Conjuring a lost classic: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer resurrected

For many moviegoers in 1977, it was the most anticipated movie of the summer. Coming as it did from an up-and-coming and internationally renowned wunderkind director whose penchant for verisimilitude marked a radical break with typical Hollywood studio filmmaking, it was undoubtedly destined for greatness. Loaded with action and exceptional special effects, a cast of relative unknowns, and based on the director’s previous hit, the response was expected to be phenomenal. It was not Star Wars, and when it was released only a week after Lucas’ little science-fiction space adventure, William Friedkin’s critically maligned Sorcerer, a remake of Henri Clouzot’s classic French film The Wages of Fear (1955), was out of the zeitgeist faster than the prints were out of the theatres.

The original poster for Sorcerer (1977)

With its release in 1977, just one week after Star Wars, the film’s reception was dismal at best, and worsened as Star Wars grew in popularity. Thirty-five years later it remains all but forgotten (in some sense inversely proportional to that other film it opened against) until, that is, its blu-ray release last week. Much like the headline which ran for the film’s initial 1977 excoriating review in the L.A. Times, we are left to ask “What went wrong?” Historians still struggle today to account for recent box-office failures, so it’s not worth acceding to any suspicions thirty-five years on, much less creating them. Still, there is the monumental problem posed by this film’s unquestionable box-office failure. Opening the week after Star Wars isn’t nearly enough to account for the film’s neglect by audiences, nor for the savagery of the critics. Though Friedkin even went so far in later interviews as too suggest Roy Scheider made for an uninteresting lead, this analysis discounts Scheider’s anchoring performance in Jaws only two years prior or his award-nominated turn in All That Jazz two years later, and Friedkin himself seems to have since abandoned the suggestion. No, perhaps more damning was the film’s esoteric and potentially misleading title, which Friedkin pithily describes in his memoir as “ill-advised”.

A note on that damnable title seems necessary for all the damage it has ostensibly committed to Friedkin’s film and career. Superficially, Sorcerer denotes the name of the truck that Victor Manzon drives (and not, perhaps confusingly, Scheider’s character). But Friedkin also intended it to connote the cruel master of fate, the Sorcerer of our destiny, a nod to the dichotomy between the supernatural and the natural worlds typical in magical realism. Friedkin also intended it, more prosaically, as an allusive reference and incipient homage to his preceding film, The Exorcist. All of this seemed lost on audiences and critics at the time, as it seems to be with most contemporary audiences, but it nonetheless remains a point worth remembering. Still, the confusion over the title does provide clear indication of the disdain contemporary audiences bear towards the intellectual and unconventional.

While critics savaged the film, their criticisms were valid, if employed in some rather obtuse conclusions about the film’s overall merits. The late Andrew Sarris, an otherwise cool-headed and astute critic, seemed to despise the film simply for its existence as what he contemptuously described as a “remake” of Clouzot’s original, and to an extent the cynical adventure films of John Huston and David Lean. The film is a remake insofar as it remakes the plot of a film from 1955—2 teams of drivers trekking through treacherous terrain with volatile nitroglycerin to stop an oil-well fire (Vertical Limit in a jungle!)—but its story is wholly original and wildly different from its source. Nonetheless, Sarris clearly misses the point when he claims “what I can swear to is the total pointlessness of the picture”. Sarris egregiously confuses Friedkin with a money-grubbing hack, fixating as he does on the film’s regrettably ridiculous budget—a feat which many other critics seemed to manage in their own vitriolic reviews. Friedkin suspects in his memoir–and I’m inclined to agree–that his hubris and egocentrism fueled the critical backlash. “Many were waiting for me to crash,” he writes, “and I obliged them in spades”. This does however cause one to surrender the point. Not only is Sorcerer not a pointless remake, it is an exceptional film, and deserving of an estimable re-evaluation in the critical discourse, or at the very least in the context of Friedkin’s own oeuvre.

Film is an unavoidably manipulative medium. The director arranges and selects material to convey the story as much as he or she uses technique to shape its conveyance. Actors, dialogue, setting, action, music, light and sound are all at the discretion of the director, and must be employed accordingly. Film is in some respect the struggle of the audience to comprehend and acquire the vision of the filmmakers (which is ostensibly the director but also includes the various vital crew involved in its production). I focus on Friedkin in this instance since he dominates the production. It was his idea to remake Clouzot, his script, his production, his direction. So what was Friedkin trying to convey, and how did he want his audience to receive the information?

