FILM / Raider of the lost heart: At his best, Spielberg can sweeten a disturbed child's view into an uplifting epic. Quentin Curtis assesses the output of the director who never grew up

DUEL (1973): The best TV movie ever made? From the opening shots of a receding garage, an original cinematic talent announces itself. Dennis Weaver plays the businessman motoring to a key meeting, twitchy and a touch louche. But the star is the tanker that stalks him: a great grouchy beast, with bull-snout and steely will. Spielberg's keen eye and swift editing continually startle. There are hints of his later moralism - the driver has rowed with his wife - and his magnetism for symbolists. The truck is: fate, conscience, society, the repressed id - or just a truck.

JAWS (1975): Spielberg subtracted the sex from the book and multiplied the fear. A model shocker, with a lovely loping rhythm, dipping between calm and terror. Spielberg, like Hitchcock, knows the value of suspense over shocks. He's sparing with the horror, which is gory but not grotesque. Most people remember John Williams's heartbeat score, but the whole soundtrack is masterly: when the shark prowls around the bathers, all we hear is lapping water and muted cries. The ensuing panic is shot almost as cinema verite. Only the people disappoint: Roy Scheider's Captain Brodie, Richard Dreyfuss's oceanographer, and Robert Shaw's old sea-dog, Quint, whom the shark finds easier to swallow than we do.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE

THIRD KIND (1977): A pyjama'd child pads towards a brilliant light, mouth gaping, eyes even wider: the quintessential Spielberg moment. The aliens do not cause panic, as in War of the Worlds, but division: between those with the child in them and the rest. Richard Dreyfuss surrenders to the force; his wife (Teri Garr) suggests family therapy. The UFO witnesses' frozen awe makes believers of us all. The benign alien, with his spindly limbs and bug-eyed skull, will, of course, return. As will religious overtones: the outstretched alien arms, like a suffering Christ's. The pictures are so compelling that the words can seem superfluous, though Francois Truffaut's fast-talking scientist is now a poignant joy.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981): Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones, though set in the Thirties, seems out of Henty or Rider Haggard. He's a gentleman adventurer, scholarly and sensitive, fearing only God and snakes. You can trace the decline of sleazy James Bond to straight- jawed Indie's arrival: compare his angry revulsion at villains with Bond's jocular insouciance. Spielberg is at his most exhilarating and empty. The Nazis are cartoons: though the heroes are in peril, we never feel real danger. The baddies burn, while the flames lick Ford and Karen Allen like a dog.

E. T. THE EXTRA - TERRESTRIAL (1982): The familiar milieu: small-town America; adults at odds; children at play. The ET might have been designed for universal tear-jerking, with that soulful gaze, frail, sexless, raceless body, and healing touch. But the movie feels spontaneous not cynical. Spielberg maps out his yearnings and they match ours - for goodness and for our lost childhood. The child actors, who were often improvising, haven't got proper credit, particularly Henry Thomas as Elliott, and Gertie, six- year-old Drew Barrymore, whose own childhood was lost to drugs.

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984): Fedora and bull- whip return for this Far East prequel, and so do the racism and sexism. The orientals are wily and vicious, eating snakes and burning people alive. Only Short Round, loyal helpmeet to Ford, is decent. Ford's self-mockery rescues Indie from being Long Square. Kate Capshaw's dizzy blonde, Willie, has a man's name, but a woman's stereotyped helplessness, falling off elephants and screaming at bats. The indignity may have been worth it, as she became the second Mrs Spielberg.

THE COLOR PURPLE (1985): Turning serious with Alice Walker's novel, Spielberg was both too earnest and too soft. The gutsy, lilting young narrator was lost for a spread of characters, few of which came into focus. And the lesbianism and strident feminism present in the book got toned down. Quincy Jones's soupy score, laced with anachronistic jazz, didn't help. The film feels like an epic idyll, full of well-composed shots, but lacking a dramatic pulse. The most memorable performance, as a woman jailed for fighting back, came from Oprah Winfrey.

EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987): For the first half-hour, portraying crumbling colonial Shanghai at the outbreak of war, it's as if Spielberg has grown up. The Regency-housed British are criticised but also fleshed out. But the internment of JG Ballard's boy hero returns us to The Color Purple: a disturbed child's view sweetened into uplifting epic. At least the photography matches the title, with orange crescents smudged against the sky and waters rippled with gold. And Jim's mistaking the Nagasaki explosion for a woman's soul rising to heaven is bitter irony unprecedented in Spielberg.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989): Back to the safe target of the Nazis. Sean Connery, joining a line of British character actors in Spielberg, plays Indie's medievalist dad, adding Oedipal sauce to the old gruel. Alison Doody is memorably bad in the dumb blonde role. The vim has gone, and even the chase scenes - with Venetian vaporetti and Nazi dirigibles - look tired.

ALWAYS (1989): Flight again from the real world, on wings of whimsy. Richard Dreyfuss, Spielberg's Spencer Tracy, is the dead airman watching over his loved one in a remake of a movie that moved Spielberg as a child. 'The love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here,' is Dreyfuss's heavenly conclusion. The flying stunts have regulation panache, but the spectral gags don't match those of Ghost. The abiding image is Audrey Hepburn's angel walking through a field trilling about the divine spirit - wading in corn.

HOOK (1991): All that's gone wrong in one easy-to-slumber-through lesson. The attempt to update J M Barrie was more pandering than Pan, the invention desperate and the magic mundane. The easy rapport with our dreams has given way to preachiness. Robin Williams, as a burnt- out lawyer, a once and future Peter Pan, flies, but his comic wings are clipped. 'No growing up]' admonishes Maggie Smith's wizened Wendy: a dream for a child; a problem for a film-maker.

Spielberg has also directed: two flop comedies, 'The Sugarland Express' (1974) and '1941' (1979), and the twee rejuvenation of an old folks' home in the portmanteau picture 'Twilight Zone - The Movie' (1983).

(Photographs omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones