SORCERER (William Friedkin, 1977)

Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri, Peter Capell, Karl John, Friedrich von Ledebur, Chico Martinez, Joe Spinell. 121 minutes.

'The feeling was we're really auteur filmmakers, we can do anything we want, we can go anywhere we want.' Screenwriter Walon Green (quoted in 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' by Peter Biskind, 1998.)

After the huge success of THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE EXORCIST (1973), the former winning him a Best Director Academy Award, William Friedkin was at the height of his career. When he decided his follow-up would be a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 classic THE WAGES OF FEAR (aka LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR), many in Hollywood thought it was sheer hubris and that his run of success would end. (Friedkin only managed to get Clouzot to cough up the remake rights by convincing him that he wasn't likely to make a better film, and only managed to get the film financed by claiming to MCA head Lew Wasserman that he would even be willing to make the film for free. Luckily for Friedkin he didn't have to make it for free, but he did get a reduced fee.) Well, his detractors (Friedkin's 'confidence' had won him some enemies in Hollywood, and the production of SORCERER would win him more) were right about the latter. The film was a critical and commercial failure, and when people talk about Friedkin, it's always THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST, and maybe TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985). Rarely do they talk about SORCERER, unless it's as one of the most misguided moves by a filmmaker at his peak. But the cult of SORCERER seems to be growing, and desevedly so. It's a brilliant film in it's own right, a superb remake, and although it ended Friedkin's glory days in Hollywood, it's as great if not better than CONNECTION and EXORCIST.

SORCERER tells the story of four characters who arrive in the hellhole Nicaragua town of Porvenir (actually Alta Gracia in The Dominican Republic), sharing nothing except the fact they are on the run and desperate. In the 20 minute plus backstory, we learn what brought them to the location. Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider, 1975's JAWS and Friedkin's THE FRENCH CONNECTION) is a thief who, with his colleagues, pulls off a heist in the backroom of a church. One of the men killed is related to a high-up member of the Mob. Kassem (Amidou) is a terrorist who blew up a building in Jerusalem. Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer, French TV's 'Maigret', 1991 - 2005) is a Paris-based banker who has committed fraud and is likely to face imprisonment. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a hitman who has fled the scene of one of his murders. When revolutionary guerillas blow up one of the oilrigs owned by the nearby refinery, the supervisors give the men a deal they cannot refuse. The nitroglycerine they have stored will be enough to stop the fires, but it has been stored improperly and will explode at the drop of a hat. If the men agree to risk their lives transporting the nitroglycerine across jungle and rocky, mountainous, unpaved terrain (and also under danger from murderous bandits), they will be paid $10, 000 each, given legal residence (under their assumed names) and be free from police harassment.

After the failure of Dennis Hopper's THE LAST MOVIE (1971) and other movies made studios unlikely to ever fund counterculture filmmakers' personal visions again, the blockbuster success of Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER (1972), followed by THE EXORCIST (1973), Spielberg's JAWS and Lucas's STAR WARS (1977) saw the arrival of a new breed of filmmakers, dubbed the 'Movie Brats' by the press. Most of these filmmakers were young, obsessed with film, and educated at film schools. They wanted to make hugely successful movies in order to fund their more personal projects, and weren't always averse to compromise. By the end of the decade and first few years of the next, these filmmakers had either failed to fulfil their promise (Paul Schrader, John Milius), bankrupted themselves (Coppola) or helped bankrupt a studio (Michael Cimino), become moguls themselves (Lucas), learned to play ball (Spielberg, after 1979's war comedy 1941, had to prove he could make films on budget), found critical success but not commercial success (Scorsese after RAGING BULL, 1980) or alienated themselves in Hollywood (Friedkin after SORCERER). Like Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977), Spielberg's 1941, Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and ONE FROM THE HEART (1982) and Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE (1980), SORCERER was a movie whose budget ran amok, and had studio investors biting their nails down to the quick. It began with a budget of $2.5m, and was intended as a small project he could make before embarking on the ambitious 'The Devil's Triangle', about ships and planes disappearing into space in the Bermuda Triangle. It ballooned into a $22m project, requiring Universal and Paramount to co-produce the picture. (It only recouped $9m.) Friedkin got it into his head that they would film on location in South America, an exorbitant idea that would lose the film an interested and bankable lead in Steve McQueen, who refused to leave wife Ali McGraw's side. McQueen loved the script and even asked if McGraw could be made a producer so that she could accompany him on location, but the request was denied. Friedkin later regretted the decision, believing that with McQueen as the lead the film could have been a hit.

