Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
When considering Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s 1977 film adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear (first rendered for the big screen in 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot), I think it’s worth discussing what I did one month prior to laying my eyes on it.
On May 25 of that year, history was about to be made. Friend and colleague Sandi Krawchenko (KY58-AM radio news reporter) and I, the Winnipeg radio station’s precocious 18-year-old movie critic (still on the tail end of high school), were ushered past the hugest line-up for any movie I’d ever seen in my life by the house manager of the Grant Park Cinema. This grand former National General Cinerama hardtop still had its humungous curved screen, which would prove ideal to view the movie we were about to see.
Sandi would be doing a news item and I’d be providing a review. This was big news, after all. Legendary Variety scribe Art Murphy in his box-office-slanted industry review uttered sage words he’d never before slammed onto the page via an Underwood typewriter. Referring to the earning potential of this new movie, he predicted, ‘The sky’s the limit.’
And so it was that the movies would change – forever.
Oddly, I didn’t much care for Star Wars. About an hour into the movie, it started to bore me silly. God knows I loved science fiction and had seen all the Buck Rogers serials from the 40s, every notable SF picture (the good, the bad and the ugly) from the 50s and numerous dystopian masterworks from the 60s and 70s, but for me, it seemed like I was watching a dull, poorly plotted and far too insanely paced version of everything I’d seen and loved. For me, the only saving graces at the time were the indisputably astounding SFX and Harrison Ford.
That was it. I was pretty much infused with an overwhelming feeling of, ‘What’s the big deal?’ (Over the decades since, I’ve attempted to see the movie with fresh eyes, but it’s never really improved for me.) That was an incredibly depressing summer for a precocious movie lover. The same week Star Wars was breaking records, Smokey and the Bandit opened, and its returns, though not sky’s the limit, were definitely through the roof.
The month leading up to my first helping of Sorcerer was a litany of dull, check-your-brain-at-the-door blockbusters and sadly, this kept up for pretty much the rest of my life, though it was at the most egregious levels throughout the 1980s.
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Finally, Sorcerer happened. One month after the crashing disappointment I experienced with Star Wars, I was happy again. Though I’d already seen Clouzot’s Wages of Fear two years earlier in repertory, I somehow had no idea that Friedkin’s film was a remake. All I knew was that it was the latest Friedkin and it had a really cool poster and ad slicks.
The film opens with four slam-bang stories, which each introduce the characters. Never did I have an idea where Sorcerer was going to go during the opening 20-or-so minutes. Even at that early age I preferred being surprised and loathed telegraphing in my movie experiences, and/or even worse, structural tent posts that pretty much told me what I was about to see and where it was going – both sins committed by the boring Star Wars.
During that virginal plunge, as on subsequent sloppy seconds, thirds and fourths, etc. and even now, in the brand new digital restoration overseen by Friedkin, Sorcerer was always and still remains a movie that repeatedly clubs you with a two-by-four across the teeth.
Each opening tale pulsates, as the entire film does, with Tangerine Dream’s heavy electronic score. Friedkin whizzes us all over the world – from Jerusalem (featuring Amidou as a Palestinian terrorist who sets off a deadly bomb), New Mexico (wherein Francisco Rabal presides over a deadly hit), Paris (charting a bank scandal that leads to the flight of bank president Bruno Cremer) and finally, New Jersey (with Roy Scheider as the getaway car driver in an armed robbery gone very wrong).
At this point, during my first helping of the movie, I was still blissfully unaware of Sorcerer’s connection to The Wages of Fear. What I recognized, from so many 70s movies I’d already seen, was that I was watching a hard-driving crime picture full of the kind of existential male angst that tantalized me even as a kid.
I was in Heaven.
Once the movie collects the four men in the hellhole one-mule-town in the middle of Nowheresville, South America, and we follow their squalid, desperate lives in hiding, I do recall that Sorcerer was starting to feel awfully familiar. Once it’s established that the American oil mine has exploded nearby, I realized I was watching a remake. By this point, it mattered not. I was hooked.
From here, Friedkin stays close to the Clouzot. The four desperate men are hired to drive two trucks, one of the vehicles christened with the name ‘Sorcerer’ (no need to spoil how and why for those who’ve not yet partaken), and transport dangerous cartons of nitro across 200 miles of the most rugged territory imaginable. The goal is to get the deadly explosive to the burning rig to blow it out.
