Our two Midnight Screenings, both cult films from the ’70s, come early this week. Enjoy!
It ain’t easy remaking one of the greatest and most influential French films of all time. But after laying down the law (and critiquing it with a stern eye) with The French Connection in 1971 and unexpectedly repopularizing the horror genre with the pre-blockbuster success of The Exorcist, William Friedkin had virtual carte blanche to do just about whatever he wanted, and what the genre-film director and aficionado wanted was to pay homage to one of his heroes, Henri-Georges Clouzot, by remaking one of his most widely respected films: The Wages of Fear.
A choice that is, honestly, right up in Friedkin’s wheelhouse, and if it isn’t the most original idea to bring a long-respected arthouse classic to the masses with a big budget American remake, it certainly paid dividends as far as quality goes. Sorcerer is one of the great film remakes, even if it isn’t always a great film. It is, however, always a very good film and a masterpiece of nuts and bolts filmmaking craft. It is, admittedly, slightly more impersonal than some of Friedkin’s more demented other offerings (including his two late period near-masterpieces, adaptations of Tracy Letts’ plays Bug and Killer Joe – if only he was afforded August: Osage County to make it the blustering verbal-combat Grand Guignol piece it deserved to be). Yet slightly impersonal craft can still be phenomenal craft, and at the level of sheer mechanics, Sorcerer is a textbook example of action entertainment and an astonishingly forward-thinking work of direction, editing, and composition.
Too bad it was lost to the box office entertainment machine. As with so many New Hollywood works that would come to pass, its release was taunted and overshadowed by what would come to be a vastly more influential work of pop-fiction: a certain Star Wars, released on the same day as Sorcerer and guilty of the sin of stealing away all of its potential box office earnings. So it was that Sorcerer was doomed to minimal public interaction for many decades until its late and relatively recent resurgence (as with so many ’70s pictures).
Which is an absolute shame, for this update of Clouzot’s film about four struggling men tasked with carrying crates of explosives via trucks across a no man’s land of rickety, tumultuous South American jungle boasts a cornucopia of prestige points. Friedkin’s cinéma vérité camerawork of the underground tradition evokes a hidden underbelly of festering woe the world over (the early portions of the film introduce us to each man in Mexico, Israel, France, and the United States respectively). When the action transitions to South America, Friedkin’s luring camera investigates the rampant corporate oppression of Big Oil with reportorial diction (an evil oil corporation is the source of all the pain suffered by the workers). The director lingers but doesn’t wallow in the desperation and gives the place a name and a feeling.
But Friedkin, as he was, always remained a director of space and movement, not of people. For him, humans were places and figures in frames, although he knew how to dig deep into those figures and invoke their sweat so that his films could give in to disarray (Friedkin’s preferred mode). His characters in Sorcerer aren’t fully formed, per-se, but their characterization as everyday humans in a pulverizing experience is trenchant nonetheless. We don’t know them and they don’t develop, but it doesn’t matter because the filmmaking sympathizes with them and gets under their skin, negotiating the tactility of the pain of everyday life for these four men who would choose to risk their lives in unholy conditions. It is experiential filmmaking in other words, filmmaking where the directing and editing forces the characters’ emotions upon us so that it doesn’t matter if we actually learn what is going on in the characters’ minds. The pain, the temptation, the anxiety, are all ingrained in our minds by Friedkin’s shot selections that the experience of the characters is alive and feeling anyway.
Sorcerer is not a masterpiece of character development then, but it is a sterling slice of characterization; if the characters don’t grow in any meaningful way, that is because Friedkin is primarily interested, like Clouzot was, in how the desperation of their conditions and their needs to make ends meet denies their very ability to grow at all, or even to boast things like “characterization”. They have become everyday machines for the capitalist monstrosity. It is fitting then that Friedkin’s film unfolds with bulleting, machine-like efficiency, clipping forward with no room for character growth precisely because there is no room for growth in the lives of these characters. His film is a brutal beast trapping them with its edits just as they are trapped in the corporate incisions into their everyday lives.
Nonetheless, I must confess that Friedkin’s habits as a director are more fitted to the second half of the picture than the first, and his attempts at building a muckraking epic for the modern world are left wandering under his somewhat overzealous commitment to a one-note sort of “this is realism, this is sadness” depiction of poverty that was not new in 1977 and is no more inspired now. Handheld cameras and grainy filmaking convey realism and grit, but not much else. During these early portions, the only thing that adds a layer of hypnotic, hyperbolic magic to the piece is the cryptic Tangerine Dream score (one of their earliest on the eventual path to film music royalty). That, and the oddly alien cinematography from Dick Bush, who sometimes films the otherworld of the jungle with a high-contrast green that exudes so much charisma that the beauty of the Amazon becomes a false image, an obviously fake green that resembles the dreams of the main characters more than the actual look of the place.
It is all the better then that Friedkin does eventually let his better half do the talking in the film’s better half, when his nastier habits as a director are matched to a more cinematic approach to handsomely mounted snap, crackle, and pop. The heart of Sorcerer is not, ultimately, collective human distress. It is, instead, a hotbox with four characters in search of an exit, stranded in two trucks that provide their only way home, either through success or, more permanently, failure. The difficult, over-budgeted shoot is at its most harrowing here, with the genuine danger the cast and crew faced manifesting in the sweat beads and nervous, short-tempered explosions of noises masquerading as dialogue (one sees a little of Herzog’s “voodoo of location” in the film). There’s genuine anger here, and the shot selection in the impeccable, unimprovable bridge sequence takes on a Herzog-like clout, with the perfect symmetry and order of the bridge disrupted into waving, quavering anarchy by the trucks daring to drive across it. When Friedkin drops the characters in the middle of the frame with the mouth of the bridge daring them forward into the harsh, unforgiving majesty of the rain-drenched jungle, it is as if they are entering the mouth of hell itself.
Sorcerer doesn’t wrinkle Clouzot’s formula too much; the biggest differential is that Sorcerer is significantly more about teamwork and the harsh individualism of the men being tested and disrupted by the needs of camaraderie officiated by the unforgiving terrain. A decision that is not only a little more populist, but very distinctly of the ’70s tempo of “brutal men on a mission” films, and a decision that both robs the film of some of its fascinating existential cruelty and buttresses the film’s more elemental adventure fable. It is an either-or situation, but on its own merits, Sorcerer is an intermittently misguided, often magnetic, generally intoxicating thrill ride with a much-needed dose, in its final moments, of abstracted, hallucinogenic imagery transforming the jungle into a little wasteland of the mind. Sorcerer’s best moment, outside of its bridge sequence, is also the one that borrows most from The Exorcist: pallid blue and sickly purple hues turning humans into deathly grotesque corpses dancing around the last man still struggling to survive or find anything in the vast nothingness of the trek across the Amazon.
This is the solitary sequence where Friedkin literalizes the “jungle as metaphor for the mind” subtext of the film, and the only sequence where he completely severs the umbilical cord of naturalism that hinders the early portions of the film. He gives in, instead, to a poetic nightmare of human emotions fighting for supremacy in a vast geometric wasteland, pinpointed by an image of darkness lit by the very fire that beckoned forth the trek to begin with (the dynamite the men carry was meant to clog up a fire). In the end, it was the fire that kept the men going. And it was the fire that spared them nothing when it turned their relentless push forward into its own cruel plaything, ensuring none of them would escape the jungle ever again.