On the closing night of the first ever Chicago Critics Film Festival, William Friedkin did a wonderful Q&A with the audience after a screening of “SORCERER” (in rare 35mm form). He closed with these words for the late, great Roger Ebert, to whom the entire festival had been dedicated.
I Need a Truck by Peter Sobczynski
For cinema fans, it is a scenario that is so familiar that it almost borders on cliche. A filmmaker achieves an astonishing level of commercial and critical acceptance with a blockbuster film or two and has all the studios clamoring for the chance to produce their next project, no matter what it might be. Taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they go off to make whatever it is that they want, usually in the glare of great publicity and often at enormous financial cost.
When the film finally comes out, it gets savaged by critics as part of a backlash to their earlier success and ignored by audiences who have moved on to the next big thing, leaving the filmmaker to either scramble to find a project to reestablish their commercial viability (usually a sequel to their previous hit) or languish in movie jail until the studios are willing to trust them again with the keys to the piggy bank. The funny thing is that once the bad publicity has had time to fade away, many of these films have actually gone on to age a lot better than the box-office hits of their time.
The summer of 1977 saw a number of films that fell into this category. At that time, the movie industry had not yet completely dedicated the summer season to things aimed entirely at teenagers with plenty of disposable income. Certainly there were any number of large-budget exploitation films out there that hoped to capitalize on audience desires to see sex (“The Deep,” “The Other Side of Midnight”), action (“The Spy Who Loved Me”), car crashes (“Smokey and the Bandit”) and repeats of what they liked the previous summer (“The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”) but interspersed with them were a number of more ambitious works aimed primarily at adult viewers.
Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York,” for example, was a sprawling musical (a genre that was itself beginning to wane in popularity) that had the notion of combining the cheerful artifice of the classics of the Forties and Fifties with a darker and more psychologically charged examination of the tortured romantic relationship between leads Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. “A Bridge Too Far” was Richard Attenborough‘s all-star reconstruction of World War II’s Operation Market Garden, an ambitious Allied plan to halt the advance of the Nazis that fell apart disastrously due to bad planning and worse luck. Even the much-anticipated “Exorcist II: The Heretic” grew from being just a simple piece of money-generating product into a more metaphysical exploration of the nature of good and evil under the direction of John Boorman.
Despite enormous amounts of hype, none of these films found much favor with critics and audiences and were soon yanked from theaters. Over time, however, each of these films have all begun to receive reappraisals from observers who are able to put aside their bad reputations and look at them in a new light. They are able to handle the initially off-putting tone of “New York, New York,” they have a new admiration for the size and scope of “A Bridge Too Far” and even “Exorcist II” (which was literally jeered off the screen upon its original release and named the second-worst film of all time in the immortal “The Golden Turkey Awards”) has begun to collect a group of people who have embraced Boorman’s wild ambitions.
Of all the films of this type that emerged during the summer of 1977, the most infamous of the bunch was William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer,” his follow-up to the back-to-back successes of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” It had a long and arduous production that was done under harrowing conditions and wound up costing over $22 million–an amount so exorbitant at the time that it took two studios to bring it to the screen. When it was finally released, audiences were outraged to discover that, despite the title, it was not a supernatural horror film but a grim action drama that was in fact a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s 1953 classic “The Wages of Fear” and critics were equally appalled that anyone would dare try to remake a film as widely admired as the original.
To make matters worse, it had the misfortune to come out in theaters a couple of weeks after the debut of the season’s biggest cinematic question mark, a silly-sounding thing by the name of “Star Wars.” Although it did get a couple of rave reviews here and there (the always-perceptive Roger Ebert named it one of the year’s ten best films), they weren’t enough to spark interest and the film was a catastrophic failure at the box-office, pulling in only $9 million or so worldwide before being yanked from release. It disappeared so quickly and completely (its sole DVD release, a muddy pan-and-scan transfer from the earliest days of the format, has been out of print for a long time) that it was as if it had never existed. From time to time over the next couple of decades, there were rumors of a new DVD on the horizon but they turned out to be nothing more than cinematic vaporware.
And yet, “Sorcerer” has long maintained a dedicated cult following–both Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino have publicly praised it–and 2013 appears to be the year in which their devotions finally and unexpectedly pay off in spades. This month sees the publication of Friedkin’s memoirs, “The Friedkin Connection,” in which he recounts its famously difficult production along with the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding his other films, including “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist” (1973), “Cruising” (1980) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985). More significantly, a long-discussed digital restoration of “Sorcerer” itself is currently underway and rumored to be set for a premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival to be followed soon after with its Blu-Ray debut..
