AUTHOR MARK O'CONNELL ON THE MOST UNDERRATED SPIELBERG FILMS

Mark O'Connell is a comedy writer who has written for sketch, Fringe and development shows (including for Ronnie Corbett). He is currently developing his own sitcoms, and was chosen by London 2012 and BT to be one of the official 'storytellers' of The Olympics. Mark also makes short films - CARRYING DAD won the Lloyds Bank Channel 4 Film Challenge and SKEDADDLE won the Jerwood Film Prize. He is the author of 'Catching Bullets - Memoirs of a Bond Fan' (2012), an acclaimed and highly enjoyable look at his life growing up as a fan of 007. His new book 'Watching Skies - Star Wars, Spielberg and Us' is a personal memoir of Lucas and Spielberg's hold on movie culture in the 70s. I spoke to Mark about what he feels are Spielberg's most underrated movies.


ALWAYS
Somewhat lost upon initial release – especially in the UK – ALWAYS (1989) is a beautiful essay on loss and being an adult in love. Spielberg very rarely tackles love stories in the traditional sense. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) is hooked to a love story – as is E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982). But in choosing 1943’s A GUY NAMED JOE as the spur for his first remake, Spielberg creates a heartfelt work looking at being middle-aged and in love, pre-dates the bigger hit GHOST (1990), and ends up being a heavenly, less high-octane version of TOP GUN (1986) meets BACKDRAFT (1991).


With tonal and physical echoes of Spielberg’s work on Amazing Stories and his pilot (‘The Mission’, 1985), ALWAYS is still replete with those WWII affectations that Spielberg had also tapped for 1941 (1979), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987). It is a film of old army jeeps, A-26 bombers, airfields, the officers’ mess, old air-strip tannoys and a family of affectionate air crew colleagues pulling together. It is also a project that plays with old Hollywood as the WWII heroism of A GUY NAMED JOE, square-jawed Brad Johnson cut from another era’s sense of pin-up, The Platter’s 1954 hit ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ is a recurring motif and The Ghost of Hollywood Past herself in the languid guise of Audrey Hepburn’s willowy Hap.
 
And steering it all is the founding father of Spielberg onscreen in the form of Richard Dreyfuss who has yet to leave the skies of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as those Seventies movie tropes of corn-fields, panicking conversations vying for attention, watching the skies from an airstrip and blue-collar co-workers are all left in play.
 
Yes, it is glazed with late 1980s sentiment, but it is also one of Spielberg’s most abstract works. Death, grief, suicide, heaven, and the afterlife are lent a matter-of-fact ease and often communicated by a simple choice of cut or a shared frame rather than a full-on display of ILM might. Beautifully shot by Mikael Solomon, that midnight moment of Dorinda’s plane gliding over a moonlit lake as John Williams’s music drifts parallel is one of Spielberg’s most graceful beats.
Always has a very different dynamic to what has gone before. It plays like the first personal project Spielberg produced on a quick turnaround of a movie whim. Curiously for a romance, it is the first film Spielberg directs where he doesn’t have to make the world fall in love with its concept, production scope or studio investment. It is a remarkably small film for the man in-between INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) and HOOK (1991), and possibly paved the path for the director’s quicker produced, less heralded gems like THE POST (2017) and THE TERMINAL (2004).


SOMETHING EVIL
Starting off with some devilish eyes reminding of Boris Karloff, Spielberg’s 1972 TV movie chiller is, of course, a horror precursor to 1982’s POLTERGEIST and its tale of a contemporary Californian family facing what lies beneath. It was also Spielberg’s first project after DUEL (1971) and that (partially) theatrical debut that changed everything for the director. From those TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD  (1962) style opening titles of a kid drawing, this is Spielberg flexing his movie muscles with another TV project with which he delivered above and beyond. 
 