SORCERER was eventually mainly filmed on location in the Dominican Republic and Central Mexico (for the trucks' journey to the oil refinery). Lew Wasserman had wanted to film in Ecuador, but a civil war had broken out. Peter Bart in his memoir 'Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob (And Sex)' (2011) claims that Gulf & Western owner Charlie Bluhdorn was effectively keeping the Dominican Republic afloat with cash injections, and wanted to create a filmmaking mecca in the country. (Gulf & Western was the conglomerate that owned Paramount.) He had his own lavish mansion in the unstable country, complete with armed guards at it's perimeters. So it's likely the decision to film in the Dominican Republic was one favoured by Bluhdorn. One of the most extraordinary qualities of SORCERER is how Friedkin (and cinematographers John M. Stephens and Dick Bush) manage to vividly portray such a dark, dank, rainy hellhole of squalor, deprivation and death. One can almost feel the grime and smell the sweat and the stench (it's made all the more striking by following a scene set in an opulent Paris restaurant). And yet it was a location loved for it's beauty by the man who helped to bankroll the film (Bluhdorn owned the conglomerate Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount)! It's not clear if this upset Bluhdorn, but certainly using a photo of the board members to represent the film's evil conglomerate did. Peter Biskind's 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' (1998) details Friedkin's alleged behaviour towards the studio, and characterises him as a man unwilling to compromise with anybody. Ironically, all of his films from 1994 to 2003 were made by Paramount. He married Sherry Lansing in 1991, and she was the President of Paramount from 1994 to 2006 (she was formerly the President of Twenieth-Century Fox).

The film was a risky commercial proposition, and all eyes were on the budget as it started to escalate during the ten month shoot. Friedkin had made money for studios with his two big hits, so his instincts as a filmmaker were trusted, if reluctantly. The director insisted on filming in Jerusalem (blowing up a huge building) and Paris for two of the backstories, which the studios weren't happy about. (Friedkin apparently had a terrible time filming in the former location.) SORCERER was a remake of a French classic, but to mass audiences, this didn't matter one jot. Apart from Roy Scheider, the film has no Western leads. Much of the film is subtitled (mostly the 20 minute plus opening), an anaethma to big audiences. The film's lead characters are unsympathetic people whom we never really learn much about. It's only clear after the story shifts to Nicaragua how the characters connect. (The opening section of the movie, and the final scene, were cut out in Europe and Australia, the footage amounting to some 28 minutes. It was also retitled WAGES OF FEAR, and the characters' backstories were relayed through flashbacks. Friedkin successfully sued in Europe using moral legislation grounds.) The location is completely unappealing and distancing, and the ending is a complete and utter downer. Even the title promised to hurt it's commercial chances. There was nothing supernatural about the film's story at all. This film was going to have to be a particularly brilliant and exciting film to recoup it's budget.

An extraordinary quality of SORCERER is it's authenticity. Friedkin's experiences as a documentary filmmaker made THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE EXORCIST (and the later TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.) have a raw energy to them, and SORCERER has this in spades. The action scenes have no artifice to them, and are done in-camera. Friedkin and his cast and crew suffered and endured as much as the characters in his movie (at least during filming hours). Like Werner Herzog and his team on the later FITZCARRALDO (1982), they had to endure the humid temperatures, torrential rain and jungle conditions for real. (Friedkin also has a reputation for pushing his actors hard to get results and for going to lengths many might feel are too far. eg. on THE EXORCIST, Ellen Burstyn claims she hurt her back in a stunt, and Friedkin famously slapped William O'Malley, a real priest, in the face to get the expression he wanted on film.) You can see it in the actor's faces. Scheider looks exhausted and beaten. As in the film, the crew had to make a path through jungle, effectively creating new roads, to carve a path for the trucks' journey. During the film's most incredible scene - two trucks attempting to make it across it a rickety, precarious, delapidated rope suspension bridge in a torrential storm, whilst carrying nitroglycerine that could explode at the drop of a hat - the trucks kept falling into the river, and Friedkin would simply get them back on the bridge and go again. The real dangers (apart from the nitroglycerine obviously) mirrored the fictional dangers. Were it not for the safety measures and the bravery and professionalism of the stuntmen, something could have gone horribly wrong. It also has to be noted that most of the stunts in the film were performed by the actors (including Scheider).