For those who can’t wait until then and who are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, “Sorcerer” is getting a handful of special screenings in a rare 35mm print so that it can once again be seen on the big screen where it truly belongs. In fact, one will be occurring in the Chicago area on April 14, where it will be screened as the concluding event of the first Chicago Critics Film Festival with Friedkin himself on hand to participate in an audience Q&A afterwards. (Full disclosure: The author of this piece is one of the people helping to organize the event and will be co-conducting the Q&A along with Steve Prokopy of Ain’t It Cool News.)
The film is an adaptation of the Georges Arnaud novel “The Wages of Fear” and when Clouzot brought it to the screen for the first time in 1953, the result was a movie that was considered so incendiary in its politics, which were deemed by many to be anti-American in nature, that when it finally appeared in the U.S. two years later, it was in a heavily truncated form. (It would not be seen in the U.S. in its complete version until 1991.) Nevertheless, it won the top prizes at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, it was a critical and commercial sensation throughout the world and by the time that Friedkin decided on doing a remake, it had long been established as one of the greatest thrillers ever made.
“Sorcerer” tells the story of four men (Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou) who, due to a combination of bad choices and bad luck, find themselves hiding from their sordid pasts in a remote South American town totally dominated by an American oil company that exploits the populace as cheap labor for their wells and refineries and which essentially own the police, military and key government officials. With nowhere else to go, the four go to work for the company doing backbreaking labor under horrifying and hazardous conditions while desperately trying to earn enough money to get out for good.
There is an explosion at one of the company’s remote oil wells and while they can keep a lid on the fact that it was the result of a bomb planted by rebels and not simply a horrible accident, it is much more difficult to put a lid on the fire itself, which is raging out of control. The only way that it can be put out is with the use of explosives but the only available dynamite was stored improperly and is now so dangerously unstable that even the slightest jostle could cause it to detonate.
With air travel out of the question, the four men agree to drive two aging trucks, each containing three crates of the explosives, over 200 miles of rough terrain to the fire in exchange for a hefty payout and a way out of town. As they slowly make their way through the bumpy roads, crumbling mountain passes and overgrown jungle, they come across numerous dangerous obstacles–a rotted rope-suspension bridge barely hanging over a rain-swollen river, a felled tree too large to move or cut through and bandits eager to rob and kill anyone who comes across their paths among them–and even if they manage to somehow survive all of that, they could be blown sky-high in an instant due to one unseen bump in the road.
Watching “Sorcerer” today is a surreal experience in that it seems impossible that a film of its type could be produced in Hollywood, even during the Seventies, perhaps the last period in our cinematic history when films of an adult nature were still being produced with some degree of regularity. It contains no stars to speak of–Roy Scheider may have been the lead actor in “Jaws” but was not exactly a box-office name while his co-stars were complete unknowns to American audiences. It tells a dark tale in which practically every character we see is corrupt to some degree and human nature is depicted in the bleakest and most savage terms imaginable. There is plenty of action throughout but none of the heedless exhilaration to be had in something like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Die Hard” or their ilk. It also pretty much goes without saying that it ends on a note that keeps perfectly in tone with everything that has preceded it.
What keeps the film from becoming nothing more than a tedious experiment in bleak cynicism is the fact that in William Friedkin, it had the perfect man to bring it to the screen properly. For “Sorcerer” to have any chance of working, it required someone with the clout to bring such a story to the screen with the proper scope and scale and without needing to smooth away the rough edges in order to placate nervous studio executives. It needed a director with the filmmaking skills to bring the material to life both on location during the fiendishly complicated production phase in the editing room during the equally difficult post-production period. Most importantly, it needed a filmmaker with the stones to convince people that he could do a remake of “The Wages of Fear” and the talent to actually do it.
It is no secret that Friedkin’s filmography as a whole has been a bit on the uneven side with his classic films rubbing shoulders with oddities and misfires like the failed black comedy “Deal of the Century” and the nonsensical horror programmer “The Guardian” (though he has been on an upswing in the last few years with his impressive screen adaptations of the Tracey Letts stage plays “Bug” and “Killer Joe). It is also no secret that when working with the right material, there are still precious few directors who can match him in terms of sheer cinematic skill. With “Sorcerer,” Friedkin was clearly firing on all cylinders and the end result is not just the best film of his long career but one of the most powerful moviegoing experiences that one could possibly hope to see.
As a thriller, the film is amazing grueling and intense–so much so, in fact, that I couldn’t help but be shocked when I went back to look at it again before writing this article and discovered that it only received a PG rating from the MPAA. The early scenes, which depict how the four protagonists (one cannot really call them “heroes”) came to find themselves in their current situations, the growing hostilities between the locals and the oil bigwigs who are concerned only with profits and the cataclysmic fire that sets the central plot in motion, are a master class in building a sense of quiet tension and uneasiness that pays off beautifully once the guys finally set off on their perilous journey. At that point, Friedkin ratchets things up considerably to the point where even the hardiest viewers will find themselves literally on the edges of their seats both anticipating and dreading what might result with every sudden turn or unexpected bump.