Unlike The French Connection‘s emphasis on verisimilitude and documentary technique, in Sorcerer Friedkin turns existential. Though he had begun this transformation in certain key sequences of his prior film, The Exorcist, most notably in Father Karras’ haunting dreams, it was in Sorcerer that Friedkin appears at times to channel Luis Bunuel in his bricolage of images and sounds, most notably in his sparse and allusive climax.

The documentary style Friedkin employed so perfectly in his earlier films was undoubtedly unequipped to capture the film’s emotional climax, occurring as it does within the mind of its character. The style of Friedkin’s new film emerges from his willingness to expand his artistic toolset. Nevertheless, Friedkin maintains his propensity for realism by turning to his then-incipient fixation on magical realism, appropriated from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works–especially the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which Friedkin cites as foundational in this film’s inception. It might perhaps explain why Friedkin chose to shoot the climax in New Mexico’s Bisti Badlands, which confound the viewer (as they do Scheider’s character) like the terrain of an alien planet. “Everywhere we pointed the camera,” Freidkin recounts, “beautiful images in unique natural light seemed to appear as if by magic, the landscape of dreams.” Tangerine Dream’s moody and mesmerizing score hums over the emotional breakdown of Scheider’s character—edited as a hybrid collection of sights and sounds, where the very dreamspace exerts itself over the living space. In this way it borders almost on the better-known surrealism (made famous by artists like Dali), which seeks to express a psychological experience through material objects. Magical realism seeks at best only to evoke it, and remains concertedly concentrated on the material at all times.

Sorcerer (1977)

Sorcerer employs magical realism for more than just its allusive finale.  Magical realism draws its effect from a specific objectivity of a given culture. The New Objectivity, which gave birth to the term in 1925, served as artistic commentary of public life in Weimar Germany; Marquez’s magical realism—the evolution of New Objectivity—owes its existence to the unique nexus of European influence on Latin American art post World War 2. Yet Friedkin’s film is consciously dislocated from any one culture and decidedly ahistorical. As he rightfully boasted during a recent screening, the film “hasn’t dated” given that “[i]t’s set in a kind of limbo and neither the haircuts nor the wardrobes nor the sets have aged poorly.” Friedkin’s Latin America then is, like Star Wars’ distant galaxy, an imaginary Neverland, likewise tinged with the requisite cynicism of the New Hollywood era of the 1970s—though with Friedkin’s it’s more like soaked in an acid bath. In this way the film and its setting evokes something of an atypical mode of magical realism, an ephemeral melange of cultures, images and sounds.

The magic permeates through the symbolic use of colour–a dipolar opposition between cool and hot. It may lack Star Wars‘ overt personalities and clear dichotomy of good and evil, but the dichotomy remains, emphasised with the achingly beautiful colour gamut. Blue and its deviations represent the colour of intellect, red and its ilk the colour of emotion. The office of the oil company, scored as it is with grime and peeling in places, nonetheless captivates with its brilliant turquoise as the managers dispassionately devise a plan to stop the oil-well fire. The same turquoise, in a grimmer, more dilapidated shade colours the rickety truck Roy Scheider drives. Bonus points if you can guess the colour of the other truck driven by the second team. (That’s right, it’s red). Turquoise recurs in the faded paint of the company truck that carries the charred black remains of an industrial accident; and the colour spectrum turns full circle back to brilliant fire in the ensuing riot before an emphatic cut to black. The fire is the real antagonist of this piece, and codes for all manner of human vices.

The sight of the fiery oil well, the orange plume emerging from an ocean of green–all done for real, in camera–remains undimmed by time. The charged contrast between light and colour, perspective and setting contain in microcosm the dominating theme of the film. “No one is just anything,” Victor Manzon’s wife declares in the Parisian prologue, and the aphorism seems true of nature. Here in the film it is to be found in all its raging ferocity, its placid indifference, its cruel simplicity–each scene presenting a new face to our age-old adversity and companion.

The problem then is not that Friedkin employed these styles, but that his new style resists classification. It does not lend itself to easy digestion by an audience, least of all one satiated on escapist fantasy, turning away from intellectual provocation. For these reasons it is perhaps doomed to be overlooked. If nothing else, it does lend weight to initial dismissals of the film as both “arty” and “pretentious”, two terms applied interchangeably to the dense and complex, and which more often than not are used by critics to hide the fact that they themselves are incapable of distinguishing between the pretention of art, and art itself. If Sorcerer is not one thing, it is certainly not pretentious. So is it art? Turning to its production might provide some definition to this problem.

Having been designed by the incomparable John Box, legendary designer of two of Lean’s biggest pictures, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, the production remains unsurpassed in quality to this day. There is a decadence to the grime permeating the sites of human presence in this jungle far-surpassing any of the visions of civilization which precede the main bulk of the film, Paris especially.

