for Weaver to climb back into it. Without a word needing to be said (although Weaver does the equivalent of rolling up his sleeves and saying, "All right, if it's a duel you want, I'll give you a duel."), we understand that he now understands. The truck driver is doing the equivalent of gentlemanly handing a disarmed Weaver his weapon so that the duel can proceed fairly. Or unfairly, as the case well is. After a white-knuckle suspense chase up and down a steep grade, Weaver pulls out his winning move, a combination toreador cape-blinding bluff on the behemoth metal bull, using his car as the cape, and a game of chicken. The truck collides with the car, the driver is blinded by the flames, and the whole rig spills in slow motion over a cliff.

This is 1971; standard action movie tropes are absent, possibly because James Cameron is still a college student and has yet to invent them. Weaver doesn't utter a witty catch-phrase before dispatching the truck, the truck (though unsettlingly tagged as "FLAMMABLE") does not explode when it hits the canyon floor, and, most surprisingly, when it's dead, it's dead. These days, it would be de rigeur for the bloodied (and most likely, charred-faceless, since the truck would have become engulfed in an inferno of its own cargo) truck driver to make a sudden appearance, attacking Weaver with a pipe of twisted metal. A final mano-a-mano fistfight would ensue, and the truck driver would finally die. Or not. A post-Cameron villain has to die at least three deaths before really, really breathing its last. But this is 1971, and the movie just ends, with Weaver, carless and alone in the desert, sitting in the fading sunlight and absently tossing rocks down the cliffside at his defeated opponent. The credits roll over this image.

So that's the movie. Are there any Spielberg trademarks in evidence here? Some, to be sure. He likes wide lenses, allowing him to place the camera close to actors and still see a fairly wide sweep of background behind them. There are shots taken in rear-view mirrors that show up again, although with better understanding of their specific use as part of a film's grammar and storytelling, in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1973) (more on that film later). There is a natural inventiveness in where he puts the camera; in a film in which probably 80% of the shots are of either Weaver's car, the truck, or both of them, cruising on a highway, Spielberg demonstrates a fluid ability to consistently add variety to the movie's visuals. In the early chase scene, the camera tends to stay in or around Weaver's car, and the shots of the truck are taken at a distance. Later on, the camera is sometimes lashed onto the top of the rig, or screams along the road, inches from its mammoth wheels.

There is a shot in the movie that follows Weaver as he walks into a diner and back into the men's room, perhaps the most elaborate single set-up in the movie, shortly followed by its reverse, of Weaver leaving the men's room, walking to the diner's window, and catching the reveal of the truck parked outside. (I'd have to watch it again to be sure, but I think there are cuts inside the men's room, and that it isn't all one long shot, just two long ones stitched together.) The camera starts this first tracking shot inside the diner, but the view is of Weaver walking outside, as seen through one of the diner's windows. Camera inside, Weaver outside, then he leaves the bright exterior and enters the darkened interior. Spielberg used this same move, perhaps a year earlier, in an episode of Columbo. (I remember watching this episode, thinking the director was doing some interesting things, and was happily surprised to see Spielberg's name pop up at the end credits.) It also calls to mind something at the other end of the spectrum, the maybe-famous shot from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) in which Mrs. Ryan, the title character's mother, sees the car approaching that brings her the devastating news that four of her children have been killed in combat. The camera sits in the darkened interior, while outside the car pulls up and the men get out. Here, though, the woman leaves the darkness and steps outside. It tells me that Spielberg is still playing with a visual idea that he was using as early as 1970.


The Sugarland Express (1973)

Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Starring Goldie Hawn and William Atherton.

DUEL was a television movie. THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1973) was Spielberg's inaugural feature film. In it, he gets to spread his wings and express himself more fully, using pretty much the full cinematic vocabulary he put to use in for the next two decades, until he threw out the book and started from scratch, broading and maturing his skills, with SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993).

What's interesting to me, primarily, about THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is that it's a scrappy little Texas road movie, the kind of thing a whole young generation of native (or neo-native) Texas filmmakers has been doing. It seems like Texas is a good place for young directors to cut their chops; Richard Linklater and the Coen brothers spring to mind; there's also the movie LOVE AND A .45, whose director I'm forgetting, unfortunately, which bears a number of similarities to SUGARLAND. Texas landscapes, Texas cars, leathery good ol' boys, gruff God-fearing sheriffs -- they're all here in Spielberg's first feature film.

Goldie Hawn and William Atherton play a young couple who kidnap a peace officer and set out to Sugarland, Texas, where they hope to rescue their young son from his foster parents and then escape to Mexico. An introductory title informs us that this is based on a real-life incident that took place in Texas in 1969. Spielberg gets shared story credit but not screenplay credit; presumably, he wrote up a treatment based on this story, and sold it to the producers David Zanuck and Richard Brown (who would subsequently produce Spielberg's third movie, the mega-hit JAWS (1975)).

It's a mostly warm and funny human story, directed with an emphasis on the lightly comic moments that nettle all human beings -- a Spielberg trademark if there ever were one. For example, in the very first shot of the movie, a confidently slow-and-easy tracking shot from a tangle of Texas highway signposts (perhaps serving as a metaphor -- just getting from A to B in Texas isn't going to be a nice, straight trip), to a reveal of the heroine, leaving a bus that has approached from the horizon, has a bit of fumbly foreground action. There's a guy working on an old junk-heap of a car; as he opens the passenger side door, it falls off, clunking out of his hands onto the ground. Little bits of humorous business like this litter Spielberg's early features; he seems to have a bottomless well of them.

