Steven’s return to an emphasis on red and yellow set design in his latest undertaking jumped out at me right away. If you check out my remarks on his early films, you will note he tended to hit hard on the Technicolor pairing of ruby slippers and yellow brick road hues featured in Wizard of Oz. Here, the introduction to downtown Brooklyn lingers on red and yellow signage. Note the red and yellow paint on the artistic spy’s desk. As the movie progresses, you will see red and yellow wallpaper in the Donovans’ house as well as a faded version in the dumpy apartment in East Berlin. Courtrooms and embassies, both stateside and abroad, are resplendent with crimson and gold. Add to the list the neon motel sign where the pilots are recruited. Even the climactic phone booth provides a glowing backdrop for our hero with its eye-catching palate.
A playful WOO reference by insurance lawyer/negotiator Donovan crops up at the beginning when he uses the example of a tornado destroying someone’s house rather than the more typical scenario of fire or flood.When James Donovan first encounters Rudolf Abel, Spielberg silhouettes Tom Hanks against the blaring light of windows in the background. It happens again in court and in Vogel’s office. If you’ve explored my website, you know that the bright light which lured Dorothy into Munchkinland foreshadows danger lurking ahead for the protagonist.
When James Donovan first encounters Rudolf Abel, Spielberg silhouettes Tom Hanks against the blaring light of windows in the background. It happens again in court and in Vogel’s office. If you’ve explored my website, you know that the bright light which lured Dorothy into Munchkinland foreshadows danger lurking ahead for the protagonist.
The oft-used device of ascent and descent from normality to a whole other dimension of reality is touched on when Lt. Francis Gary Powers soars over then crashes down into Soviet territory. Steven makes the most of cyclonic motion with the spinning exploding chaos of the doomed aircraft. Note the camera sees it from above, much as we see Dorothy’s rooftop twirling downward.
Berlin, east and west, exhibits an air of hopelessness by use of subdued dreary colors, a Kansas air of greyness.
The Amblin’ bicycle makes its first cameo in East Berlin as Pryor attempts to execute an escape through the last portal of the famous wall. It pops up again—complete with Miss Gulch’s whimsical basket—as a means of delivering mail in the embassy.
In the embassy bike scene, listen for the bell ringing. AHA! This is the Glinda chime moment. Pay attention now; you are about to be treated to a crucial plot twister…Sure enough, immediately afterward, Donovan confides his bombshell to the hapless ambassador’s assistant: the deal must include ‘two for one’ or there will be no deal at all.
An interesting prop appears on Vogel’s desk; it is the same hourglass that we saw on Indiana Jones desk in Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, a smaller version than the Wicked Witch’s sand sifter that terrified Dorothy.
Through a train window, James Donovan is assaulted by the horrific sight of refugees being gunned down as they try to scale the wall. He relives this memory at home in Brooklyn when from a subway window he sees a gang of boys leaping a chin link fence. Normal scenes surveyed through windows take on surreal undertones in Spielberg fare like Dorothy’s bedroom view of the world caught up in a tornado.
Check out how at the end James collapses diagonally across the bed. It is very reminiscent of Dorothy’s position after her bedroom window knocks her out. When he awakens, we are assured he will find himself safe at home again.
How and why does Steven Spielberg decide which projects he’s interest in taking on? Like Wizard of Oz, the story usually involves the theme of someone wanting or needing to return home again. Certainly that is the case for these three ‘spies’. ‘Is home really safe?’ —another question Steven likes to play around with comes up again in this film. The Donavan household undergoes a lot of safety angst not only from cold war propaganda, but due to the community’s disapproval of James’ quest. Ah, yes, the quest, the lending of a helping hand to get someone home where he/she belongs comes straight out of Wizard of Oz.
Finally we meet again the trickster. Only through James Donavan’s clever manipulations will the main characters be able to attain their noble goals. To complicate this obvious theme, we even have layers of tricksters like the CIA agents’ insistence that James appear to be acting alone, like the Soviet and East German official’s similar insistence upon no traceable government involvement.
If you haven’t seen this in a few decades like me, it’s worth re-watching. Somehow I mis-remembered it as a Smokey and the Bandit farce—which it definitely is not. Great character development throughout.
Spielberg wrote the script based on an actual event. Did the project appeal to him specifically because it centered on an individual quest that attracted a huge procession of followers, even well-wishers? Check out two scenes: one where Lou Jean asks for hair curlers etc. and the one where they drive through the center of town’s impromptu parade. This pageantry echoes back to Munchkinland and Emerald City, both of whose populations cheered Dorothy on to her adventures with the same pomp and enthusiasm. See The Terminal, Joe vs.the Volcano, Twister, The Color Purple, Catch Me if You Can for other calvacades.
By the way, there is a small sign outside the parade town that reads Val Verde, Spanish for Green Valley…symbolizing Emerald City?
Early on is the favorite backlit moment when innocent Baby Langsdon opens the front door of the Sugarland house. Interior of house is dark and shadowed, outside is brilliant….alluring but full of danger. That is the classic image of how Dorothy enters OZ. Langsdon’s father will be fatally shot right out there. The scene is repeated later with grownups at the door: however, they perceive the threat and begin to collect the fragile vases. See Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters, 1941.
After the massive police car pile-up, Lou Jean suddenly realizes her errand is no longer just a personal mission. All the hoop-la will not fade away once she’s accomplished what she set out to do. “Clovis, honey, don’t do no good runnin’ from a tornado,” she prophecies. There will be no safe place for them, just as getting home was not enough to prevent the twister’s power from sucking Dorothy up into its maelstrom. See WOO, Empire of the Sun, Close Encounters, Catch Me if You Can, (1941) for other instances where ‘home’ did not live up to its illusion of safety.