There are several elaborate set-pieces throughout the film but the most stunning by far is the extended sequence in which the two trucks are forced to cross a bridge so rickety that the fact that it is barely standing is a miracle. Watching the scene again, I was amazed to note just how many balls Friedkin was juggling in the air in putting it together. There is, of course, the truck slowly inching its way across a bridge that most people wouldn’t cross on foot on a bet. There are the guys who have to get out of the truck and onto the bridge to help the driver guide it along–once false step and they run the risk of getting run over. There are pieces of the bridge that plunge into the water below with every move. There is the increasingly frayed ropes barely holding the bridge together. There is a torrential downpour threatening to wash out the bridge entirely. Oh yeah, there is still all the unstable nitroglycerin to deal with as well that could blow everything to bits in an instant.
To properly execute a sequence like this is a fiendishly complicated matter. For staters, one has to figure out a way to properly stage and execute all of the disparate elements so that all the necessary footage is captured. (Due to a number of calamities–according to legend, the river in the Dominican Republic where the filmmakers built the bridge for shooting at a cost of $1 million dried up, the entire sequence was relocated to Mexico at the cost of another million and then that river began drying as well–it took approximately three months to finish the sequence.) Then one has to take all that footage into the editing room and figure out a way to put it all together so that it conveys all of the necessary tension while still remaining coherent to the viewer–even the slightest false move in any way could blow both the sequence and the entire film sky-high.
The end result is one of the most remarkable suspense sequences ever captured on film. The astute film watcher of course realizes instinctively that what they are watching has been carefully plotted out and constructed by the filmmakers, both on the set and in the editing room, so that it looks more dangerous than it actually is. That said, Friedkin and his army of technicians have executed so perfectly that you forget about all of that while it plays out because you are so completely caught up in what is unfolding on the screen–even those who have seen the film before and know what happens will still find themselves on the edges of their proverbial seats. In fact, it could be argued that it plays even better nowadays than it did back then in that its reliance on real people, real trucks and practical effects to convey excitement now stands as a total rebuke to the dramatically and emotionally weightless CGI concoctions that now dominate the action film genre these days.
And yet, “Sorcerer” is more than a cold exercise in technical proficiency. Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green (who wrote the script for another initially misunderstood classic, Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 masterpiece “The Wild Bunch”) tell their story in a clean and efficient manner that, outside of the multiple prologues explaining why the men are on the run, does not pause for long expository speeches or unnecessary character-building moments–instead, the guys reveal who they are almost entirely through the actions that they undertake and the film is far more interesting as a result. There is also a genuine and almost palpable sense of anger throughout the film regarding how the United States and its business interests have run political, economic and ecological roughshod throughout places like South America in the never-ending pursuit of profits. (Ironically, Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount at the time, was itself heavily invested in the Dominican Republic and when a scene set in the offices of the film’s oil company required a picture of their board of directors, Friedkin utilized one of G&W’s actual board taken directly from their annual report.)
Although Friedkin had tried and failed to get big stars to appear in the film (Steve McQueen was pursued but said he would do it only if they script could be altered so that there could be a part for then-wife Ali McGraw), I actually think the more low-key casting is far more effective–because there is no big star in the group (even Roy Scheider, the best-known of the four thanks to the success of “The French Connection” and “Jaws,” had more of a genuine Everyman appeal than the superstar vibe of someone like McQueen), the story feels more realistic as a result. In fact, it also helps to build the tension because while one might logically surmise that McQueen would probably survive to at least the final reel, the more subdued casting quietly invites the possibility that any of these guys could get wiped out at any time.
The other masterful element of “Sorcerer” is the legendary score composed by the German electronic music group Tangerine Dream. Although the group would go on to score numerous movies over the next decade (including “Thief” (1981), “The Keep” (1983) and “Risky Business” (1983)), this was their first major scoring assignment and the story goes that they never actually saw any footage and were working solely from a copy of the screenplay. Regardless, the throbbing synthesizer tracks that they contributed are a perfect match for the film’s relentlessly uneasy tone and grow in importance as the story progresses and the dialogue recedes to the point where it almost comes across like a silent movie. Trust me, this is one of those films where after you watch it, you will immediately head to iTunes to download the soundtrack.
“Sorcerer” is not just a great film but a timeless one as well–the kind that plays just as well today as it did when it was first made. In fact, I would be very surprised if there was a film released this year that could even begin to approach it in terms of dramatic and visceral impact. Most current movies, especially genre films, are so utterly forgettable that they pretty much fade from memory by the time the end credits have finished rolling (a blessing in the case of something like “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” or “Olympus Has Fallen”) but “Sorcerer” is one that immediately sticks in the mind of anyone who sees it and will continue to do so for a long time afterwards. Happily, thanks to the film’s long-overdue revival, a new generation of viewers will at last get the chance to discover this for themselves.