The bridge scene is a key scene in the movie (and the film's highlight) because it is essentially a microcosm of the movie itself, and an example of Friedkin's particular talents as a filmmaker. As with the whole film itself, Friedkin maximises the drama, excitement and tension of the setpiece by elongating it as far as he can get away with it, by filming it in precarious conditions, by filming it on a real location, by putting the real actors in the scene as much as possible, and by having the struggle to achieve the filming of the scene mirror the characters' struggles in the scene. In a Friedkin film, the people making it are going to have to endure at least on some level the hardships and struggles of the story and it's characters.

Friedkin lost 50lbs during the shoot and contacted malaria (as did many). Half of his crew left the production because of the difficulties. He also had to contend with local Federales going undercover and joining the crew as extras to root out drug users. One actor had to perform his scene with two police officers pointing a gun at him out of shot. Friedkin only managed to get the scene done because he had befriended the Federales' superior. After the scene was shot, the actor was taken away in handcuffs.

As it happened, the film opened a week after one film changed the industry forever, effectively ending the already faltering reign of 'the auteurs'. The film was George Lucas's STAR WARS (1977), and SORCERER couldn't have been any more different a movie. Editor Bud Smith clearly remembers being at the Chinese Theater watching how the curtains moving back, the screen widening, the Fox fanfare and the opening shot of the space cruiser coming up the frame made the trailer to SORCERER that had preceded it look like 'a little amateurish piece of shit'. Smith implored Friedkin to come to the Theater and watch Lucas's movie. After doing so, Friedkin very much shared Smith's concerns. After being told by the Theater's manager that STAR WARS was doing amazing business, a worried Friedkin reminded him that SORCERER was due to open the following week. The manager told him that if his film underperformed, he would have to remove it and reinstall STAR WARS. Which was exactly what happened.

Friedkin himself doesn't regard SORCERER as a remake of Clouzot's film: '...the characters are different, the stunts are different'. Whilst both films are ostensibly tense, suspenseful adventure thrillers (Tangerine Dream's electronic score heightens the doom-laden atmosphere), and Friedkin follows the structure of Clouzot's film, the main differences are that Friedkin's take on the material is more serious. The Vietnam War was still in the background during the development of the script, and Friedkin paints the US conglomerate that owns the oil refinery as amoral, evil businessmen who care nothing of human life and only for profit margins. The revolutionary guerillas could be the student protesters against the War; the conglomerate a government that would wage and continue a war most people disbelieved in, only for glory and profit. Clouzot's film is defined by it's numerous brilliant setpieces (it's one of cinema's great adventure movies) but whilst Friedkin's bridge scene qualifies as one of the decade's most breathtaking and memorable action setpieces, Friedkin seems more interested in exploring the nature of fate: 'None of us can determine our lives, and that is the underlining theme of this movie.'

The title of the film comes from Friedkin's idea that 'A sorcerer is an evil wizard. And in this case, the evil wizard is fate – it takes control all of our lives.' He also told Andrew L. Urban for the Urban Cinefile website ('Shooting with Guns') that '...while I was in South America doing some research, I came across these trucks in lovely colours and made up of different auto body parts like a Frankenstein monster, and the drivers had given them all strange names. Two I noticed were Lazaro, and the other was Sorcier, which is the French for Sorcerer.'

Scanlon, is like 'Popeye' Doyle (Gene Hackman, who was considered for the role) in THE FRENCH CONNECTION, a man whose obsession sends him into mania. Blinded by his obsession to catch drug kingpin Charnier (Fernando Rey), Doyle accidentally kills a federal agent. The brilliantly hallucinogenic effects towards the close of the movie, showing his disintegrating psyche, indicate that Scanlon is about to tip over into insanity trying to stay alive. One could paint Friedkin as a similarly obsessed man. His obsessiveness is part of his brilliance, allowing him to push the envelope in emotional and physical realism. But it has been argued that part of his obsessiveness stems from a big ego. Nevertheless, he refused to compromise artistically, and the result was this fantastic film. When he stopped making money for studios, his hard-nosed personality at that time meant that it was harder to convince executives to go on out on a limb for him. (Friedkin appears to be quite a good-humoured, self-deprecating, if still very deservedly confident, man nowadays.)

Friedkin's view of fate is shown to be bitterly ironic. He has an extended scene at the end of the film where an exhausted but relieved Scanlon prepares to start a new life elsewhere and dances with a local woman he has befriended. The last shot is of the mobsters approaching the bar. All that we have watched Scanlon endure, the great thrill ride we watched, was all for nothing. Scanlon nearly went mad trying to escape his fate, but nobody escapes fate. We live only to die another day. It's a powerful end to the film, and also has a moral, Catholic subtext. Scanlon, by committing crimes in a Catholic church (thievery, being an accessory to a murder), is being punished for disrespecting the Catholic Church and God.