Where Friedkin departs from the French Master is in the amount of money he has to play with. Picture, sound and production design are out of this world and in sharp contrast to Clouzot’s, which is a first rate reproduction of South America in France, no less, but sans the tropical jungles and sheer magnitude of the mountains Friedkin gets to play with. Clouzot himself spared no time and expense and indeed, like Friedkin, went over budget. Mind you, not to the tune of over $20million in 1977 dollars.
The drive through the jungles with narrow unkempt roads and breakneck cliff sides is scary as hell. Somehow, Clouzot’s is nail-bitingly suspenseful, to be sure, but Friedkin pushes the envelope with everything his talent, and, frankly, budget can buy. He’s made an existential action picture, but it’s so deliciously over the top that biting our nails is a mere appetizer to the jolts he gives us to inspire the expulsion of heavier loads from within our bowels.
Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green add in a brief, tense and violent confrontation with bandits and don’t explore the tale’s homoerotic angle (which Friedkin needed, no doubt, to save up for Cruising), but it’s basically the same story. The big difference is that Clouzot puts more energy into the characters, treating us to lengthy dialogue scenes and a faith-based Catholic subtext, whereas Friedkin gives us the simple American brushstrokes of what each of the men represents and allows action – not just the manly derring-do, but the physical manner in which the characters conduct themselves – to provide a wholly unique approach to character.
The final haunting ride to the mine stuns us in both versions, but Friedkin places a great deal of emphasis upon a series of horrific optical effects involving double and triple exposures and a variety of colour effects, which again, plunge us closer to horror rather than suspense.
I find it especially interesting that Friedkin employs certain stylistic flourishes one would more likely find in a scary movie, and after seeing the film several times, it makes perfect sense for his terse, stripped-down approach to be juxtaposed with dollops of shock galore. He carves out much of the overt subtext, which Clouzot so expertly weaves into his adaptation, and replaces it with pure visceral terror.
What could be more infused with dread than a suicide run? What could be more terrifying than driving over impossible terrain with nitro in your truck? What could possibly be more downright frightening than the sight of a swinging rope bridge with rotting planks in a torrential downpour with rushing rapids and rocks just below?
When one thinks back on The Exorcist, some of the most chilling aspects of the film are in its first half when Linda Blair’s Regan is being poked, prodded and near-tortured during the endless series of medical tests under the glare of fluorescent hospital lights. These sequences and Friedkin’s approach to Sorcerer are perfectly in keeping with a Val Lewton-esque approach to horror – the things that really scare us are the unknown; the things we are chilled by are the everyday elements within our environment that become aberrations of what we expect. One needs only to listen to Friedkin’s superb analysis of The Leopard Man on the DVD commentary track of Warner Home Video’s legendary box set, The Val Lewton Collection, to find corroboration of this influence (in addition to Friedkin’s early beginnings in news, public affairs and documentary).
Sorcerer, as it turned out, was a complete and utter disaster at the box office during that summer of 1977. Even the critical response ranged from damning at worst, to non-committal at best. I recall sitting in a huge 1000-seat cinema on an opening day showing that had no more than a handful of psychopaths in the audience. Adjusted for inflation, Sorcerer remains, in today’s dollars, a $200-million picture with a gross box office of about half that amount.
Even if it had been released in the pre-Jaws exhibition-distribution environment, which opened the floodgates for the likes of Star Wars to come close to destroying the movies as we knew them, one doubts it would have made that much more coin. However, it might have been enough so that eventual ancillaries would have been more properly exploited to move Sorcerer closer and quicker to a figure far less in the red, if not in a slight black.
The film’s life in home video was spotty during the Beta/VHS era, and once DVD came along, Universal Pictures (one of two studios, the other being Paramount, that were needed to finance it) released an insulting, cropped standard frame version that looked like it had been mastered in a one-light colour timing from a one-inch master used for VHS.
Now, the wrongs might become right again. Friedkin has been able to supervise the 4K digital transfer and restoration to digital Blu-Ray from the original elements. Luckily, for some, a limited theatrical release of Sorcerer awaits us prior to its late-April Blu-ray release in North America.
Here in the Dominion of Canada, the Toronto International Film Festival’s TIFF Bell Lightbox will be screening Sorcerer theatrically on 12, 15 and 18 April 2014 as a TIFF Cinematheque Special Screening. This is part of a grand spring series that includes a new 35mm restoration of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, new 35mm prints of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Nagisa Ôshima’s Boy, Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a new digital restoration of the 248 minute ‘roadshow’ version of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, new 4K digital restorations of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House/Hausu, John Sturges’s The Great Escape, Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, and 35mm Archival prints of Humberto Solas’s Lucia and most excitingly, H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear.
Watch the trailer for Sorcerer: