The Critical Reappraisal and Restoration of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

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William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is riding the crest of a wave of re-appreciation at the moment, thanks to a recent Blu-ray reissue. Here, Christina Newland takes an in-depth look at the film.

In May 2013, I had the great pleasure of seeing a rare 35mm print of William Friedkin’s maligned 70’s flop, Sorcerer. It was a part of a Friedkin retrospective at Brooklyn’s BAMCinematek, where the man himself was appearing to do gracious Q+A’s and book signings. As it turned out, this rolling out of the old print of Sorcerer was the first step in a bid to restore and re-release the film, which premiered in its reincarnated form in August 2013 at Venice Film Festival and is set to be released on Blu-Ray for April of next year. Amid legal struggles with Paramount and Universal Studios over ownership of the film’s copyright, Friedkin finally won his lawsuit and was able to begin colour timing and digitally restoring the print. Sorcerer is a heaving, humid thriller based on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1951 French classic, The Wages of Fear. It drips with sweat and existential dread, selling itself as a straightforward thriller but containing a great deal in the way of alienation and stretches of unmotivated time. Friedkin poured much of his energies and frustration into his work, and later called it his ‘magnum opus’.[1]

Unfortunately for most any other film of that year, the Summer of 1977 was monopolised by the power of George Lucas’ soap-opera-in-space, Star Wars. It broke all records, reached a domestic gross of nearly $400 million, and remains the second-highest-grossing American film of all time; it has widely been seen as a landmark turning point for New Hollywood. As the late seventies gave way to the rise of Reagan’s New Right and the reinstallation of conservative values, the industry began to shift, as well. High-concept spectacle cinema, with its good v. evil narratives, ancillary markets and record-smashing international profits, had made the self-reflexive, left-leaning, and formally experimental films of the first half of the decade seem like risky, unprofitable ventures. Suddenly, successful auteurist directors from the period – Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin – found their aesthetic out of fashion with financiers and the audiences.

And so audiences voted with their feet, as it were, when Friedkin, fresh from the massive success of The French Connection and The Exorcist, was set to release Sorcerer. His unfortunate luck would have it that the film ran at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard – the week after Star Wars. Its’ budget had spiralled out of control to $22 million, with its producers and financiers spread across both Paramount and Universal. The expense was largely due to Friedkin’s insistence on location shooting and documentary-style realism. In hindsight, it seems clear why the film failed – only earning back $9 million overall – considering the fate of Scorsese’s film that same year, or Coppola and Cimino’s later failures with big-budget experimentation. Combined with the rise of later blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it seems that Friedkin was fighting against an oncoming tide; times, quite simply, were changing.

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In 1977, as a follow-up to Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese released a homage to classical MGM musicals, New York, New York. It was met with poor box office returns and even poorer notices. John Boorman, well-respected British director of Deliverance, made a sequel to The Exorcist which was critically panned. By 1982, Francis Ford Coppola had bankrupted himself with the cataclysmic One from the Heart (costing $26 million of his own money and earning a paltry $637,000 at the box office), and Michael Cimino had bankrupted legendary studio, United Artists, with Heaven’s Gate. Critical reappraisal has retrieved several of these films from the consignment bins of cinematic history, and Sorcerer‘s failure (much like its companion flops of the period), belies its quality. It expands eloquently on Friedkin’s directorial vision, both in its deeply cynical posture and its antiheroic characters, the splintered identities and amorality of which were already exemplified in a character like Popeye Doyle. Nonetheless, as Jonathan Kirshner notes in his book, Hollywood’s Last Golden Age, ‘Moral ambiguity, the hallmark of the seventies film, was out.'[2] That being the case, Friedkin’s untraditional thematic and visual concerns were decidedly out-of-vogue.

Sorcerer centres around four men from disparate backgrounds; international criminals on the lam, relegated to the squalid poverty of Porvenir, a village in an unnamed South American country. The opening prologues of the film take us to New Jersey, where Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is involved in the heist of a local church; Paris, where Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a banker involved in business fraud and on the verge of being ruined; Mexico, where Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a mysterious hitman, and Jerusalem, where Kassem (Amidou), a terrorist, has blown up a bank. When there is an explosion at Porvenir’s oil refinery and dynamite is needed to quell the continuous fire, the oil company asks the most desperate of the men to embark upon what is essentially a suicide mission: to transport truckloads of unstable nitroglycerin over the mountains. The central adventure of the movie thus begins.

Friedkin and his crew struggled through difficult, costly principal photography in the Dominican Republic; many crew members suffered from malaria, food poisoning, and gangrene, and parts of the jungle were so impassable that they were forced to build their own roads. The breathtaking action set-piece of the film, in which an explosives-packed truck must cross a decaying rope-bridge in the pelting rain, cost $3 million alone, due to an ongoing draught which made the original location unusable.[3] Of course, the sense of physical danger – a feeling that the actors might be drowned or crushed at any time – is one that is lacking in the meticulous special effects of Star Wars. Ultimately, it seems that the novelty of one outweighed the realism of the other.

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Casting was also something of a difficulty for Friedkin; he’d originally planned to have a stellar cast of international stars, including Marcello Mastroianni, Robert Mitchum, and Steve McQueen. All of these eventually fell through, partially through circumstance and partially through Friedkin’s particularity for doing things his own way, as he somewhat regretfully notes in his recent autobiography, The Friedkin Connection. The only star of the film known to American audiences (for his roles in Jaws and The French Connection) was Roy Scheider, something that Paramount’s 1977 press-book for the film was certain to highlight. Friedkin had alienated the studio executives from the beginning; his desire for total artistic control, the cryptic title for the film (in actuality the name of the truck which transports the explosives) and his extravagance while shooting did little to encourage them. Interestingly, when studied in retrospect, the press-book provides some insight into the studio’s lacklustre attempts at publicizing the film. The press-book cautiously lays out its case in the publicity pages, informing us that the title does not pertain to ‘a story of mysticism or supernatural forces.'[4]. Apparently, for Friedkin, casting Scheider was a ‘foregone conclusion’, which omits the fact that he was not the director’s first choice for the role.In truth, Friedkin states in his autobiography that the role was written for Steve McQueen, and that he and Scheider butted heads frequently.[5]

As if to repackage the troubles of the shoot as a selling point for the danger and excitement of the film, the implication is one of non-stop action and thrill. ‘A towering derrick was designed, trucked to the production site on almost impassable roads, then reconstructed piece by piece’. The extensive notes describe the painstaking and risky stunts performed for the film: ‘Twelve identical automobiles were totaled to create a spectacular auto-truck crash,’ and ‘the explosion proved almost too successful, shattering the windows of the mayor’s office twenty yards away’.[6]

Unfortunately, the press-book’s attempts at selling the film as a good old-fashioned thriller were not only unsuccessful, but somewhat misguided. The central action is not set into motion until halfway through the running-time. There is considerable stasis beforehand; the narrative provides only minimal information about its dishonest, unlikeable characters, who, upon arriving in Porvenir, become impatient fixtures in the dilapidated local bars, eternally waiting and sweating amid the squalor of the village. For Friedkin, the village had to have a ‘sense of timeless poverty and persecution, a kind of prison without walls.'[7] With a discerning visual taste for the desperate filth and sticky heat of Porvenir, the film conjures up a series of striking images while keeping its’ characters at an oft-remarked upon distance. In a jostling wedding ceremony, a bride recites her vows under two black eyes and a broken nose; a severed goat’s head appears in street scenes; the charred corpses of oil refinery workers are carried through the village, blackened limbs lolling by their sides. Frequently, Friedkin chooses to cut away from suspenseful scenes before they’re finished in entirety; ellipses that remove much of the satisfaction from the resolution. Friedkin said that he had sought to ‘make the transitions less obvious, to make the sequences less predictable, and to tell a story with less dialogue.'[8]

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Motivational factors are also skewed; the four men in Sorcerer sign on to potentially win political clemency and a large sum of money, but the against-all-odds journey might also be seen as a last half-hearted attempt at redemption, or failing that, a suicide mission. The ‘unmotivated hero’, described by New Hollywood scholar Thomas Elsaesser, is a central feature of Sorcerer, and one that was quickly disappearing from cinema screens. With an ‘almost physical sense of inconsequential action, of pointlessness and uselessness: stances which […] speak of a radical scepticism about American virtues of ambition, vision, drive.'[9] Not only is heroism and forward-driving momentum avoided in the film, but a purely existential attitude is adopted. Whatever thrilling moments the film may contain, the ultimate purpose and motivating factors for the expedition are ambiguous; we may only speculate as to the craven or redemptive intentions of our anti-heroes.

