Category Archives: Directed by Steven Spielberg

Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg)

The first act of Duel ought to be enough to carry it. Spielberg’s direction, Frank Morriss’s editing, even Jack A. Marta’s workman photography—it’s spellbinding. It even gets through lead Dennis Weaver calling home to fight with his wife and revealing to the audience he’s a wuss. See, last night he and the wife went to a party and some guy groped her and Weaver didn’t do anything and now she’s mad. Jacqueline Scott’s the wife. She’s in one scene, a handful of shots, at home taking care of the kids after the incident while Weaver’s driving across the state (of California) for a business meeting. The whole account depends on it, but really it’s because he’s a wuss. Weaver’s a wuss, which… isn’t actually part of Duel’s initial narrative impulse because the phone call to the wife is added material for the theatrical release. Duel is a TV movie turned theatrical release (for international markets).

Weaver’s even more of an annoying wuss because he puts up his leg in a very pseudo-macho way while on the phone. It’s weird. And it’s a lot, but Duel can get through it because it’s so well-made.

See, Weaver’s driving to this meeting and he pisses off a truck driver. That truck driver starts messing with Weaver, not letting him pass, roaring past him, waving him on into another vehicle. A rural highway nightmare. What’s Weaver going to do about it with his machismo posturing after all. But Weaver doesn’t really matter—not even as much as the comedy bit playing on his radio—what matters is how Spielberg and Morriss tell this story. Well, to be fair to writer Richard Matheson… relate this anecdote.

And if Duel were a short or led Psycho-style into something else, it’d be fine. But once Weaver gets around other people and starts narrating the film with his thoughts… there’s only so much good filmmaking can do and covering for Weaver’s basically obnoxious performance is too much. Especially given how the narration doesn’t exactly sync up with the character onscreen and definitely not in the implications of his relationship with Scott. Because it turns out—though it’s a single mention then gone—Weaver’s a Vietnam vet and he might be suffering from some kind of PTSD. It’s such a surprise you spend the entire scene where white collar Weaver is trying to figure out how to speak with blue collar working men—he’s going to tell off the truck driver, who he thinks is in this roadside restaurant with him—wondering how the hell Weaver made it back alive.

There’s no help from Weaver on it, of course (I get the feeling hearing Weaver describe his character would be a trip), because his performance is… a step too far into disbelief. Killer truck driver who runs cars off the road then goes and gets their plates as trophies, yes. Dennis Weaver not being able to make a traumatized beta male sympathetic in the slightest, no.

The second half of the film—basically everything following the restaurant and Weaver’s narration starting—moves fast but not well. Nothing Weaver does is reasonable (he’s already missed the meeting, yet continues driving towards it even though the film’s established he can’t be late), Spielberg gets obvious in the reveals. Not to mention when the truck does finally turn into a six ton slasher and go all in on attacking Weaver and anyone around him (though not the school bus, in an inserted for the theatrical sequence; because Weaver in danger isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic as annoying school kids), it’s only impressive as far as the stunt driving goes.

Duel’s beautifully made for a while, then it’s well-executed albeit middling, then it’s a little tedious. Given it’s a real-ish time thriller about White middle class suspicions of the White working class being validated in a terrifying way… it shouldn’t get tedious. The tediousness of the third act is interesting—somehow Duel still moves at a good pace but Weaver’s so annoying in the action it drags.

Spielberg wanted Weaver for the role because of Weaver’s turn as the creepy motel employee in Touch of Evil, which… is definitely not the same skillset required of the role in Duel, which basically turns into a “Twilight Zone” episode once the narration starts.

So it’s this great short film with this okay “Twilight Zone” episode tacked on around halfway in.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Jack A. Marta; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Billy Goldenberg; produced by George Eckstein; released by Cinema International Corporation.

Starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Chuck), Lou Frizzell (a bus driver), and Carey Loftin (a truck driver).


Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)

Catch Me If You Can is a spectacular showcase for Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t exactly rise up to meet him, not the filmmaking, not the writing, not his costars. With the exception of co-lead Tom Hanks, who’s a whole other thing, the direction, the writing, the supporting cast, they’re all tied together in a less than impressive knot.

Let’s get the filmmaking out of the way first.

Spielberg’s direction is adequate, at least as far as the composition goes. It’s never too good, it’s never too bad. The film opens with these extremely cute animated opening titles, but they go on way too long and the accompanying John Williams music is some of the film’s least impressive as far as the score goes. And the score’s usually middling so to open on a low point… Not a great start. Then the movie goes into the framing device (getting ahead of myself on the script problems) as FBI agent Hanks is trying to get DiCaprio out of a French prison. There’s something very affected about the style, with Spielberg mimicking late fifties and early sixties style without bringing anything new to it. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski don’t show the mid-sixties through rose colored glasses as much as they artificially twinkle the past. Everything shimmers with unreality, which kind of hurts the true story angle as Catch Me rarely shows how DiCaprio is pulling off his cons. Plus the age discrepancies. DiCaprio’s twenty-eight playing seventeen playing twenty-eight. It mostly works, thanks to DiCaprio’s performance but against some of what Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson throw at him; there are significant hiccups.

Like Christopher Walken as DiCaprio’s WWII vet dad. Walken’s sixty; he looks pretty good for sixty. But he was supposed to be some kind of forty-year old grunt in WWII? Again, Catch Me’s fast and loose with its hold on reality but given it’s all about the amazing things DiCaprio’s character was actually able to do… not having to constantly suspend and re-suspend disbelief would be nice. Walken’s actually good, even if he’s a stunt cast and his part is so thin he’s just doing a generic Christopher Walken performance. Nathanson doesn’t do character development or texture. Even when the story needs it. Spielberg doesn’t help with it either; it’s DiCaprio’s movie but Spielberg’s more concerned with Hanks’s FBI agent.

Let me just use that to segue into Hanks. Hanks is not good. He does a questionable and pointless accent, presumably to make the character seem less flat, and there’s nothing else to it. First act, it seems like Hanks might go someplace—and the film does try to force him into a paternal relationship with DiCaprio, which doesn’t work—but it’s a nothing part. It’s not even engaging enough to be a caricature. Nathanson’s a shockingly thin writer.

Okay, maybe not shockingly. It’s not like the script’s ever got any more potential than it delivers. But Spielberg really does just go along with it. The female roles are exceptionally thin; they’re all dumb and easy, whether it’s bank teller Elizabeth Banks, flight attendant Ellen Pompeo, working girl Jennifer Garner, or nurse Amy Adams. Worse is when DiCaprio ends up staying longterm with Adams, it’s never clear why; especially since the movie makes fun of her so much. Though, I suppose, even worse is when Adams brings her parents into the film. Martin Sheen—in a stunningly bad bit of stunt-casting—is bad. Nancy Lenehan is mom, with zip to do, which is actually much better for her than, say, Nathalie Baye as DiCaprio’s mom. Baye gets the film’s worst part by far.

Through it all, DiCaprio manages to keep his head up and keep Catch Me working. He contends with some questionable makeup decisions, never getting to followthrough on set pieces, and the astoundingly bad pop culture reference. There’s a truly incompetent James Bond Goldfinger sequence, which ought to be a gimme but instead Spielberg completely fumbles it.

Spielberg never takes Catch Me If You Can seriously enough, from the casting to the writing to Kaminski’s silly photography. DiCaprio takes it seriously, to good effect. Hanks takes it seriously, to… if not bad effect, at least wanting. It’s a glossy, trite trifle. Could’ve been a lot more.

