Spielberg Roundup, Part I: ‘Sssssss’ and ‘Whoa: Be-Gone!’ in ‘The Sugarland Express’; ‘Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century’ and ‘The Ten Commandments’ in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’

Not surprisingly for a charter member of the Film School Generation of directors, Steven Spielberg has always been a savvy user of movie-in-movies. We’ve already considered E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Minority Report. This post and the next will look at a few more Spielbergs, in chronological order.

His first feature film, in 1974, was The Sugarland Express, with Goldie Hawn and William Atherton, a low-speed chase movie based on the true story of of a real-life Texas couple who took a cop hostage in their quest to wrest back their toddler from his adoptive parents. It has a real ’70s vibe, with its improv-seeming scenes, use of non-actors, and sense of the American roadscape that’s at once loving and ironic. The last is enhanced by Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, often grainy because of long shots showing an endless trail of police cars. The movie is of a piece with contemporaneous character-centered slices of Americana like Terence Malick’s Badlands, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero.

Spielberg, of course, would quickly pivot to a very different approach, but this movie works best in its small moments (the periodic car wrecks are tiresome), including the movie-in-movie sequence. Hawn and Atherton are hiding out in an RV that’s in a used-car lot overlooking a drive-in-movie. (Talk about the American roadscape!) We only briefly see the film that’s playing, but reliable sources assert that it’s Sssssss (1973), whose premise an IMDB contributor summarizes as: “A college student becomes lab assistant to a scientist who is working on a serum that can transform humans into snakes.”

Trust me: the movie on the drive-in screen is “Sssssss”

Sssssss has nothing to do, on any level, with The Sugarland Express, and I’m pretty sure the only reason it was used is that — like Sugarland — it was produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown and released by Universal, and hence cost little or nothing.

The more pointed movie-in-movie is a cartoon that subsequently comes on at the drive-in, the Road Runner short “Whoa, Be Gone!” (1958), directed by Chuck Jones. (This is the third time I’ve noted Jones being used in feature films, the others being The Shining and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins.) “Hey, we got a free movie next door!” says Hawn’s character:

Improbably, Spielberg makes the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote’s antics into a tender moment, and foreshadowing of what lies in store for the young couple.

Spielberg followed up Sugarland Express with Jaws (no movies-in-movie) and, in 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is marked by quite a few — and quite varied — inserts. IMDB claims that a Road Runner clip is shown on a TV, but I confess I wasn’t able to spot it. It’s impossible, however, to miss another Chuck Jones short, the classic “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century” (1953), which is on TV as Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) obsessively labors on a his model of a landscape that’s really important, he doesn’t know exactly why. The contrast, of course, is between Jones’s wacky version of spacemen and Roy’s (implicitly) real ones.

In a couple of other moments, the urgency of the scenario is contrasted with the banality of ‘ the 70s TV shows that are playing in the background: Policewoman in one scene, The Days of Our Lives in another.

The tastiest meta set piece is a scene where Roy’s at home with his wife (Teri Garr) and three kids. He gets temporarily distracted from his UFO obsession by the fact that Pinocchio — for some reason one of his favorite movies — is playing at a local theater. The Disney reference isn’t the only one in Spielberg: Gremlins features Snow White and in the next post, you’ll see what’s in 1941. It’s (to me) an odd enthusiasm — I much prefer the madcap and antic Chuck Jones — and I’m with the kids, who vote to play miniature golf instead.

The focus then shifts to Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which is playing on TV. Everybody except Garr is transfixed by it: the kids for unknown reasons, and Roy because Mt. Sinai resembles, of all things, the landscape that’s haunting his consciousness.

It’s a long movie but, Roy says, “I told them they’d only watch five commandments.”

Next: 1941, Catch Me If You Can, and Munich.

‘Jaws’ in ‘Jurassic Park’

I instituted the tag “Watching yourself” for movies in which an actor (A) plays an actor (B) and B watches a film in which A actually appeared. So, for example, in Two Weeks in Another Town, Kirk Douglas plays washed-up Hollywood star Jack Andrus, who in one scene watches a clip, supposedly of one of his old movies, but really of Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful. Click on “Watching yourself” in the Tag Cloud at bottom right if you want to see more examples.

I now realize “watching yourself” can apply to directors as well as writers. After all, Vincente Minelli directed both The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, so the clip of the former in the latter could be considered a sort of Hitchcockian cameo. I’ve got another example, which I learned about via the sleuthing of Jeremy James Prutchick on YouTube. It’s a brief scene (don’t blink) from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). The creator of the cloned-dinosaur park, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), is admonishing lead programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight–Seinfeld‘s Newman).

 

Don’t feel bad if you missed it — but in the last image, on the left side of Dennis’s computer monitor, is a scene from Spielberg’s first big hit, Jaws (1975): the one where Quint and Brody, on a boat, see the killer shark for the first time.

At another point, there’s another, totally out-of-sequence Jaws moment on the monitor, showing Roy Scheider as Chief Martin Brody. Prutchick helpfully enlarges it:

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Here’s Prutchick’s frame-by-frame breakdown of the scene, which also includes a second Jaws moment on the monitor.