Perhaps it was Friedkin's fate to have to endure the film's rejection by critics and audiences. The film was a labour of love for Friedkin (he developed it for four years) and it's lack of success hurt him deeply. (Roger Ebert liked it very much!) Friedkin rightly continues to regard it as one of his best films. He would never again enjoy the success and critical acclaim of his two most famous movies, but 1985's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. became a cult classic (and is also concerned with obsession). He continues to work in Hollywood, causing controversy with the gay-themed police thriller CRUISING (1980) and the erotic thriller JADE (1995), and also independently, as with his 2006 film BUG, which won him the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes.

SORCERER is one of the most under-rated films ever. It's reputation will continue to grow even further as more and more people check it out. Clouzot's film is justifiably regarded as one of the classics of cinema, but SORCERER seserves to be mentioned in the same breath. Far from being a folly by a director too arrogant to realise he was in over his head, the film is evidence of William Friedkin's brilliance as a filmmaker, and the third in a trilogy of '70s masterpieces that began with THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST. It was a movie not right for it's time (the dawning of the 'High Concept' blockbuster) and a movie that was always going to be a difficult sell for audiences and critics. Audiences didn't know what to expect, especially with a misleading title. And far more fun sounding pictures like STAR WARS were out there to see. Critics were already sharpening their knives at a young auteur daring to take on a French classic, and whom they had already decided was getting too big for his own boots. But there's no excuse now to investigate one of the gretest films you've never heard of or thought you would never want to see.

NB. The film is actually the third adaptation of Georges Arnaud's 1950 French-language novel, 'The Wages of Fear' (aka 'Le Salaire de la Peur'). Howard W. Koch's American movie VIOLENT ROAD (aka HELL'S HIGHWAY) was also based on the book. Friedkin married celebrated French actress Jeanne Moreau (JULES ET JIM, 1962) during the year of the film's release. He looked at many actors for the part of Jackie Scanlon, and Nick Nolte was amongst those lesser-known actors testing for the part. Francisco Rabal, who plays Nilo, was originally Friedkin's choice to play Alain Charnier in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Friedkin had seen him in Luis Bunuel's BELLE DE JOUR (1967), but didn't remember his name. He told his casting directors to find the Spanish actor from the film, and they mistakenly cast Bunuel regular Fernando Rey instead. One of SORCERER's fans is the novelist Stephen King, who loves the Clouzot film, but believes Friedkin's film to be even better. Roy Scheider was reportedly unhappy with Friedkin for deleting scenes where he appeared more sympathetic by befriending a young local boy.

The European/ Australian cut '...used to play on British television in the '80s' and 'is actually quite interesting, since it restores quite a bit of footage from the cutting-room floor, including two set-piece scenes. There's a description of it here.

One interesting thing about the European version is that the opening credits play over shots of a landscape viewed from a helicopter, with the credits rolling ftom the bottom to the top of the screen. It's strikingly anticipates the opening credits sequence of Kubrick's THE SHINING. Kubrick was living in the UK during the '70s, so if he'd seen SORCERER, this is the version he'd have been familiar with.'

AVAILABILITY: The director's cut (US Theatrical Version) of SORCERER is available on a fullscreen DVD with informative production notes and the trailer as the extras. Friedkin previously claimed that he preferred his films to be seen on home video in the fullscreen format, but his other films have been released in original aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced editions, and with more extras too. Friedkin instigated a court case to finally assess the ownership of rights to the film and after a settlement, the film has been restored and remastered for a forthcoming theatrical re-release and Blu-ray/ DVD release in 2013.


'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' by Peter Biskind, Simon and Schuster, 1998.
'Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob (And Sex)' by Peter Bart, Weinstein Books, 2011.
'Shooting with Guns'. An interview with William Friedkin on SORCERER by Andrew L. Urban, Urban Cinefile website, 5th December 2002.
'Sorcerer': DVD Production Notes.
'Sorcerer': Wikipedia entry.

1 comment:

mike siegel said...

Friedkin had no final cut outside the US, that's why two different versions exist. I love the movie and years ago I made an 'extended cut' for myself. I was surprised that there were alternate takes, different scoring etc. It runs about 130 minutes. In the US version we find scenes not used in the European cut and vice versa!