Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sorcerer (1977)


          Whereas many self-indulgent films by ’70s auteurs have been injured by time, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer has actually seen its critical stock rise in the intervening decades. There’s no question the director was due for a fall after scoring two blockbuster successes in a row with The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), and prior to the release of Sorcerer, he did just about everything necessary to unsure the critical knives were out: He gave overbearing interviews extolling his own directorial genius; he let four years pass between movies; he elected to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), a sacred text for cinephiles; he let his perfectionist streak run wild, shooting outrageous numbers of angles and takes that put his cast and crew through a long ordeal in rugged South American locations; and he slapped a supernatural-sounding title onto the project even though Sorcerer involves nothing otherworldly, which understandably resulted in confused expectations because of his association with The Exorcist.
          As a result, Sorcerer was eviscerated upon its original release, even though some brave souls immediately recognized the film as a unique piece of deranged artistry. Seen now, the picture is a crazily intense thrill ride that matches the inherent tension of the plot with a probing descent into the psyche of an archetypal character driven insane by circumstance. Roy Scheider stars as Scanlon, an American criminal hiding out in South America and desperate enough for work that he agrees to join a crew driving trucks loaded with unstable nitroglycerin down 200 miles of bumpy jungle roads toward a demolition site. Playing the other unlucky souls sharing the task is an international cast: Frenchman Bruno Cremer, one-named Moroccan Amidou, and Spaniard Francisco Rabal. Crisply explanatory vignettes reveal why each man is a fugitive, but that’s about all the picture provides in terms of character; Friedkin is much more interested in dramatizing whether small men can rise to a life-threatening occasion.
          Sorcerer contains one of the most elaborately filmed suspense sequences in cinema history: The precarious crossing of a hand-made bridge across a jungle river in the middle of a horrific rainstorm. Using a staggering number of camera angles, Friedkin drags the scene out to create an excruciating level of tension, and that cinematic commitment carries through to nearly the entire film. Also noteworthy is the disturbing score by German synth-rock ensemble Tangerine Dream, making their debut in American films. For the last word on Sorcerer, I’ll defer to Stephen King, writing in his nonfiction survey of the horror genre titled Danse Macabre (1981): “I liked that one because there were a lot of close-ups in it of sweaty people working hard and laboring machines; truck engines and huge wheels spinning in soupy mud and frayed fanbelts in Panavision-70. Great stuff.”

Sorcerer: GROOVY

9 comments:

Ivan said...

I'm one of those who really would love to see this widescreen, either in a theater or DVD. The current DVD is cropped--not too much noticeable pan & scan, but only half there.

Unknown said...

The recently released blu-ray copy is absolutely gorgeous. Having watched my old, cropped version dozens of times on tape and DVD, I can honestly say the blu-ray edition is almost a new film. The detail is so crisp and such a reward for die-hard fans of this film who never got a chance to see it in its glory. Check it out, for sure.

Unknown said...

I wish the Blu-Ray offered the film's original 2.0 audio, which CAN be heard but only on the Spanish setting. Amongst other updates, the new remix adds sound effects to sequences that originally featured only music, which, as a result, now dilutes the stand-alone power of Tangerine Dream's score. Finally, for a film which Friedkin regards as his personal best, the Blu-Ray is shockingly bare-boned. Perhaps one day, Criterion Collection can swoop in and do it up right.

Unknown said...

I'm the odd duck who adores both WAGES OF FEAR as well as SORCERER - I really do look at them as two completely different movies which happen to tell the same story - and both exceedingly well. Colleagues who despise SORCERER point to the "meaningless" back stories shown of our four main characters" {I think it bugs a lot of people that for something like the first 30 minutes their is not a word of English] whereas Clouzot's original begins in the jungle with zero back story describing how our "heroes" got there in the first place. Well, that argument clearly goes both ways so...

Barry Miller said...


Clouzot himself said it was greater than his original,and Coppola was so jealous of it that he made sure to try and top it with "Apocalypse Now".

I rediscovered a damaged print of it in 1986 in a warehouse in New Jersey, and held a private screening of it with Roy Scheider present, who
proceeded to regal me with every gory detail of it's production.

It was a grand and special evening in my life. I am personally happy to see it's better-late-than-never recognition (I was at Friedkin's personally restored screening of it at The Chinese Theatre, where he stated that he considers it his finest film) and witnessed a fully-packed 2ist century audience sit utterly silent and unmoving in their seats for several minutes after it was over. Even in my youth, they didn't sit that quietly or that long after"The Exorcist" was over, and that's really saying something.

Every philosophy major reading Camus's "The Myth Of Sisyphus" should see it at least twice. And like every groundbreaking and towering work of art ahead of it's time, it was misunderstood and predictably damned for it's genius.

It can sit comfortably aside "2001" and Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" as one the most powerful and indelible American epics eve made.



Unknown said...

Barry Miller .
How is the last temptation of Christ an american epic if it's based on the life of a middle eastern jew?

Barry Miller said...

Because it was financed by an American studio, produced by an American production company, written by an American screenwriter, directed by an American director, starring a predominantly American cast speaking in English without the use of subtitles, and premiered in the USA.

Jesus Christ. Is that really a serious question?

Unknown said...

Oh ok but if it was an American epic that normally means it’s based on an American story IMO but if that’s your definition good for you bye

Barry Miller said...

I suppose I should of said "Hollywood epic". I can see why it would be misunderstood,
so I admit that it was a rather ill-chosen description. However, it behooves me to ask you why you would chose to focus on that, instead on my equation of "Sorcerer" with the other two masterpieces, which seems to be a much more interesting and relevant cause to take up as a point of contention.

Is there something about "Last Temptation" or Middle Eastern Jews (with a capital "J") that
somehow diverted you?