An astutely shot piece about a city family trying to re-locating to a haunted farmstead in Pennsylvania, SOMETHING EVIL is never really that chilling. Yet, in not quite letting the audience in on what the something evil is, it is a work loaded with tics, beats and creative choices which mark out Spielberg for evermore. Sandy Dennis’s Marjorie is a liberal artist mum with a free-thinking, peacenik mind who doesn’t always question the something wicked which is coming this way. With her motherly instincts and unkempt hair, Dennis is an early forerunner of Dee Wallace in E.T - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, JoBeth Williams in POLTERGEIST, Melinda Dillon in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and Lorraine Gary in JAWS (1975). Torch beams at night, radio static, a Peanuts poster on a bedroom wall, the piles of chatter layering the audio, a family not used to rural life quirks and old wives’ tales, and that AMBLIN’ (1968)'s glare of the sun through arid trees – the film is amongst the first to bring that contemporary Seventies domestic Americana to Spielberg’s work.


SOMETHING EVIL is totally of its time. It is not just the Seventies Spielberg™ tropes, but it looks like a sunny, early 1970s Coca-Cola ad (the father figure is even a city ad-man prepping a new drink commercial), like many an early 1970s TV chiller it takes place in a rural farmhouse, and hints at the decade’s horror genre now turning its attentions to kids stories a year before THE EXORCIST (1973). Furthermore, it contains a lot of Steven Allan Spielberg. The main kid is called ‘Stevie’, there is a surfeit of gossipy lady neighbours getting dolled up to throw their local opinions into the ring, and it is centred on a resourceful and creative mother figure having to cope with an absentee husband. SOMETHING EVIL also underlines how these formative Spielberg works were often more multi-faceted than we remember. EVIL is not just a ghost story of a haunted house and a kid cut-off from the world. It is about a community, a shared narrative opened out with many phone conversations and a young director’s eye in keeping a tale of a rural farmhouse wilfully contemporary despite the zero budget and the small screen confines.


THE POST
Whilst it may be early days on the print run of this one’s popularity, THE POST is one of Spielberg’s finest movies. Purportedly worked up with not much planning or notice, THE POST sees the director return to 1971 and the year that DUEL changed everything. Yet despite a wide story canvas with some of America’s key 20th Century influencers and political movers deliberately in play, one of the early graces of THE POST is how it is a wholly intimate recounting of those times. With the weightier and legislative likes of AMISTAD (1998) and LINCOLN (2012) looking at the humanity of American politics, the smaller THE POST and its defence of the press could well form the third part of a Freedom Trilogy.


From the undulating beams of a midnight photocopier and the light about to be shone on the truth to a reporter having a shoebox of that truth deposited in a panic on his typewriter, a Washington dinner party, a girl wanting her ball back and the preparations of a Supreme Court hearing, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ensures this is a film often shot at desk height with those slithers of normality that Spielberg uses when telling national stories on a personal scale. THE POST is a film where the world’s most famous actor, actress, and director all come together - and not one of them showboats. Despite the current day political anger spurring the film on, no-one preaches. No one grandstands. If anything, Hanks pulls back the might of the issue with a warmth and humour that Jason Robards left to the side of his Academy-award winning performance as Bradlee.

THE POST is not some easy, West Coast liberal reaction to the forty-fifth President of the United States. It is a defence of all writers, artists, principles, and experts. An early scene involving the discovery of the magnitude of the papers is set all within an artist’s office surrounded by movie posters, graphic design boards and artistry. Kaminski’s lens makes great play of honouring those printing presses, their mechanisms and how each letter is a piece of communication we should not take for granted.

And as he always has done – and alongside fellow producers Amy Pascal and Kristie Macosko Krieger – Spielberg has responded here with a production marked and blessed by the labours of women. Its biggest triumph is not an intricate set-piece, an Oscar-baiting monologue or a vicious verbal spat. It is Streep’s Graham saying ‘do it‘ and the quietly empowered middle-aged print room men as they set to silent, but grinning work and a long night.

A Spielberg classic waiting perhaps in the wings for its moment, THE POST is about two histories – that of American politics and that of American cinema.