Many critics found the film tiresome and compared it unfavourably to the original. Variety called the film ‘distant and uninvolving’, while Time Out referred to it as having a ‘generally tedious, relentlessly grimy realism’. Respected Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris panned the movie, even saying that it was a ‘textbook on everything that is wrong with current movies […] no narrative flow, no psychological development of the characters […]'[10] It is true that Scanlon and his rogue’s gallery of Europeans are strangers to the audience; there is no memorable dialogue, and there is a studied avoidance of comradeship and character development which was crucial to Clouzot’s version. This may be a shortcoming, but it also highlights the extent to which Friedkin sought to infuse the film with a more abstract form of imagery. He described his approach at the time: ‘The audience views a motion picture as a series of icons – faces, incidents, a gun, a knife, a flash of sunlight on a road, a sunset, a woman’s walk […] if these objects are skilfully combined in an impressionistic way, the audience makes its own film.'[11] This highly evocative approach seemed to be a way, for Friedkin, for imagery to replace psychology; and if his imagery is to be the central conveyor of meaning, there is a bleak outlook contained within.

Sorcerer is a rugged work of desperate masculinity; the symbolic juxtaposition of ugly machinery and torrential rain, the primitive greenery of the jungle and the unnatural chemical intrusion of nitroglycerin bouncing through in wooden crates. The work is as much existential odyssey as it is anti-imperialist tract, making it considerably more than the sum of its parts as an adventure/thriller genre in the traditional vein. Much of this was contained in Clouzot’s original film, but the story is updated into a far more relentless and uncompromising version, employing Friedkin’s talent for narrative economy. It reflects both the hallmarks of taut ’70s narrative and the fractious power dynamic of the U.S. at that time to South America and its natural resources. In 1973, the OPEC oil crisis (intended as a discouragement of US foreign policy in the Middle East) and the Chilean coup d’état (US-backed) merited much disdain for American intervention abroad. The oil company in Sorcerer is a mercenary entity, where ‘collapsing pipelines sever limbs and oil rigs explode, burning locals to cinders…'[12] all to serve the company’s economic stranglehold on the region’s natural resources. Friedkin himself spoke more than once on the subject of American foreign policy, saying he had wanted to make ‘a real movie about what we thought was the reality of Latin America and the presence of foreigners there today.'[13] Later, he even referred to the film as political allegory: [14] ‘a metaphor for the current state of foreign affairs’. Though this is potentially facile as a comprehensive description of the film, Sorcerer does seem to contain elements of anti-imperialism. The different men could easily represent the crumbling facades of First World European nations, dissolute interlopers in an underprivileged society. The exploitative corporate forces are even, in an amusingly daring move from Friedkin, represented by an actual photograph of the Gulf & Western board of directors – who owned Paramount Studios at that time.

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The nature of Friedkin’s failure may be chalked up to many things, and the critical response may have been marred by the fact that he was remaking a beloved French classic – a perennial source of suspicion among critics. Divorced from the context of changing industrial and audience preferences in the late 1970’s, the inherent value and subversive New Wave inclinations of Sorcerer can be seen and admired. After decades of critical reappraisal, this month’s American blu-ray release is one of the most anticipated discs of the year, and one can only hope that it will encourage a new generation of film fans and critics to appreciate a forgotten classic.

With Special Thanks to Jakub Krawczyński.

Notes

[1]   The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir, p. 328 William Friedkin. New York: Harpercollins, 2013.

[2]   p. 215. Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America, Jonathan Kirshner. London: Cornell UP, 2012.

[3]   The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir, pp. 331-334. William Friedkin. New York: Harpercollins, 2013.

[4]   Sorcerer Pressbook, Publicity Pages, p. 14. Paramount Studios, 1977.

[5]   The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir, p.115

[6]   Sorcerer Pressbook, p. 3

[7]   Ibid, p. 14

[8]   Sorcerer Press-book, p. 15

[9]   P. 10, Mark Conrad, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir

[10]The Village Voice, Jul 18 1977, Andrew Sarris

[11]Sorcerer Press-book, p. 15

[12]’Phil Mucci Examines Wages of Fear/Sorcerer’ [twitchfilm.com/2011/11/on-film-phil-mucci-examines-wages-of-fearsorcerer.html]

[13]Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Times of William Friedkin, Nat Segaloff, 1990.

[14]The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir, p. 320

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