Though not with the same script, supporting cast, principal crew members, or director.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, based on the book by Frank Abagnale Jr. and Stan Redding; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; costume designer, Mary Zophres; produced by Spielberg and Walter F. Parkes; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Abagnale Jr.), Tom Hanks (Carl Hanratty), Christopher Walken (Frank Abagnale), Nathalie Baye (Paula Abagnale), James Brolin (Jack Barnes), Amy Adams (Brenda Strong), Martin Sheen (Roger Strong), Nancy Lenehan (Carol Strong), Brian Howe (Earl Amdursky), Frank John Hughes (Tom Fox), Ellen Pompeo (Marci), Elizabeth Banks (Lucy), and Jennifer Garner (Cheryl Ann).


The Sugarland Express (1974, Steven Spielberg)

After setting up Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as the protagonists, Sugarland Express takes about an hour to get back to them. Hawn and Atherton have an amazing setup–he’s about to get out of prison and has been transferred to pre-release. Hawn comes to visiting day but to break him out. She’s just gotten out of jail and the state took away their son. So she wants Atherton to come with her to get him.

They make it out all right only to end up kidnapping a state trooper (Michael Sacks) within the first twenty or so minutes. There’s a big car chase sequence–pretty much the only one of the movie, which eventually has about 80 cars in a shot–where Hawn and Atherton get the upperhand. Well, they bumble into it. But then Sacks isn’t really particularly with it either. Once the cops figure out what’s happened, they call in the boss, Ben Johnson.

So until Johnson gets into the movie, it seems like Sacks is going to take over as protagonist. But then he doesn’t. Because Johnson dominates the film. Intentionally. Director Spielberg, screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, they pull back from Hawn and Atherton’s story and fill it out with the ginormous police response. It’s the kidnappers followed down the highway by a line of a dozen cop cars. It’s quirky. Johnson takes an immediate liking to Hawn after she grins at him through the back window. Because Johnson doesn’t want to be a hard ass, he wants to help these crazy kids (they’re supposed to be twenty-five but he’s a softey), and he’s never killed a man in ninteen years on the Texas highway patrol.

The movie is based on events from 1969. Texas in 1969. So that character motivation raises all sorts of possibilites for further discussion of portrayal of law enforcement in popular culture. But for the purposes of Sugarland, Johnson’s an old softey and he wants to help all these kids–including Sacks–get out of the situation okay.

Eventually they have to bed down for the night–cops and kidnappers–and that break from the Express is when the film catches back up with Hawn and Atherton. There hasn’t been time for them to get a moment. And it’s kind of when it becomes clear how far Spielberg and the writers want to keep the viewers from Hawn and Atherton. They don’t want to dig too deep. Just like they don’t want to dig too deep on Sacks, who Stockholms way too fast to be an effective state trooper unless they’re really all supposed to be sensitive doofuses (no other cop in the movie is sensitive–just Sacks and Johnson–the rest are gun-happy). And they don’t want to dig too deep on Johnson, because, well, he’s in his late fifties and it’s a still Goldie Hawn movie, after all.

So there’s not going to be character exploration. There’s also not going to be much more comedy; Atherton is realizing the gravity of the situation. The adrenaline has worn off and he sees his death. Meanwhile Hawn’s convinced because they’re famous–oh, yeah, they’re folk heroes–they’re going to get their baby back. Only they can’t really talk about it because, well, they aren’t bright. The moments when you do actually find something out about Atherton and Hawn–about their backgrounds or situation–it’s a sympathy moment. Not just for the audience, but for Johnson and Sacks too. Because even though Sacks is a doofus, he’s not a dope like Atherton or Hawn.

Then there’s the next morning there’s the next big action sequence–involving the kidnappers, there’s a big car crash without them that Spielberg plays without absurdity but still want some humor in the danger–and it’s a doozy. Texas gun nut vigilantes go out after the kidnappers. They shoot up a used car lot, with Hawn trapped in a camper while Atherton goes after an escaping Sacks through the lot. It’s intense. And sets the direction of the rest of the film. The energy of it too. The first half has a lot of great editing from Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields and it’s fast but it’s not hurried. In the second half, with Atherton deciding to officially offer to trade Sacks for the baby, the Express–save narrative-driven slowdowns–is accelerating all the way to the finish. Spielberg and the screenwriters are intentional with how they use their time.