THE COLOR PURPLE
This is Spielberg’s first female-led narrative since SOMETHING EVIL, his first film without John Williams, his first and only story (so far) with a queer lead character and a sadly prescient tale thirty or so years after it should never have been prophetic again. It is also Spielberg’s first brutal film with a literal and emotional punch throughout. Met at the time of release with distancing critics and industry bemusement, THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) often gets lost in the Spielberg discussion alongside EMPIRE OF THE SUN, SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993), LINCOLN (2012) and MUNICH (2005). Yet, Alice Walker’s key tale went there first with a quietly fierce adaptation of a novel that was still fairly new in 1985. Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece was only published three years before and it became the first weighty novel both Spielberg and Amblin snapped up for the big screen. Despite Peter Benchley’s JAWS and its vacation-read glories a decade before, THE COLOR PURPLE represents the first proper opening of the literary floodgates for Spielberg. JG Ballard’s EMPIRE OF THE SUN soon follows in 1987 (itself based on a new novel first published in 1984) and then the published works that spurred on the subsequent likes of SCHINDLER'S LIST, WAR HORSE (2011), LINCOLN, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), THE BFG (2016), WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005), READY PLAYER ONE (2018) and AMISTAD.

One of the complaints thrown at THE COLOR PURPLE was how Spielberg was criticised for not being a black filmmaker. But there is an instant universality to his 1985 drama. It never shirks from presenting one particular history of black struggles across the decades and does so with great resolve, warmth, honesty tragedy, and a tangible sense of community. It is also a searing, valuable indictment on political and societal attitudes of both America of the early 1900s and the America of 1985. Incest, religion, male brutality, feminism, patriarchy, white privilege, sexual abuse, sibling love, and slavery. These are not the tropes of a director globally framed as the UFO, thrill-ride director. After E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, Steven Spielberg didn’t have to do THE COLOR PURPLE. The fact he did and opened his filmmaking skies to take in wider, darker stories of the human condition will always be because of that tale of Celie, Georgia, friendships and Alice Walker’s crucial novel.


AMBLIN’
Like a great many early works from Steven Spielberg, the short film AMBLIN’ (1969) is a far more polished and accomplished little film than it should have been. Even the pre-teen work from the director immediately conveys a control of story, pace and frame that eludes many a fledging director.

Shot in July 1968 along the arid roadside of California, AMBLIN’ is the beautifully slight tale of two hitchhikers (Pamela McMyler and Richard Levin) who meet up in the desert en route to the Pacific Coast Highway and the very stretch of asphalt that later launches Watching Skies. Dialogue free and musically communicated through October County’s gently psychedelic folk soundtrack, the pair of nameless antagonists could well be Chrissie Watkins and her hippy beau from the opening beach scene of JAWS. Or Roy and Ronnie Neary from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Or Clovis and Lou Jean from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974). Or Steven and Diane from POLTERGEIST. The imminent DNA of DUEL, SUGARLAND, SOMETHING EVIL and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND are all here in this 25-minute curio. As the two long-haired souls rest, dine and coyly watch each other on their random trek across dust bowl pit stops and cricket-ridden evenings, there is almost a Chaplin quality to AMBLIN’. It is about the adventure of the human spirit, the spontaneity of youth and what is at the end of the highway. 

AMBLIN’ is also a work infused with sharp camera and editing choices. Shot by Allen Daviau (E.T., EMPIRE OF THE SUN and THE COLOR PURPLE), the piece is marked by souful camerawork, glorious silhouettes and messy and sun-drenched cuts that still hold a fresh, beguiling quality half a century later. It is often noted than in his formative fever to learn and understand everything about cinema, the younger Steven possibly missed out on the late 1960s counterculture and youth revolts around him. AMBLIN’ proves that could not be further from the truth. Here is a work that is acutely aware of its era, and the divide between young minds and the wars and propaganda of government. AMBLIN's greatest success is its sheer celebration and observations of youth. Take out the camper van, flared denim and stoner soundtrack and AMBLIN' has a timeless quality and has no doubt been remade by every film student this side of the Paris student riots.

Interview by Paul Rowlands. © Paul Rowlands, 2018. All rights reserved.  

Watching Skies – Star Wars, Spielberg and Us is  available from The History Press and other retailers