On that note, the film looks authentic in such a meticulous way that it must have been bloody miserable to shoot. The infamous bridge scene is testament. Yes, that is a real bridge, the dilapidated look of which betrays any hint of its manufacture exclusively for the film. The grueling scene’s construction and filming set the film over budget (3 million dollars) and over schedule (3 months), and thus what was intended by Friedkin as the film’s transcendent moment ironically doomed the film to failure. One wonders if Friedkin might have accomplished more by attempting less. Whereas the obstacles in the original Wages of Fear were tense all the more for their simplicity (either the wheel will slip or it won’t, so precarious is the line between life and death), in this bridge scene it’s a host of problems. The rickety bridge disintegrates under the tires, while the guides scrabble for footing, dangling precariously over a surging river while a storm rages. It’s technically unparalleled, even by today’s standards, but all a bit much to get concerned over given that it’s an orgy of problems. More effective, surprisingly, is the scene afterwards, which builds in its quiet and methodical way to its bombastic climax.

Kassem (Morrocan born actor Amidou) puts his terrorist training to use

Kassem (Morrocan born actor Amidou) puts his terrorist training to use on Mother Nature

It is this overwhelming aspect of the bridge scene that corresponds to the rest of the film. Quite simply, Friedkin was so self-consciously aware that this film was to be his magnum opus that he did everything in his power to ensure we would notice his accomplishment. Though he arguably succeeds, this propensity also contributes to the film’s problem, in that much of it appears exhausting more than exhilarating. Part of that is no doubt intentional on Friedkin’s part, and it dismisses any charge that labels Sorcerer just another typical action flick that revels in its chases and explosions. The film is not, contrary to what Andrew Sarris originally claimed, “a visual and aural textbook on everything that is wrong with current movies”. Indeed, after thirty-five years the film has become everything directors strive to achieve in their own films but fail to do. The film is worthy of note simply because it is so unlike anything before or since.

The scale of the production is one notable aspect. Beginning in Veracruz, globetrotting to Jerusalem, Paris, then New Jersey, all of it filmed expensively on location, remains to this day a bold and admirable feat of narrative craft. Still, the four opening vignettes don’t accomplish half as much in terms of character as they should to be necessary, and it’s important to note that the original film (perhaps wisely) omitted these paratactic introductions. But Friedkin decided it was necessary to show one of the character’s origins in particular, and assumed the audience would immediately suspect this character would survive by having his be the sole introduction, and so the film was given four. The problem with this logic is that the film was originally written as a starring vehicle for McQueen, whom the audience undoubtedly would have expected to survive anyway, and so the addition of three other openings to conceal the fact feels flabby as it does confusing. Though commendable for its originality, the use of four openings is undoubtedly undermined by the confusion it invokes–what is this film trying to say?–as it does the mood it evokes–what is this film going to be? When the film first premiered, some audience members are alleged to have left the film after the first twenty minutes, assuming it to be a foreign picture. Theatres had to specifically commission signs indicating that the film was in fact an American production, and included English speakers. While this anecdote says more about the problems with audience’s attention spans and tastes than it does about the film, the problem nonetheless stems from Friedkin’s insistence to open the film in such an unusual manner.

The "losers" of Sorcerer (1977)

The “losers” of Sorcerer (1977)

Perhaps Friedkin couldn’t quite figure if he wanted to capture the suspense of Clouzot’s original or its tension. If the former, the four openings are necessary, if the latter, the same are superfluous and counter-productive. It’s not until halfway into the film that the actual premise, the voyage, even begins. Yet we’re no closer to being invested in Roy Scheider’s character than we are in any of the others, with perhaps the exception of the Frenchman, Victor Manzon (indeed, his opening lasts longer than any of the others). As critics noted at the time, we’re never given much of a reason to care for these “four losers”, as John Marlowe put things in his review for The Miami News. So what is the point of delaying the action if the delay is not in service of investing the action with more suspense? Friedkin compensates by keeping the pace charging forward, never lingering and never overstating. And though the film is decidedly unconcerned with people–its main characters least of all–this seems more the intention than the mistake.

