Sorcerer: William Friedkin’s visceral, minimalist epic is a mesmerizing exercise in pure cinema

When William Friedkin’s  Sorcerer came out in 1977, it was rejected outright by both audience and critics. It was a very expensive, ambitious and idiosyncratic film , whose failure ,almost destroyed the career of Friedkin  But now , with the release of a restored print of the film personally supervised by Friedkin, it has  finally found an audience appreciative of its virtues.

William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer contains an epic scene where a couple of trucks filled with unstable  nitroglycerin  must negotiate a man-made rope bridge during a violent storm. It is perhaps one of the most extraordinarily tense sequences ever committed to film.  The scene was completely shot for real; we can clearly see the truck, the bridge, the terrified drivers and the broken planks falling into the water below. Of course there was no CGI back then, but the scene did not use  any model work, or back projection . what you see is exactly what was shot on location. The four principal actors did most of their own stunts. This tense twelve minute sequence  took three months to shoot and cost a whopping 3 million in 1977 American Dollars. You could make a whole movie with that kind of money those days. This bridge scene is the film’s highlight and it was given ‘star’ treatment by  featuring it prominently on the film’s poster  . But more importantly, the scene is essentially a microcosm; of both the movie and how the movie was made. The scene stands as an example of Friedkin’s crazy ambition and his willingness to go to any lengths to achieve what he wants as filmmaker without giving a damn about the monetary or human cost involved in it. It’s also a testament  to his skills as a filmmaker. We have seen scenes of tense, exciting action before, But here Friedkin maximizes the  suspense  within the scene, by extending it to an unbearable level by focusing on every bit of detail inherent in the scene. Every element in the scene: The human element, the mechanical element and  the natural elements, is  used to up the suspense quotient.  The scene also works as a meta moment, where the people involved in making the film, especially the actors are enduring as much hardship as the characters in the film in their perilous journey through the treacherous terrain.

Friedkin’s career could be broadly divided as before Sorcerer and After Sorcerer . Before Sorcerer, he was Hollywood’s new wunderkind. A man who could do no wrong. Whose Two major studio pictures: The French Connection and The Exorcist, were critically acclaimed ,commercial blockbusters. Like his peer Francis Ford Coppola at the time, he was practically a prince of Hollywood who could do anything he wanted as his next picture. And as Coppola chose to go into the jungles to  make Apocalypse Now, an adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Friedkin chose to make Sorcerer,An adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s 1950 French-language novel, ‘The Wages of Fear’ (aka ‘Le Salaire de la Peur’) . The novel has already been brilliantly adapted to the screen in 1953 by French director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Friedkin was a big fan of that film and he thought that he could pay tribute to that version with a completely new version of his own. Remaking classic movies is always a difficult proposition. There is every chance that you would be criticized for falling short of the original. But Friedkin looked at it more as a reinvention, rather than a slavish remake of the film Friedkin  had taken Clouzot’s permission to remake the film and he  even  jokingly told the older director that he would not make a better film than his. That did turn out to be  prophetic. As it happened with Coppola on Apocalypse Now, Sorcerer would turn out to be the most difficult production of his career and in many ways , his career would be irrecoverably  damaged by this expensive, ambitious film.

