Skip to main content

We're carrying three cases each. One is enough to blow out your fire, six cases will blow out the whole field. That means you don't think all the trucks will make it, one of us is a backup.

Sorcerer
(1977)

(SPOILERS) By the time it was easily available, I didn't feel any great urgency to check out Sorcerer, mostly because I’d already seen Wages of Fear by that point, and really, how could it possibly compete? Which wasn't wrong. William Friedkin can't equal Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic, although in fairness, he does produce a picture that isn't to be sneezed at, that's very much of its era and that has its own undeniable qualities.

My first knowledge of Sorcerer came via ads for its soundtrack, I guess back in the early '80s amongst promotions for more recent releases; for a movie that resoundingly and starkly flopped (a spiralling budget required the investment of two studios, and it grossed less than half its cost), it boasted a striking poster/album cover design, hailing from the standout sequence(s), as the behemoth trucks attempt to cross a dilapidated, listing rope bridge at the height of a thunderstorm. 


The image, paired with the title, conjured the prospect of potent supernatural imagery, of unmartialled elements conspiring to sinister and apocalyptic ends. And then there was Tangerine Dream (with whom I was also unfamiliar, and also a very evocative name), furnishing their first film score (the perfect accompaniment, to the extent that Friedkin says he edited the picture to their compositions, rather than the vice-versa norm). 


That conjuring of the title was evidently part of the problem with regard to the picture's reception. The director of The Exorcist follows it up with Sorcerer. Except that it has no diabolical spellcasting in it (although, I think Wiki goes too far in assessing "there is no supernatural character or event"; there are repeated allusions to the intrusion of these characters and their instruments – and by extension the oil company – on the indigenous population, stoking bad karma for them: the wood-carved totems, the mocking villager who won't get out of the way of Scanlon's (Roy Scheider) truck, the latter responding with belligerence, and the environment itself, hostile to these interlopers intent on wreaking further destruction. The name of one of the trucks, the director admitted the decision on the title was an "ill-advised reference to The Exorcist".


The most notable difference between Wages of Fear and the remake is the extensive time Friedkin (or rather, Walon Green, who fashioned the screenplay) spends setting up the principal characters through four prologues (hitman Nilo, played by Francisco Rabal; Palestinian terrorist Kassem, played by Amidou; French financial fiddler Victor Manzon, played by Bruno Cremer; Scheider's aforementioned robber, who has incurred the attentions of a crime boss after the latter’s priest brother is wounded). 


It's debatable how vital any of this material is, suggestive of the kind of auteurish bloat that was habitually indulged by studios at the time (although this marked the beginning of the end, with Heaven's Gate the final nail in the coffin). Clouzot didn’t need it, and arguably the only character for whom it represents a significant compare and contrast is Manzon; for my money, as good as Scheider is, Manzon is the more interesting character and Cremer gives the more compelling performance, as someone who has had to double down and learn the hard way after his fast-and-loose choices as an investment banker put an end to his Parisian lifestyle. 


Friedkin includes political themes – the Occupation of the West Bank, the absconding of Nazi war criminals to South America – but they're largely irrelevant once the main story begins. Nilo's presence – he kills Karl John's Marquez, evidently his latest job, but his presence in the village puts everyone understandably on edge – prefigures the final scene, as downbeat in its way as the original, where past deeds catch up with Scanlon (and we’re left to wonder the significance of his choosing to dance with the scrub woman, since the delay leads directly to his death). 


Friedkin's theme, relating back to his suspect title, was that "we don’t really have control over our fates"; Bruno, who takes the most care and is the most disciplined, is ultimately done for by an event out of his control (although, he surrendered real control once he signed up to drive the sweaty gelignite). The director related this to his own career, but we can also see it in the picture's form. 


The re-evaluation of Sorcerer is at least partly deserved, but I'd dispute that it's a neglected classic. The rope bridge centrepiece is virtuoso filmmaking, astonishing in execution and editing; it's almost unbelievable. But the early attention to the characters' backgrounds also highlights that there's little real substance to them and that, despite Friedkin's decision to fill them in, the material probably works better if they tend towards silhouettes (sure, it means we know why Kassem can blow shit up, but is it that essential?) And while Clouzot's film made you forever on edge about the potential of the gelignite going off, Friedkin doesn't reproduce that tension (even the rope bridge is more about the monstrous vehicles on a hopelessly ill-equipped support structure than the dangers of what those vehicles contain).


The Wiki page for the film amusingly cites Stephen King putting Sorcerer above Wages of Fear on his list of "Reliable Rentals", followed by Mark Kermode saying "only an idiot would argue that Sorcerer is a better movie than Fear". Such utterances are by the nature designed to inflame, but it's hard not to see his point. So too comparisons with Apocalypse Now (not least for the arduous Dominican Republic shoot). At its best, in no small part thanks to John M Stephens photography (replacing Dick Bush) and Tangerine Dream, the picture gets under the skin, but it has no lasting resonance the way Coppola's masterpiece has. Indeed, the fate of Scanlon simply made me think “Well, of course. It’s a '70s movie”. Which means, at least in part, by the time Friedkin made it, he was being informed by the new set of tools and rules of the wunderkinds; they themselves had become passé.


One question that never gets answered in the movie is: how much more difficult/ problematic/ expensive would it have been to fly in some stable nitro-glycerine? Regardless, audiences weren’t even interested in getting that far in terms of asking questions. Sorcerer opened a few weeks after Star Wars, which demolished it at the box office. That wasn't the only reason, but as Peter Biskind put it, Sorcerer was "too episodic, dark and star-challenged for a late '70s American audience". Friedkin's career never really recovered. You saw flashes of brilliance in To Live and Die in L.A. but one can only imagine how different his post-70s journey might have been had he got the drop on Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind with The Devil's Triangle – the picture he'd planned to make rather than Sorcerer– in which aliens were the source of the mysterious disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. 


Or maybe the temperamental, difficult director would have shot himself in the foot just the same. Anyone who has read Easy Riders and Raging Bulls will readily attest that Friedkin comes across as a prick long before the account of the making of Sorcerer. And as that book records, when he reflected on his meeting with Clouzot to secure the rights, he noted how he asked Hollywood columnist Joe Hyams to remind him what he'd said to the French director: "You said you'd never make it as well as he did". Friedkin replied "I was right!".



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was