Given Friedkin’s ability for crafting believable and likeable characters in his two previous films (that would be The French Connection and The Exorcist, the leads of which were all nominated for Academy Awards, if that says anything regarding the success of their characterization), this difficulty in characterization seems more the point than the problem. Those on display are not archetypes, mercifully, but they are nonetheless types. As Friedkin himself describes in his memoir of the film’s premise: “[it] seemed to me a metaphor for the countries of the world: find a way to work together or explode.” The characters are ciphers rather than embodied personages. The Frenchman, the American, the Spaniard, the Arab. All foreigners in a hostile land, “a place that suggested hell on earth,” as Friedkin describes. Though the protagonists are superficially the four drivers, however, the main character of the film is the human condition.

Roy Scheider in Sorcerer (1977)

Roy Scheider in Sorcerer (1977)

The lack of any compelling characters is not particularly problematic for the film itself, so much as it was for its reception. More than any other performer, the scenery is the star of the film. And like any major celebrity, it too came with its own concessions. More than time and money, shooting in the Dominican Republic cost Friedkin his other stars. Originally set to star Steve McQueen, with the part written specifically for him, McQueen ultimately abandoned the project for personal reasons. Personal, but as Friedkin admits, avoidable. In his memoir Friedkin laments that had he been spared his own arrogance and conceded to McQueen’s compassionate demands (assuring a role for his new girlfriend Ali McGraw on what would undoubtedly be multiple months of shooting on-location), the film would have at least been guaranteed to break even–such was the undeniable appeal of McQueen. Instead Friedkin settled on Roy Scheider, whom he had worked with on The French Connection, had a falling out with over not being cast as Father Karras in The Exorcist, and who is an otherwise commendable actor, but lacks the charisma and intrigue of a star like McQueen. He would have upstaged the jungle, just as he had done with every other co-star–especially The Magnificent Seven‘s Yul Brenner, who once threatened to punch the young upstart after an especially wonderful take if McQueen ever tried to steal one of his scenes again. So rather than standing out of the setting, Scheider instead becomes (perhaps suitably) lost within it.

If nothing else should sway you to watch it, the photography is gorgeous, the cinematography exceptional, the new blu-ray restoration impeccable. The film oozes colour, exudes beauty, and evokes an atmosphere of nature as an overwhelming presence. We have then in the film the classic struggle between man and nature, as well as between man and his inner nature, all of it scored to that tone-perfect spectrum of colour symbolism employed by Friedkin, his production designer and cinematographers (Dick Bush either quit or was replaced after a few weeks into the demanding production and John M. Stephens was brought on to reshoot and complete the film).

The best unknown film now known today, it comes as no small relief to have this magical film recovered from the indifference of time and its original release.


The oil-well fire of Sorcerer

The oil-well fire of Sorcerer

Fun trivia:

In the second of the film’s four openings, Friedkin’s documentary roots take hold. After the bomb blast, the camera struggles to find its subject in the chaos, rather than having it presented for the camera. This is a rather obvious but nonetheless crucial feature that distinguishes documentary filmmaking, and which is surprisingly so often misunderstood by contemporary filmmakers that strive for its verisimilitude. Friedkin’s approach was, as it had been so famously in The French Connection, to block the scene without the camera operator present, and then to run the scene and allow the camera to find the action in the manufactured moment. It’s not simply a matter of shaking the camera and losing focus, it is instead the struggle of the camera to find its focus despite the conditions of the filming. Though in the case of Sorcerer this might actually turn out to be only half the story, since Friedkin claims that during the shooting of this scene an actual terrorist bomb detonated two blocks away, “and [they] rushed there to film its aftermath”. Magical realism indeed.


A note on the blu-ray:

The technical merits are indeed flawless, the film has received a better restoration than even Star Wars (though the comparison is weak, since the very negative of the latter has been so horribly mangled by its director). Still, one wonders what became of the commentary Friedkin promised in a tweet dated June 25, 2013, or any of the other “extras” he teased with that tweet. None of this should of course sway you from doing everything you can to see this movie, but it is nonetheless decidedly curious—and unfortunate.


Odds and Ends:

More about Friedkin’s experiences making Sorcerer (and all of his other films) can be found in his recently published memoir, The Friedkin Connection. Lucid and candid, humble and often revelatory, the book is a fascinating read for any fan of Friedkin’s films, providing as it does such insight into the man who made them.

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Sorcerer [Blu-ray]

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6 thoughts on “Conjuring a lost classic: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer resurrected

  1. In watching an AFI retrospective of Friedkin’s career, I was struck with the palpable tension in the scene shown where the truck crosses rickety bridge on the river. Now this wonderful article has reminded me again to see this.

  2. Genius article, great that you’ve conciously explored magic realism and Bunuel connection, because I’ve also seen them. I also have a lot of my own theories and I would LOVE to discuss them with you, sometime! By the way, I am the main author of its wikipedia article.

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