The basic plot of the  film is very simple. It depicts four desperate outcasts from varied backgrounds meeting in a South American village, where they are assigned to transport cargoes of aged, poorly kept dynamite across two hundred miles of jungle in trucks that are made up of different auto body parts like a Frankenstein monster. The dynamite is so old that nitroglycerine has seeped out of it, and even a slight jolt to the  boxes containing them  could cause them to blow up. But its an emergency, as one of the  oil wells owned by a multi national company has exploded. Company immediately  needs a whole tanker of oil  and  there is no other way to put out the fire. The film is mainly concerned with the perilous journey undertaken by these 4 drivers . But the way  the film is constructed, the journey only constitutes the last hour of this Two hour movie.. The first half hour is entirely devoted to setting up the characters and their backgrounds. Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a professional assassin in white shoes and sports coat, commits a murder in Vera Cruz and slips away. Kassem (Amidou), an Arab terrorist, narrowly escapes arrest after setting off a bomb in a Jerusalem doorway. Serrano (Bruno Cremer), a French investment banker, flees the country and abandons his wife after losing both his business and his brother-in-law / business partner to suicide. Finally there is Scanlon (Roy Scheider), a criminal on the run ,who robs the wrong church and gets his cohorts killed in a traffic accident. Scanlon’s dead companion was a member of  a mafia family and  they promptly put a price on his head, forcing Scanlon to flee.   The next half hour finds all these characters in the south american village in Porvenir. Dark, rainy and Dank, the village  is a version of hell on earth. there is  squalor, deprivation and death all around. Friedkin is unsparing in his visual treatment of it, practically rubbing the audience noses in it.An extraordinary quality of the film is it’s authenticity. Friedkin , with his cinematographers John M. Stephens and Dick Bush  is able to convey even the rotten stench of the place. No Smell-O-Vision required for this  . This half of the film is rather intolerable. Though its just a little more than half an hour, it feels like an eternity. The pace and the interest of the audience slacken in this section. Not just slacken, you are repulsed by much of the visuals that Friedkin throws in your face. But once the four guys  begin their arduous  journey, the film kicks into high gear.

The film is an  obsessive exercise in minimalism for Friedkin ( one of the reasons why it failed to connect with an audience when it was released). And to this end, He sacrifices plot, character development and Dialogue . Action defines both plot and character and conversation are next to nil, mostly consisting of terse , staccato one-liners. There’s only what a character does and what he doesn’t do..  Friedkin wanted to make the ultimate cinematic film, where the story told itself only through pictures: A film devoid of sentiment or melodrama. Friedkin touted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby as an inspiration for him, as he goes all out  for narrative economy and visceral impact rather than conclusively  telling a story with well rounded characters.. Right from the opening scene, the audience are simply dropped into the middle of the action without any explanation. We see a corrupt, violent world filled with murders, bombings, betrayal, theft and accidents. The first section, mainly set in the cities, possesses the tone and visual opulence of a big Hollywood production. The next section set in Porvenir unfolds like a stark documentary, shot almost in cinéma-vérité style. Final section of the film, portraying  the journey of the protagonists in the trucks is a crazy mix of a hardcore action\adventure movie and  a European art film, with  gritty realism and unbearable suspense  mixed with  magic realism and surrealism in many places. The mesmerizing electronic score by Tangerine Dream elevates this phantasmagorical effect. Now much of the problems in the film lies  with this crazy mix of different styles and aesthetics. This marriage of big Hollywood sensibilities and European art film sensibilities does not always work. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, where the whole film is about Willard’s  journey up river ,which remains a psychedelic spectacle throughout, Sorcerer struggles to  find its rhythm in the first hour of the film, which is  exacerbated by the director’s obsession with being purely cinematic, thus  frustrating its audience.  Friedkin pulled off the marriage of  cinema-verite  with the trappings of a big Hollywood production  in The french connection and to an extend The Exorcist, because those films were much smaller in scale and scope. This is a sprawling film that  spans multiple countries and characters tackling bigger themes and set pieces. it is difficult to engage the audience with the mix and match of these styles, when you are attempting something on this scale. Add to that , the cold, staccato nature, in the first hour, of the film as opposed to the nerve-racking, linear  narrative of his previous films. 

Friedkin first envisioned this film as a small, two and a half million dollar film that he was going to shoot quickly before he embarked on his big project –The Devil’s Triangle, which was going to be his super production. But when that film got cancelled, he put all his energies into this one and decided to make this his magnum opus. This definitely shows in its overblown nature . The film needed to be either a gritty ,art house adventure film; like the way Wages of fear was or it should have been an all out crazy, cinematic spectacle as  Apocalypse Now was. A film of this scale requires the theatricality and showmanship that only someone like Francis Coppola possesses. Friedkin is too much of an Non-showman  for a film of this size. As evidenced by his other films like Cruising  or To Live and Die in L.A. his instincts are very dark and nihilistic, that primarily disturbs and repulses the audience rather than attracting them, and works best while working on a smaller, intimate scale. But the film becomes a fantastic cinematic experience for me in the final hour .Starting with  the  scenes where the protagonists  are assembling their vehicles and test driving them , with Tangerine dream score pounding away in the background,  the film finds it rhythm. From here on, the film is a balls-to-the-wall odyssey  that doesn’t let go its  momentum , until we see Roy Scheider, staggering ghost like into a wilderness,  with the box of dynamite in his hands . We get elements of magic realism in between, when a Native tribesman  comes out of nowhere and starts running in front of the trucks , taunting the truck drivers at regular intervals and increasing their discomfort. Apart from the fantastic bridge sequence, There are scenes that extracts maximum suspense by playing up on the mistrust between the four characters from different backgrounds who have embarked upon this suicidal mission . But the film remains bleak and nihilistic to the end.   Friedkin offers no hope , as he kills of the protagonists one after another. We see a close bond developing between the drivers Kassam and Serrano, but immediately we see their trucks overturning and the dynamite exploding killing them both.   We get a scene paying tribute to John Huston’s The treasure of Sierra Madre , where Scanlon and Nilo are confronted by a gang of bandits and Nilo dies fighting with them. Scanlon, now all alone, almost goes out of his mind in the final stretch of the journey . Friedkin uses double exposure by combining  the images of a dreamlike wilderness with Scanlon’s ghostly face to convey his unhinged  mental state.. At the end of the film, only  Scanlon  survives, or Does he?. The last scene shows hit-men commissioned by the mob arriving to kill Scanlon. Friedkin leaves it inconclusive, as he did with the ending of The French Connection, asking  the audience to make up their own minds.

The title of the film  caused of a lot of confusion at the time of its release as to whether or not it was another supernatural thriller from the maker of The Exorcist. The studio had to issue press releases that this is not a supernatural film. Definitely not a good sign for any film that was struggling to find an audience in the first place. The title comes from Friedkin’s idea that ‘A sorcerer is an evil wizard. And in this case, the evil wizard is fate – it takes control all of our lives.’ . Little did Friedkin know that that’s exactly what the film would do to him as well. The film consumed him and destroyed him. The film was totally rejected on its release, both critically and commercially.  The film was a labor of love for Friedkin  who  developed it for four years. Though its release at the same time as Star Wars has been touted as the main reason for its commercial failure, i really don’t think that was the issue. The film was a tough sell even for the seventies audience and just as the success of Rocky , the previous year, proved, the audience were turning away from these dark , bleak movies looking for something more lighter and fun and Star Wars arrived just in time for that. On top of that , Sorcerer  went hugely over-budget due to Friedkin’s perfectionism(Final budget was approximately $27 million) and  the only way it would have recouped its investment was if it was a more audience pleasing, blockbuster , genre  film, which it certainly was not. The failure of the film hit Friedkin hard. He would never again enjoy the success and critical acclaim of his two most famous movies- The French Connection and The Exorcist. This film, along with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Coppola’s One from the Heart– Two other small budget film that went highly over-budget and flopped, is considered responsible for ending  the New Hollywood where the Director was the King.  After Sorcerer, Friedkin would never again be given such singular control over a picture, and never again would he reach the artistic heights he scaled so effortlessly in the early ’70s. Worse, he would find it impossible to get financing for his pictures and he would turn to staging opera.

Though Sorcerer always had a bit of cult following, it  remained under the radar for a long time. One reason was that there never was a proper DVD or Home video of the film. Since the film became over-budget and had to be financed by two studios, there was confusion as to who own the rights to Home video. And since the film was a big flop, neither studio ever bothered  to find out . Finally Friedkin sued the studios to ascertain the ownership . Once that was clarified, he was able to personally supervise a restoration of the film , which was ultimately released on Home Video. Watching the restored print of the film on Blu-Ray is a great experience. The colors and the sound are fantastic. We really get to feel the atmosphere of the jungles like never before. We hardly get to see films like this anymore , which in spite of its flaws is an ambitious, interesting work of art. The re-release led to a critical re-evaluation of the film, with even the critics who had dismissed it in the 1970’s , now coming out and appreciating the film for its minimalist, visceral, cinematic ambitions.

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