 

 

‘The Quiet Man’ in ‘E.T. the Extraterrestrial’

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Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man”; can of Coors on the table.

Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg are sometimes known as “the film school generation.” De Palma and Spielberg didn’t actually go to film school, but the designation fits because all five are lifetime students and devotees of the directors and movies that came before them.

One of Spielberg’s heroes and mentors is John Ford (1894-1973). The younger director once said, “I try to rent a John Ford film … before I start every movie, simply because he inspires me … He’s like a classic painter:  he celebrates the frame, not just what’s inside it.” Spielberg offered his most explicit Ford homage in  E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). The scene is also an unusual one for Movies in Other Movies. Usually, the film-within-a-film provides an ironic counterpoint or commentary on the main action. But Spielberg veritably mirrors Ford.

The scene takes place early in the film. Young Elliott (Henry Thomas) has encountered, befriended, and brought to his room a lovable alien creature. Being a boy, Elliott has to go to school; E.T.,  left to his own devices, raids the fridge for food and beers. He also gets hold of a Speak & Spell, which Wikipedia calls “one of the earliest handheld electronic devices with a visual display to use interchangeable game cartridges. E. T. will eventually hack the device in his attempt to phone home. For now, he uses it both as a television remote control and, it seems, to mind-meld with Elliott.

(I’ll note here that E.T. includes other movies as well: E.T.  is horrified by the Tom and Jerry short “The Mouse Comes to Dinner” and watches the films This Island Earth and Michael the Brave; Elliott’s sister, Gertie, watches Sesame Street.)

Showing on the TV is a famous scene from Ford’s The Quiet Man (1953). In that movie, John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an American returning to his ancestral Irish home. In the town, he spotted and become intrigued by a fiery (of course) redhead, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). He buys a cottage and when he goes to inspect it, he comes upon Mary Kate, who’s been tidying up in a neighborly act. She’s scared and tries to run away, but he… Well, let’s watch along with E.T., who’s deeply affected by the scene and telepathically directs Elliott to reenact it (as well as to release biology-class frogs from imminent dissection).

 

 

 

 

 

To contemporary eyes, Sean’s romantic moves (and Elliott’s, too, for that matter) may seem a little grabby. On that point, I introduce the testimony of Sabienna Bowman, writing in the feminist magazine Bustle on the occasion of O’Hara’s death, in 2015 at the age of 95. Bowman says the kiss between Mary Kate and Sean is

not just the most memorable moment, but the one that is impossible to forget thanks to the passion O’Hara infuses into Mary Kate’s actions. To fully appreciate the scene, you must put yourself into a ’50s state of mind: Mary Kate enters Sean’s house unaccompanied (a huge taboo for an unmarried woman at the time) with the intent to clean it — but it is obvious she’s curious about this attractive American.

There is a moment when Sean realizes Mary Kate is in the house that she attempts to flee out into the raging winds. The cinematography only adds to the emotional rawness of the scene as Mary Kate’s red hair ripples in the wind and Sean snatches her arm and pulls her to him. It’s a typical move from the ’50s era idea of the perfect, bold American man that was Wayne, but it is Mary Kate’s response to his actions that makes this scene a classic. He pulls her in and kisses her, and then she throws a solid slap his way. It doesn’t land, but with her temper flaring and indignation written all over her face, O’Hara’s talent is breathtaking.

If you want to judge for yourself, here’s the full scene from The Quiet Man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘?’ and ‘The Mark of Zorro’ in ‘Minority Report’

I was talking about this blog with the co-screenwriter of Minority Report…

I’ll just pause here and contemplate how cool it is to be able to say that.

Anyway, the writer in question, Jon Cohen, is a friend and neighbor of mine, who actually has moved on from screenplays and now devotes his time to writing novels. When I told him about Movies in Other Movies, he directed me to a scene in the 2002 Spielberg sci-fi movie. The hero, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), wants to escape detection and since everyone is subjected to iris scans wherever they go (a prescient bit!), he engages a sketchy doctor (Peter Stormare) to perform an eye transplant on him.

The movie-in-movie aspect is consistent with the cyberpunk aesthetic of Minority Report. (Apparently, Spielberg instructed his cinematographer to create “the ugliest, dirtiest movie” he had ever made.) In the doc’s tumbledown office, a scene from what appears to be a noir shoot-’em-up is projected on a wall: futuristic technology, retro content. I say “appears” because I don’t know what the film is, and neither does Jon. He e-mailed me, “Whoever did production design or whatever, put that film in the background — it wasn’t in the script.”

I’d really like to know what’s playing, and thus I announce the first Movies-in-Other-Movies contest: the first person to identify the clip (and support his or case) will get a signed copy of my book How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.

When Anderton wakes up post-surgery, another movie is being projected, and there’s no doubt about its identity: Errol Flynn’s Tyrone Power’s The Mark of Zorro (1940). Presumably Spielberg or the production designer chose it because Zorro has a black mask and–at least until he can take off his bandages–now Anderton has a white one.

So let’s hear your thoughts on what the noir film is. And remember: Don’t scratch.

Update: The estimable Ben Zimmer has identified the movie as House of Bamboo, directed by Sam Fuller.