Where this film departs from Spielberg's next dozen efforts is in its sad and somber ending. It is no doubt the way the real story ended, but it's a bummer, almost a misfit given the bubbly spirits and human cameraderie he's spent an hour establishing. Interviewed about SUGARLAND, Spielberg admitted to what he called "a moment of weakness," in which he went to Zanuck and Brown and said that he really wanted this movie to be a hit, and that he wanted to re-shoot the ending: now the young couple make it to Mexico, she gets her baby back, it's a happy ending, the audience cheers. He describes being shamed by Zanuck and Brown into sticking with the ending he wrote in the treatment that they bought from him. Spielberg was humbled and recanted, but his instincts were absolutely right. With that ending, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS might have been his first hit, and it would have fit without a hitch into the rest of his 70s and 80s filmography. Already he knew what you needed to do to make an audience stand up and cheer. Two years later, he went against the advice of JAWS author Peter Benchley and ended that movie with Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) shooting an oxygen canister and blowing up the shark but good, to the delighted cheers of an audience unfazed by the hokeyness of this resolution.

A trademark Spielberg move appears early in SUGARLAND, blocking his actors in an alternation of horizontal (x-axis) and deep (z-axis) movement. Hawn and Atherton start by approaching the camera, then shift sideways, right to left. Both pause in a classic, profiled, medium two-shot. There's a great moment of parallel movement here. Hawn, on screen left, has momentarily turned away from Atherton. Just as she spins her head back to face him, an off-screen child's squeal attracts Atherton's attention, and his head spins in the same direction, at the same speed, at the same time, so that they're still not looking at each other. This same shot continues, without cutting, as the two characters walk forward again, approaching the now-static camera. They end up framed in a close-up two shot, again in profile, only now Atherton is on screen left and Hawn on the right. At this point, standard shot-reverse shot cutting, in closeup, commences. This is skilled craftsmanship and trademark Spielberg staging. He uses it over and over again, and it serves him well. Until I really started studying his movies, this staging never caught my notice; it's a fluid way of keeping things moving in a scene that's heavy on dialogue. Rarely do characters stay still to talk to each other in a Spielberg movies; he enjoys movement, feels an almost fussy need to fill the screen with it at all times. Sometimes this can result in a waterlogging overload, as in 1941 (1979), but that movie probably taught him a good lesson in restraint; in picking and choosing.

There is one absolutely extraordinary single shot in SUGARLAND, one that impresses in direct proportion to how much you know about making movies, and what it must have taken to get that shot on film. In another Spielberg trademark, there are two horizontal planes of action on the screen (we see this used many times in SUGARLAND alone). In the foreground and in the middle-background (the background itself being the darkening sky and straight-razor Texas horizon), two officers, each driving his own car. We see the further of the two through the window of the first officer's car, and there is some slip and slide as they keep pace with each other, driving side by side on the highway. They are talking over their police radios. A rather amazing (if not practically motivated) visual cue signals which one is talking and which one is listening: the light on their faces changes from red to green when they click the talk button on their radio mics, kind of a go/stop light alternation. It adds a bit of flash to a scene that's not really about anything; I can't even remember who these characters were in relation to the story.

The whole scene is in one take, and seems to be there just to show off; however, it's worth it, as I was left slack-jawed by the end of it. After this dialogue finishes, the camera slowly starts trailing off. This means that the whole time these two actors were keeping pace with each other, keeping each other framed nicely in each other's windows and what not, and continuing their dialogue, and chewing gum and snapping bubbles, and the red and green lights clicked on and off their faces, the camera wasn't even locked down to the foreground car, but was on yet a third vehicle keeping pace with the first two. Amazing. What really finished me off was that the camera lags away and turns to point down the road, giving us a view of the two police cars sailing off into an absolutely miraculous technicolor sunset. You know, a real sunset, blazing with colors, dancing light off of a perfect arrangement of fluffy white Texas clouds, the highway shooting straight to sunset in the western horizon. This means that they managed to pull off this shot in real time while an actual sunset was going on.

I have no idea how many times they attempted this (perhaps two takes at the end of each shooting day for several days), but getting it at all, let alone a perfect take of it, is miraculous. It's also a frighteningly ballsy demand to make on your crew, your actors, and your penny-watching producers. As soon as they got the dailies back on this shot, though, you know there must have been smiles all around. Again, it has no real point or place in the movie itself; it just sort of stands there alone, a shining little tour-de-force, a totally reckless gamble. I wonder what Spielberg's inspiration was -- whether it was just one of those holy visions in his head, ex nihilo, or whether it was based on something he'd seen, say, David Lean pull off once upon a time. If I ever get the chance to sit and talk to him, maybe I'll remember to ask.


Jaws (1975)

Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Starring Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss.

I'm pretty sure I saw this in the theater when it came out, but it was years until I discovered it again on video. I was the first one in line to buy the DVD when it came out this year, because this is still one of the best movies ever. It sort of created a genre and then stood towering above all of its many spawns and clones for all time.

I suppose it didn't exactly invent the genre. The Birds comes to mind. It does show the young Spielberg demonstrating fantastic prowess. One could look at it as a bit show-offy, with every composition of every frame of every scene being done in such a way as to impress. It sure impresses me, anyway. The sheer number of cinematic ideas Spielberg crams into this production is scary. For every one idea the average director might have, Spielberg seems to come up with five or six, as well as the cleverness and craftsmanship to stitch them all together for maximum effect.

I definitely recommend seeing Jaws, if for no other reason than to see the nighttime scene on the boat where Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and the late great Robert Shaw trade scar stories -- a great scene that pushes the whole (let's face it, silly) movie into a higher plane of entertainment.