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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.