Thursday, April 15, 2010

SORCERER (1977)

A movie about trucks could have worked in 1977. One did, in fact, but that was Smokey and the Bandit. Despite the title, however, which is the name of a truck, William Friedkin's follow-up to the one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist isn't really about trucks. It's a respectful remake of a great film, The Wages of Fear (1953). Friedkin dedicates his film to Henri-Georges Clouzot, who directed Wages and died a few months before Sorcerer's release, but he claims to be adapting the source novel, written by Georges Arnaud. In fact, Friedkin opens up the story to give it global sweep, creating dramatic backstories for the four men who end up driving trucks loaded with nitroglycerin through hellish terrain to help put out an oil well fire somewhere in Latin America. One is a French banker fleeing the imminent collapse of a shady business venture. Another is a Palestinian terrorist fleeing the wrath of the Mossad after a Jerusalem bombing. A third is a New Jersey criminal (Roy Scheider) and sole survivor of a church robbery in a powerful gangster's parish. The fourth is a hit man (Francisco Rabal), and once he arrives in the same squalid company town where the other three labor in obscurity we're supposed to wonder which of the three he's here to kill, as it could be any one. But when he kills a fourth man, a German, in order to make himself the final member of the nitro team that consists coincidentally of our other three protagonists, the suspense dissipates in confusion. Did he kill the German so he'd be in a position to take out his real target, or was the German, a character of which we know relatively little, his real target after all? We know, or are led to believe, that some Germans in the vicinity are Nazi war criminals, so it is a possibility. But it seems unlikely that a hit man would have any reason of his own to undertake a probably-suicidal job, so I assumed that he was still after one of the other three. In any event, there's no payoff to this whole angle, and that's one of the frustrating things about this movie, which famously flopped when it appeared in the summer of Star Wars after a two-year production.

You're not getting any screen caps for Sorcerer because the DVD currently available is an inexcusable fullscreen edition of a film that had an epic production design based on location shooting. Anything I snipped from the disc would be a mockery of Friedkin and designer John Box's big-screen vision. Sorcerer is one of those films of apocalyptic ambition for which no studio shortcuts are acceptable. Friedkin had to span the globe, stopping in Paris and Jerusalem along the way, to realize his vision of violence, exploitation and desperation. Simply in terms of its ambition, Sorcerer is a peer of such diverse fare as Apocalypse Now, Heaven's Gate and Fitzcarraldo in its effort to remake the real world in its cinematic image.

What Sorcerer lacks is a strong character or relationship to hold everything together. Roy Scheider is the only American star in the cast, but he's an ensemble player here, and like his co-stars he has a situation rather than a character. We understand the predicament of each protagonist and the danger each is in with the hitman hanging around, but there's nothing particularly interesting about them as people -- and that goes for the hitman, too. For me the French banker (Bruno Cremer) was the most interesting character, with the most personal background apart from his crime. Looking at the film from 33 years later, I was intrigued by the remarkably non-judgmental presentation of the Palestinian (Amidou), who could just as easily have been Irish or Basque for the purpose he serves. In the pre-jihad days of 1977, the terrorist isn't shown as a generic Muslim, but as basically the same sort of hard-boiled, quick-thinking problem solver as his colleagues.

Subtleties of characterization take a back seat in this film to the intimate spectacle of a few men in peril. The truckers' journey doesn't even begin until the film's half over, but the second half alone probably makes Sorcerer worth seeing, even in its defaced DVD form. There are several great moments in the final hour, including the crossing of a rickety and crooked wooden bridge, topped by the crossing of a disintegrating rope bridge during a rainstorm. These scenes may look more awesome now than they did in the Seventies if you appreciate the reality of everything you see compared to the ease of doing it CGI style today. Just as engrossing is a patiently detailed sequence in which the truckers solve the problem of a giant fallen tree in their path. The outdoor action of Sorcerer is brilliantly done and as well done as what Clouzot achieved in Wages of Fear. It's when he tries to top Clouzot by making what comes before as epic as the truck trek itself that Friedkin falls short. But his is definitely an honorable failure, and it didn't make Sorcerer a bad film at all. If this ever comes out in a better edition, I'll be in line to give it another chance.

The trailer isn't letterboxed either, but it's still pretty intense and features some hellacious music by Tangerine Dream. realmrl3londe uploaded it to YouTube.

6 comments:

The Goodkind said...

Working on a group post and thought you might want to participate, shoot me an e-mail.

dfordoom said...

I have incredibly mixed feelings about Friedkin as a director, although this one sounds interesting.

Ivan said...

Great essay--spot-on regarding the flick's schizoid nature.
Was this Friedkin's cocaine and existentialism phase? Friedkin originally wanted Steve McQueen, whose iconic nature (and his potenial influencing of the script) would have made a different movie.
I'd love to see some alternate universe version of Sorcerer starring Robert Ryan--imagine the gravitas an ancient Ryan could have brought to the role!

And yes, it's a damn shame there's no letterboxed version.
Keep up the great work!
--Ivan

Scott (gotankgo) said...

right on - Sorcerer is one incredible and under appreciated film

Mark Hodgson, said...

The version we saw in the UK was a slimmed down version, missing about the first half-hour of character set-up. So seeing the DVD was quite a revelation for me, so much more made sense about the movie.

A special edition could not only deliver a much-needed widescreen presentation, but talk about the epic story of the making of the film.

Peter said...

From what I've read, the VHS/DVD version is missing 2 scenes and the ending is a bit different ("not so dark") comparing it to the original version screened in cinemas (also the CIC company renamed the cinema-version The Wages of Fear).

Cinema-version is 29 min short, but got two scenes that don't appear in VHS/DVD version:

- one scene is quite important for the whole story, because unlike the original french movie from the 50's, in those times, there existed more advanced ways of handling with nitroglycerin, so Friedkin helped himself: the warehouse with "new" nitroglycerin is rifled, so they must go to that forgotten shed

- the other scene...

well, I've just found this, really interesting comparison of the US and German version:

http://www.schnittberichte.com/report.php?ID=4978

P.S.: This movie deserves to be completely remastered a rereleased in widescreen with bonuses, interviews, cut scenes etc.