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William Friedkin’s Sorcerer: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Classic Film

December 10, 2017

Last Sunday, I had the honour of introducing Sorcerer at Fact cinema in Liverpool. It was a somewhat nerve-wracking experience, not for the public-speaking aspect, which I enjoy, but at the thought that the audience wouldn’t like the film. After all, Sorcerer was a critical and commercial failure when it was released theatrically forty years ago, bringing to an end the tremendous hot streak director William Friedkin had enjoyed with the back to back success of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), and it arguably brought about an end to the New Hollywood era itself– that brief but wonderfully rich period in the 1970s when writers and directors had great sway in the studio system and it was relatively easy for them to tell the stories they wanted to tell and get their films made.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself, if your unfamiliar with Sorcerer, let me tell you a little about the plot. A remake of the French film The Wages of Fear (1953), Sorcerer concerns four desperate men who, for varying reasons, are all on the run and find themselves in the Latin American village Porvenir. We have Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) a member of the Irish-American Mob who robbed a rival Mafia Boss and wounded his brother. Then there is Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a French investment banker whose involvement in a massive embezzlement scandal led to a suicide in the family. Kassem (played by Moroccan actor Amidou) is a Palestinian terrorist on the run after blowing up an Israeli bank, and then finally there is the hitman Nilo (Francisco Rabal), of whom the audience is told very little. In the prologue, Nilo commits a contract killing in Veracruz, before heading to Porvenir to lay low, but he remains an enigma throughout. With its poverty, rampant disease and generally squalid living conditions, Porvenir might be described as Hell on earth but it’s actually closer to Purgatory. None of the characters are able to leave, as without money, it is impossible to escape the remote location. An oil well fire offers a potential escape. The only way the fire can be extinguished is to use dynamite, but the nitroglycerine in the dynamite owned by the American oil company is old and leaking and will need to be transported through two hundred miles of jungle. Scanlon, Manzon, Kassem and Nilo are eventually selected to drive the dynamite in two trucks, Lazaro and Sorcerer, to the oil well. Only the promise of high pay and a ticket out of Porvenir would prompt these desperate men to take on such a dangerous job as every jolt or movement on the treacherous roads and jungle foliage they have to traverse could potentially trigger the dynamite to explode.

Their journey starts about halfway through the film, and that’s when the suspense, which had already been creeping upwards in a tense first half, becomes almost unbearable. The highlight is the rope bridge scene, where the two trucks have to be driven across a crumbling rope bridge in the most appalling weather. It’s an excruciatingly tense scene, and a marvel of innovative filmmaking which looks especially good today as audiences have become inured to CGI effects. Friedkin was renowned for taking dangerous risks for making his scenes as realistic as possible. The rope bridge was constructed in the Dominican Republic, where most of the film was shot. But during filming the water-levels of the river the bridge crosses started to go down, robbing Friedkin of the desired effect. The bridge was deconstructed, transported to and then reconstructed in Mexico at a cost of around three million dollars.

In addition to several stunning set-pieces, the acting and direction are also superb. Scheider is brilliant as Scanlon. Despite his role as a failed mobster, he is the everyman who guides us through this journey and projects a sense of humanity that we cling to in a relentlessly bleak film. And yet the film seems to find a humanity in every character: Manzon sincerely loves his wife despite his greed and venality; Kassem has a strong sense of loyalty and friendship, and even the quiet-lipped hitman Nilo is able to generate some sympathy. This is what sets apart Sorcerer from The Wages of Fear (which is a brilliant film in many respects). In the original, we don’t get the prologue scenes explaining why the four protagonists have ended up in Porvenir. While these scenes are brutal, they give the audience empathy for the characters as we get a better sense of their violent, desperate lives. I also think the ending to Sorcerer is superior to how The Wages of Fear ends. Without giving the game away, the ending to Sorcerer relates to how fate dogs our every move.

Friedkin has claimed (among numerous explanations he has given for the choice of title) that as a Sorcerer is a form of malevolent wizard then fate is the Sorcerer in this narrative and this justifies both the title and the gloomy tone. However, audiences at the time assumed that as this was the director’s follow-up to The Exorcist then it must be another supernatural horror movie. But Sorcerer is very different in tone to The Exorcist. It presents a brutally naturalistic world in which men, exiled from their urban environment, find that nature is indifferent to their need to survive.

Another factor that caused the movie to lose box-office potential was Friedkin’s inability to cast Steve McQueen in the lead role. McQueen loved the script, but Friedkin refused McQueen’s request to create a role for this then-wife Ali MacGraw so that they wouldn’t have to be apart for several months. Friedkin would come to regret his stubbornness, realising that McQueen’s name above the title would have lured audiences in. As a side-note, read Friedkin’s memoir The Friedkin Connection (2013): it’s one of the most contrite autobiographies I’ve ever come across by a Hollywood figure with so many achievements to his name, and he certainly owns up to the mistakes he made which lead the film to lose money. Roy Scheider, hot off the success of Jaws (1975), was cast at the producers insistence. Despite having worked together before on The French Connection, there was tension between Scheider and Friedkin as Friedkin had rejected the actor for the role of Father Karras in The Exorcist. Scheider’s casting led to a tense set. But finally, the biggest factor which lead to the failure of the film was that it was released around the same time as Star Wars which broke all box-office records and led to a slew of sci-fi imitators. By contrast, Sorcerer recouped less than half of its budget.

Three years after the release of Sorcerer, Michael Cinimo’s historical epic Heaven’s Gate was released in cinemas and received a shellacking from critics and disastrous box-office returns. Cinimo, briefly a darling of the critics after directing the oscar-winning The Deer Hunter (1978), had been indulged every whim by the studios eager for him to repeat his success and create a modern-day Gone With the Wind but it all went horribly wrong. If Sorcerer signalled the end of the New Hollywood period, then the failure of Heaven’s Gate only confirmed it. Studio executives regained full influence by the 1980s, and their grip has only tightened over the years as seen with the dreary repetitions of franchise reboots, remakes and re-imaginings. Now there are some critics who have argued that Heaven’s Gate is a neglected masterpiece. Frankly, I think that film may have deserved its critical drubbing, but I do believe that Sorcerer was unfairly maligned by reviewers upon its initial release. Fortunately, its reputation has grown over the years. Stephen King has named it as his favourite movie; Quentin Tarantino is a big fan, and film critic and Friedkin expert Mark Kermode has championed its re-release. As for the audience at FACT Liverpool that day, well I said in my intro that if anyone didn’t like it they were free to harangue me in the bar afterwards. I needn’t have worried, as there was nothing but positive feedback.  If anyone didn’t like it, they kept it to themselves. But don’t take my word for it, a special edition Bluray DVD has been released to mark the fortieth anniversary of the film, so it will finally reach the wide audience it deserves. Sorcerer has taken a while to weave its magic, but it now stands out as one of the best films of the 1970s.

Maybe it was fated to be a hit after all.

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