Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Unsung!: Sorcerer

Thirty-seven years ago I saw William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and it knocked my little socks off. I thought it was one of the best films I had ever seen. Critical opinion at the time held that Sorcerer was a stinkeroo. Then the film disappeared. Last Sunday I had a chance to see Sorcerer again. Who would prove right in their original critical judgment: most of the world’s film critics or the fourteen-year-old me?

Fasten your seat belts, dear readers, Sorcerer DEFINES “unsung!”

Director William Friedkin appeared at the Chicago Critics Film Festival screening of Sorcerer. He is currently on a book tour, and it was fortuitous that the stars aligned and he was able to fit this screening into his itinerary – Chicago is the city of his birth. (In fact, one of Sorcerer‘s few champions at the time of its release was Roger Ebert.) After the requisite book signing in the lobby, Friedkin introduced the film and then ran out (to have some Giordano’s pizza, he explained). He returned after the screening for a lively Q & A.

The Plot In Brief: Four desperate men in four far-flung locations all commit crimes that set them on the lam. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is some sort of hitman, Kassem (Amidou) is an international terrorist, Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is the wheelman in a stick-up gone bad, and Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is cooking the books of his father-in-law’s brokerage firm and indirectly causes his brother-in-law’s suicide. Got it? They all end up in Manaqua, Nicaragua, which (from the evidence presented in the film) is the armpit of the universe. All four men long to escape, but that requires more money and political juice than any of them possess.

Luckily, there is a tragic accident – an oil derrick explodes at a nearby refinery, causing a gusher of flame that kills many and cannot be extinguished. The refinery men locate an old arsenal of dynamite only a few hours’ drive away; they hope to blow up the errant derrick and finally put out the fire. Of course, there is a catch. The dynamite is old and unstable—it cannot be transported to the fire. What if, the oil men ask, some desperate men could be coerced into making the suicide run, driving six boxes of nitroglycerin over 200 torturous miles of rugged jungle terrain? Where could they ever find four such desperate men?
Conventional wisdom has held that the title cursed the film. Audiences expected that, with a title like Sorcerer, the next film by the director of The Exorcist would have something to do with… oh, I don’t know… maybe SORCERY? When it did not, (“Sorcerer” is actually the name of one of the trucks) audiences were apparently so disappointed that they did not give Friedkin’s film a fair shot.

I do not think that is true. At the time I had not yet seen The Exorcist; my parents would not allow me to see it at eleven years old, so I read the book instead. (What can I say? I was a good Catholic boy. I listened to my parents.) Could I have been better able to approach Sorcerer objectively because I did not have Friedkin’s Exorcist as an opening act? Perhaps. This goes back to something I touched on last week and the subject of Adam’s recent column on spoilers. We wage constant battle in our heads between what we want from a film, what we expect from a film, and what the film is able to give us. I am glad that on that summer day in 1977 at the now-defunct Arlington Theater, I walked in with no expectations and no preconceived notions. I certainly was not expecting an existential film about four guys driving unstable dynamite over a rickety bridge. What I got was a terrific existential film about four guys driving unstable dynamite over a rickety bridge. And popcorn!

I have always thought that what turned audiences against Sorcerer was the nihilistic world view permeating every frame. The film suggests that not only does no bad deed go unpunished, but also that no good deed goes unpunished. “You are fucked. No matter what you do, you are fucked” is not the message that the average American is looking for in a movie. (With the possible exception of Fight Club and the works of one Darren Aronovsky). Looking back, I think that is one thing I liked best about the film: it transported me from my safe suburban environment of happy endings to a dangerous, unfamiliar world – what Friedkin called “beautiful squalor.”

At the screening Sunday night, William Friedkin regaled the audience for well over an hour with sometimes profane but always funny stories about his career, and he shared another theory about the film’s original box office failure. He originally sent the Sorcerer script to Steve McQueen, who pronounced it the best script he had ever read. With McQueen interested, Marcello Mastroianni and Lino Venturi, both big stars in Europe, also signed on to the film. When Friedkin was unable to make the accommodations McQueen requested (shooting in the United States, a part for then-wife Ali MacGraw) McQueen dropped out. Then Mastroianni and Venturi dropped out as well. Friedkin is convinced that if he had been able to cast bigger stars in the leading roles, the film’s fate would have been much different.

Obviously, Sorcerer was made before the scourge of CGI, but this works in the film’s favor. The showpiece of the film is the twenty minute bridge sequence, which looks so perilous on film – so dangerous and so obviously real – that audiences wonder just how the hell the filmmakers pulled it off. There is “real real” and then there is “movie real,” and the bridge sequence is real real. Like the best sequences in Buster Keaton’s films (Friedkin name-checked Keaton during his post screening Q & A) the answer to “how they did it” is “they really did it.”

During the harrowing bridge sequence, we are seeing a real truck on a real bridge over a real river. I am afraid that my students have sometimes lost their sense of the wonder of motion pictures because every time they are moved to ask, “How the hell did they do that?” the answer is invariably, “They did it in a computer.”

Going into the screening last Sunday, I was interested in whether the film held up. I was silently pitting the 14-year-old me against the 51-year-old me throughout the entire screening, fearful of experiencing the dreaded Goonies Derivation. Turns out I had pretty sophisticated taste as a youngster (or I just got this one right). In both its themes and its realization, Sorcerer is a masterpiece. It demands to be seen (or re-seen) and appreciated.

Sorcerer’s user rating on IMDb? 7.4.

William Friedkin mentioned at the screening that he would be supervising the restoration of Sorcerer this May. The restored 4K digital print will reportedly premier at the Venice Film Festival and later find its way to Blu-ray.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT: I also discovered at the screening that I had actually misremembered Sorcerer’s ending. A single shot has been lodged in my head for three decades; it was one of my most vivid memories of the film. As it turns out, that shot is not in the film! Here is the scene: Closeup of Roy Scheider in a bar; a gun barrel appears in the frame and rests on his shoulder. Scheider turns. Fade out.

Is this a shot from some other film? Could I have dreamt it? Help me before I go insane.


  1. Honestly, the first shot of Scheider in a bar in the end of a movie that comes to mind is All That Jazz, but that can't be right, can it?

    OK, I now have to see Sorcerer, since it seems in my head I've been mixing up the title with The Sword and the Sorcerer, one of the cheesiest of the cheeseball 1980's fantasy films (it's the one with the three-bladed sword).

  2. You had me at Roy Schieder, JB, great write-up! Unfortunately this looks like a toughie to track down so I'll have to keep an eye out for the eventual blu-ray release.

    That scene you describe with Schieder is actually the prologue to Jaws: The Revenge - you didn't notice the pectoral fin resting on the trigger of that gun?

    1. Thanks, Sol. This made me laugh out loud. I think the phantom shot lodged in my memory is actually from All That Jazz, halfway though the "Take Off With Us" number, when the producer behind Schieder says, "They're taking their clothes off!" I do not know where the gun came from, my imagination probably.

  3. I was able to grab the crappy DVD with the bungled aspect ratio - but man do I love this movie. Never has South America looked more dangerous, almost primal. And that bridge scene is an all-time classic.

  4. Glad to know a restoration and Blu-ray release of "Sorcerer" is finally happening for real. It's been rumored to be "coming soon" since forever, and as a (mostly) Friedkin fan I want to see it after reading so much about it.

    In the meantime, while we wait for "Sorcerer" to turn out in a local movie screening or on home video, why not watch the original French movie that "Sorcerer" is a remake of? I'm surprised that JB didn't mention it in his column, but Henri-Georges Clouzot's THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953) (available on Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus & Criterion Blu-ray/DVD) is a pretty awesome movie on its own right. I don't know about "Sorcerer's," but the original bridge scene in "The Wages of Fear" is fucking tense as hell and the plot (which is basically the same, as are the characters and the overall 'life is cheap' noir feel) tight and uncomplicated. My father saw this for the first time recently (after I left the DVD with him a couple of years back) and, since Clouzot made it a point to skewer American exploitation of the working poor in Latin America (as perceived by the French), was completely floored at both the potency of the political content and the character/action beats. It was one of the first Criterion movies I saw in the mid-2000's that fully turned me into a cinephile, and just a damn good movie in its own terms and merits.

    Not to take anything away from what Friedkin and his actors brought to their "Sorcerer" remake, but they had a lot of their work done for them by "The Wages of Fear" already. This might explain why most critics weren't nice to "Sorcerer" when it came out. To them it was an inferior remake of a critically-acclaimed Clouzot movie. So lets seek out "Sorcerer," but also not forget that "The Wages of Fear" is out there and ready for viewing right now. :-)

    1. I did not mention Clouzot's film because I did not think it was relevant.

    2. Great read, and I also feel you rightfully so eschewed comparisons to Clouzot's film because quite frankly to me Sorcerer has always been another adaptation of the source material, not a remake and Friedkin did a great job to distance himself from it. And I prefer it to the Wages of Fear but I'd rate them equally.

  5. Think it was his last episode of "SeaQuest 2032".

    That talking dolphin had a score to settle.


  6. Wow. This is great news.
    On the subject of remake, or return to source material, I seem to remember reading a story about Friedkin meeting Clouzot, (who he worshiped at the time)and told him that he was remaking Wages of Fear.
    Clouzot's reply?
    "Why do you want to remake that piece of shit?"

  7. Amazing film. I have the poor dvd version, but the blu will be a day 1 by for me. Friedkin made four classics in a relatively short time span: 1. French Connection, Exorcist, Sorcerer and To Live And Die in L.A. He deserves more respect!