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Published: Thursday, 8/12/2004

Fast forward: Spielberg's early gems

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

"You can do five bad television shows," Steven Spielberg once told an interviewer, "but you can't do five bad motion pictures." Good advice. In the early '70s, Spielberg was in his early 20s, biding his time. That fear of being washed up at 21 was his justification for hiding out in the TV series ghetto, directing episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., and Columbo - even back then Spielberg was a savvy marketer of his own daydreams. The week his first Movie of the Week aired, he fielded a dozen offers to make a real movie. And balked.

You may find this all hard to believe if you're of a certain age - a bizarro universe where Spielberg is directing the ABC Movie of the Week, where the guy who made Schindler's List and co-founded DreamWorks SKG is hanging out with Peter Falk. To Generation Y in particular, Spielberg is like compact discs and Madonna: a world without such things is unimaginable. The man hit a grand slam in his second at-bat, Jaws (1975) - and the ball never dropped.

Unless you count Always.

Or Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Or 1941. Which is underrated.

(Armistad isn't so hot, either.)

But that said: Do not miss the new DVDs of Spielberg's first two significant works: Duel (Universal, $19.98), his 1971 TV movie; and 1974's The Sugarland Express (Universal, $19.98), his theatrical debut, starring Goldie Hawn and many trashed police cars. Both were made before Steven Spielberg was STEVEN SPIELBERG. You'd never know it, though. Those gawks of childlike wonder, the machine-tooled editing, the pure movie-ness of it all - already there. It's as if the rest of world just hadn't gotten the press release yet. Duel delivers a born master of suspense, and The Sugarland Express, a director of ordinary people doing extraordinary things - themes he'd explore for three more decades.

Even back then, you could feel that unmistakable breeze of confidence and possibility. Duel is an ABC Movie of the Week, yes; but it's a high-wire act: Dennis Weaver drives a rickety red Plymouth through the barren Southwest and for no reason other than an exercise in tension, an evil truck driver (whose face is never seen) stalks him all the way, breathing down his bumper. That's the entire movie, a scenario that's had homage paid to it in years since: John Dahl's Joy Ride and Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown being the most clever retreads. (Mirroring filmmaking trends of the past 30 years, the storylines of these unofficial remakes are always more complicated and more cluttered, to lesser ends.)

Sugarland is even more assured: A fugitive couple (Hawn and William Atherton) lead an ever-increasing parade of state troopers through Texas, as media and well-wishers and marching bands line the highway. It's a deliriously American picture, a kind of Looney Tunes road race about the decline of American heroes, leading to the sort of shockingly dire consequences that mainstream studio pictures could get away with in the '70s. The irony is that the Spielberg of today has the power to make five or six or 20 pictures as provocative - and sometimes he does (A.I., Minority Report) - but his instincts have sweetened and grown as sentimental as they are also unquestionably generous.

Sugarland contains no extras, but Duel has revealing, lengthy interviews with the filmmaker. "I don't think I could do [Duel] again," he says. "If I had to go back right and re-create Duel in 12, 13 days again I couldn't do it. I was so hungry back then, so ambitious." He's being modest; the Spielberg of today is an ambitious mainstream filmmaker.

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WET PAVEMENT, CAGEY DAMES, AND MEAN STREETS: If you think of the folks at Warner Home Video as curators, then their seemingly far-flung Film Noir Classic Collection ($49.95) makes perfect sense. Including Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947) is a no-brainer; it's the genre's gold standard: puddled streets, shadowy alleys, wide shoulders, Kirk Douglas' tidal-wave pompadour, Robert Mitchum shouting to Jane Greer: "Build my gallows high, baby!"

What's not so obvious is a film noir box set that recognizes noir isn't just double-crossing gun molls and padded shoulders. Warner pieced together this intriguing package the way an ambitious art gallery might: not by artist, but by gathering up works that look at the world in a specific way. The Set-Up (1949) is a brutal boxing picture starring Robert Ryan; the atmospheric Murder, My Sweet (1945), arguably the quintessential adaptation of Raymond Chandler, is all deep focus and dark rooms; the grimy B-picture Gun Crazy (1949) is Bonnie & Clyde on a budget (its big heist was shot with a single camera); and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is a classic of dishonor among thieves. What they share is more than a tilted fedora but a refusal to get sentimental. "You may not admire these people," Asphalt director John Huston says in an old introduction (included in the extras). "But I think they'll fascinate you." Well said. Same goes for the no-frills commentary included on each disc from a variety of scholars. The commentary on The Set-Up, though, is special: Martin Scorsese jabbers a mile a minute about its influence on his childhood and his classic Raging Bull. "I know when I was doing my film I couldn't approach [the greatness] of this one," he says, again and again - Marty, thou doth protest too much. (Each title is available separately for $19.97.)

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SPRING HAS SPRUNG: If you were squirreling away your box-office dollars all spring - and chances are, you held onto them for that third screening of The Passion of the Christ and Mean Girls, two of the only bona fide hits from last season - now's your chance for catch-up: 13 Going on 30 (Columbia, $28.95) should have been a hit. And you bet it's derivative; Jennifer Garner takes the Tom Hanks role in an undeclared redo of Big. But as weightless confections go, the sugar doesn't strike a nerve. Next in line for shoulda-been-bigger is Hellboy (Columbia, $28.95), Guillermo Del Toro's touchingly cheesy comic book adaptation about a spawn of Satan who fights crime. It's up there with Spider-Man 2 for real poignancy.

Good Bye, Lenin! (Columbia, $29.95) plays like a German sitcom: A son re-creates Soviet-era East Berlin in his mother's bedroom when she slips into a coma; when she wakes up, doctors worry about the shock to her system if she were to discover that the Soviet bloc had dissolved. Charming and light, it's the most poignant episode of Three's Company never produced - Lenin himself being the third, of course. As for twos: Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Buena Vista, $29.99) continues Uma Thurman's roaring rampage of revenge. Only Quentin Tarantino doesn't roar so loudly this time.

The continuation is a 180 in terms of style and pace, a homage to westerns, and a terrifically fun one, too. (Buyer beware: A special edition set containing both volumes and a slew more extras than included here is just around the corner.)

One rung down: Hidalgo (Buena Vista, $29.99), a pretty horse tale starring Viggo Mortensen as Pony Express legend Frank T. Hopkins. Pretty flat, actually. It's Raiders of the Lost Ark minus excitement or laughs, with a horse more expressive than his star.

And battling in a four-way heat for dead last: Starsky & Hutch (Warner, $27.95), which, like Anchorman, can simply not get enough of how ugly polyester suits looked in the '70s; Ned Kelly (Universal, $29.98) revisits an Australian legend, loads up on A-list talent (Naomi Watts, Orlando Bloom), and blows it with a lifeless revenge tale; Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (Lions Gate, $26.98), which manages the trick of being a bad dance film; and The Whole Ten Yards (Warner, $27.95), starring a sheepish Bruce Willis, which manages the even neater trick of appearing to have been assembled over a miserable weekend before anyone could talk themselves out of their paychecks.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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