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

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.