The script from Barwood and Robbins is precise. Spielberg’s direction is always in rhythm with it, even when he’s slowing down or speeding up. He gets flashy at times, but always to further the story–or affect its pacing. And there’s this patient, lush Vilmos Zsigmond photography so it’s never too flashy. Then there’s that great editing. And the effective (and simple) John Williams score, which enthusiastically promises hope then takes it away. It’s a technical feat.

Of the performances, Atherton and Johnson stand out. Sacks and Hawn have a lot less to do. Well, Hawn has more to do occasionally but it’s really just more screentime. The first half of the film is Atherton in a panic, the second half is Hawn in a different one. Again, Spielberg and the screenwriters stay back from the characters. They’re caricatures the actors have to fill out, because if you fill them out too much in the script, then Sugarland can’t be Sugarland. Part of the film’s charm is Spielberg and the screenwriters ostensibly keeping things light. Because it’s a Goldie Hawn movie and she’s so cute and bubbly. Only there’s a sadness around the cute and bubbly. Because it’s a tragedy, not a comedy. It’s a tragedy with some funny parts and some exciting parts. But it’s such a tragedy instead of trying to cover all the factors, the filmmakers just implied them and the actors informed them through their passive performances. Because it’s a lot of Hawn, Atherton, Sacks, and Johnson in close-up. There’s a lot of time with these characters together. And they have to develop together. And they do. The filmmakers are able to bake in all the sadness without doing any excess exposition dumps.

Sugarland’s great. It all works out.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, based on a story by Spielberg, Barwood, and Robbins; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields; music by John Williams; produced by David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Lou Jean), William Atherton (Clovis), Michael Sacks (Slide), Ben Johnson (Captain Tanner), Gregory Walcott (Mashburn), Louise Latham (Mrs. Looby), Jessie Lee Fulton (Mrs. Nocker), Gordon Hurst (Hubie Nocker), and A.L. Camp (Mr. Alvin T. Nocker).


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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982, Steven Spielberg)

For E.T., Spielberg takes an incredible approach–every scene has to be iconic, every scene has to create a sense of nostalgia for it. It requires absolute control of the viewer and Spielberg’s only able to accomplish that control thanks to John Williams’s score. Every note in the score–and its corresponding image on screen–is perfect.

As a narrative, E.T. is a complicated proposition. It’s about a highly advanced alien stranded on Earth with no one to rely upon except a kid–Henry Thomas. E.T. must know Thomas isn’t the most able person to help him, but Thomas and his siblings (Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore) are the best choices because of their sincerity. Or so one would think, because Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison offer very little insight into what E.T. is thinking.

Except beer is good.

But there’s also no perspective on the federal agents investigating the alien landing. Spielberg goes with shots out of a “Twilight Zone” episode but as a way of avoiding the traditional science fiction approach to the story. It’s one of his few highly stylized moves in the film.

Instead of stylization, Spielberg instead relies on that Williams score and Allen Daviau’s moody photography. Daviau makes the suburban setting either mundane and discreet or full of mystery and magic. The magic moments in E.T. are the most difficult but also the most successful.

E.T. is patently unambitious as far as narrative metaphors go; Spielberg smartly eschews symbolism in favor of wonderment.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Melissa Mathison; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Carol Littleton; music by John Williams; production designer, James D. Bissell; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Spielberg; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Henry Thomas (Elliott), Robert MacNaughton (Michael), Drew Barrymore (Gertie), Dee Wallace (Mary), K.C. Martel (Greg), Sean Frye (Steve), C. Thomas Howell (Tyler) and Peter Coyote (Keys).


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