Steven’s love of kids and bikes is spotlighted. At one point, a bunch of mischievous boys ride through the center of a roadblock despite the cops’ protestations. At another, the vigilante complains when he finds his flashers have been commandeered to adorn the handlebars of his son’s bike. See Munich, Adventures of Tintin, Amistad, 1941, Always, Super 8, War of the Worlds, Empire of the Sun,The Goonies, Sugarland Express, Jaws, Inner Space.
There is a predominant color palate in this film of red and yellow. Clovis has red hair, Lou Jean blond. Clovis wears a red and yellow plaid shirt. The interior of the Sugarland house is done in red and yellow. Red and yellow fringe decorates the Car Dealership’s lot where they spend the night. The motor home is red and yellow, inside and out. The TV/radio van that inspired all the publicity is red and yellow. Before they enter the downtown parade, there is a lingering shot of the yellow traffic signal with its red light shining. As they proceed, the interior of car is aglow with red roses juxtaposed against yellow gold stamps. Many shots of crowds show extras dressed in stand-out reds and yellows. Just before Lou Jean, Clovis and their hostage crash the final time, you see red road signs against golden turf. The entire film features gold and red sunset skies. One of the enduring images of WOO is the close-up of Dorothy’s ruby slippers with the yellow brick road as the backdrop. Schindler’s List, Jaws, 1941, Joe vs. the Volcano, Twister, Inner Space, Jurassic Park, Used Cars, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Do I even need to point out that the entire caper is to get Baby Langsdon home to his real mother where he belongs? See Empire of the Sun, A.I., Hook, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, Catch me if You Can, The Color Purple, Poltergeist, Jurassic Park (to Grampa) and WOO (to Auntie Em).
NOT WOO BUT… Let me urge you to sample this early Spielberg if for nothing more than to check out the scene where Lou Jean points out Roadrunner playing at the drive-in next-door. Clovis provides his own soundtrack for her amusement. When Coyote takes his final dive, Clovis foresees his own demise. Absurdly awesome.
Hello, Cyclone! You will see a cow(or two) flying by mooing just like in Dorothy’s version and a boat—minus the fisherman. In fact, producer Spielberg’s tornado is chockfull of good stuff. I think I even spotted the insane tractor trailer from Duel! See War of the Worlds, Super 8, Poltergeist for more cyclonic ‘clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caligenous junk’.
The intro shows a defining moment in Jo’s childhood when a tornado unexpectedly strikes in the middle of the night. On her bed is a Toto-like terrier named Toby who, despite scampering at Toto-speed, almost doesn’t make it into the storm cellar. See The Adventures of Tintin. Also see War of the Worlds for another unsafe storm cellar!
Is it me or does Jo’s old farmhouse sport that ‘air of grayness’? Re-occurs when Bill prepares ‘Dorothy’ in the hailstorm; there is a shot up the curving, hilly road with fence-posts. The color washes away to black and white and—for a moment—viewer is back in Kansas. The absence of color hints things may get a bit hopeless. See E.T. the Extraterrestrial, War Horse, Schindler’s List, Twister, Joe Vs. the Volcano, Twilight Zone the Movie Kick the can Episode, Poltergeist.
The telemetrical prototype is named ‘Dorothy’.
Looked to me like the footbridge Jo and Bill cower under during first tornado was identical to Victor Fleming’s old fave in WOO and GWTW. See A.I. for more detail on similar sets.
At the drive-in, Bill’s new girlfriend is in her room when a gust suddenly blows the window curtain inward. This is a classic Spielberg sign that life is about to radically change for her as it did for Dorothy after the bedroom window knocked her out cold. Sure enough, Melissa breaks up with Bill moments later. See Empire of the Sun, Catch Me if You Can, Hook, Twilight Zone the Movie Kick the can Episode, Joe vs. the Volcano, Poltergeist.
We glimpse Judy Garland on the TV at Aunt Meg’s house before the F-5 hits.
Aunt Meg’s artwork consists of giant whirligigs that chime conspicuously to warn us the Big One is coming. When Jo gets the idea of how to make the measuring devices inside ‘Dorothy’ fly, we hear chimes. Chimes sound again when the pinwheels fly up inside the twister. WOO always forewarned us of Glinda’s approaching magic with chimes. See Always, A.I., E. T.,The Color Purple, Jaws, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Super 8, Twister, Twilight Zone, Joe vs. the Volcano, Poltergeist.
At one point, in F-5 you will see an exact replica of Gales’ farmhouse roll by on its side—an amusing twist on the classic shot of its rooftop from above shown in WOO and other Spielberg films. See Minority Report, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Close Encounters.
The main characters dash on foot through a field of sunflowers…a sure sign they will prevail over trials ahead. Certainly the WOO companions did after surviving the poppies. Fields test characters and generally mark turning points in Steven’s works. See Always, Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, Lost World Jurassic Park.
Interesting references to Sugarland Express: the entourage of rival black SUV’s that dog Bill’s company echo back to that long line of cop cars.
Also a repeat of the red and yellow color scheme can be found at the drive-in. See Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,Schindler’s List, Jaws, 1941, Joe vs. the Volcano, Inner Space, Jurassic Park, Used Cars, Sugarland Express, Poltergeistfor other homages to the red and yellow commercial for Technicolor devised by WOO.
Also Jo and Bill defy Lou Jean’s opinion that ‘it don’t do no good runnin from a tornado‘ by doing exactly that! See Minority Report, War Horse, WOO for references to “Run, Toto, run”.
Despite the utter destruction wreaked by the F-5, the conclusion shows a family’s home unscathed. The haven untouched. Sanctuary. See See Twister, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Catch me if You Can, Minority Report, Amistad, The Color Purple, Munich, Poltergeist, The Terminal for safety of home.