Monday, May 19, 2014

Cult Classics from Dimension X: Sorcerer (1977)

 Sorcerer is a riveting picture that was widely panned by critics and audiences alike, yet it has a cult following and noted director William Friedkin considers it to be his best offering.  Roy Scheider gives perhaps his most gripping performance in the lead role, playing one of four heroes who are clearly anything but.  The story revolves around these four men, refugees in a woeful South American town gripped by poverty and threatened by revolution.  This hellhole is tailor-made for our protagonists, four hard men who have fled the homes and lives they knew and now find themselves mired in squalor and a daily struggle for survival.  A chance at redemption—or escape at the very least—comes in the form of a raging fire that must be extinguished.  The solution: blowing it out with a batch of unstable nitroglycerine that must be ferried 218 miles through wretched jungle terrain populated by bandits and cruel twists of fate.  The problem: this stuff is so unstable that a good jolt could trigger a hellish explosion, making the task of loading it into a couple of trucks and delivering it little more than a full-on suicide mission. 

The film opens with four prologues that introduce us to our four protagonists and take us across the globe.  Originally, the plan was to do a single prologue introducing us to Scheider’s Jackie Conlon.  Jackie is a petty crook who has to flee New Jersey after crashing the getaway car following a robbery at a church with mob ties.  In the end, Friedkin decided to give each of the leads his own prologue.  Thus, we begin in Mexico, where an assassin named Nilo (Franciso Rabal) performs a mundane assassination.  This is followed by our introduction to Kassem (Amidou), a terrorist who is a part of trio who detonate an explosion in Jerusalem.  In a subsequent attack by the military, one member of the group is killed and another is captured, but Kassem manages to get away.  Thirdly, we journey to France where we meet Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a banker accused of fraud.  He convinces his partner to try and get his wealthy and powerful father to bail them out.  His partner does try, but his father rebuffs them.  Victor convinces his partner to try again and goes out to dinner with his wife.  Unfortunately, his partner is rebuffed once more and subsequently kills himself, forcing Victor to flee both his home and his wife.  Finally, the series of prologues concludes with Scanlon and his Irish gang’s ill-conceived robbery and bungled escape back in the states.
Roy Scheider gives one of his finest performances in Sorcerer.
 At this point, the film shifts to a remote village in South America.  Here Scanlon and the others assume false identities and toil away in poverty, earning precious little and looking for some way out.  Then comes the fire and a desperate job for desperate men.  There are tests to identify the best candidates and four men are chosen.  Each of our leads aside from Nilo makes the cut.  Next the men set about crafting their vehicles from scrap parts from vehicles left in the jungle during a war.  All this happens while Nilo looks on, scheming.  Though little is made of it, the trucks have unique designs and each has a name.  One is “Lazlo” and the other is (drum roll) “Sorcerer.”  When the trucks are set to depart, Marquez, a friend of Kassem’s and the fourth driver, fails to show.  Kassem discovers that Marquez has been murdered and the identity of his killer is no mystery, but at this point the men have no choice but to allow Nilo to take the dead man’s place in their unlikely crew.  That’s when the journey begins, and that’s when a picture that has been incredibly compelling yet rather deliberate really takes off.
This is Nilo.  Note: You cannot trust Nilo.
The trip is packed with danger and intrigue.  There are two trucks and two teams of two men.  Kassem despises Nilo, but that’s okay because he’s partnered with Victor.  Jackie doesn’t really like Nilo either, but surprisingly they become closer as the film progresses.  In truth, none of these men are all that fond of one another initially, but their circumstances force them to work together and ultimately they become a cohesive unit, albeit a cohesive unit where each men is aware that his share will increase if any of his peers perish along the way.  They must battle the terrain, the weather, and the violent rebels who roam the countryside.   Most strikingly, they must cross a decrepit wooden suspension bridge in a raging monsoon.  That sequence is beyond spectacular, and it should be.  It cost millions to shoot and took months to complete. The end result is spellbinding and you will never see anything like it in any other motion picture.  Friedkin earned the nickname “Hurricane Bill” while shooting the sequence, requiring helicopters to fly overhead and instructing his crew to blast the set with fire hoses.  One watches the scene in disbelief, wondering how in the hell the trucks could possibly hope to make it across that pitiful bridge.  In truth, during filming they put the trucks in the water numerous times trying to make it across.  Add the weather effects that Friedkin achieved and the Tangerine Dream score and it’s hard to adequately describe this portion of the movie, which is truly masterful from start to finish.

In the end, only one man will survive this horrific journey, and I use the term horrific for a reason.  Sorcerer isn’t really a horror movie, it’s clearly a thriller, and yet the strange title isn’t the only thing that about this one that might be more at home in a horror movie.  The grueling odyssey and the endless trials the four men face along the way bring with them an ominous tone.  Additionally, some of the scenes of the trucks plowing through the treacherous jungle and the moments of swift and destructive violence that punctuate their voyage are positively monstrous.  Finally, Friedkin elected to close the picture out with a somewhat ambiguous ending that I think is clearly a downer.  There’s some room for hope in that we don’t actually see the ultimate conclusion of the piece, but good old Hurricane Bill painted enough of the picture to allow his audience to easily fill in the blank.

To tie this off, I want to note that Sorcerer is most certainly the work of a master, and it may represent his finest hour.  I would also argue that it stands as Roy Scheider’s best performance, and I say that as a big fan of his work.  Truthfully, everyone plays their role well, and Scheider, Cremer, Rabal, and Amidou are all given much to do.  The script is lean and mean, and whenever it isn’t necessary dialogue is absent from the proceedings, but that doesn’t take away from the depth and the power of the picture.  If you have never seen Sorcerer and you’re reading my work with Cult Classics from Dimension X, you must check this one out.  Friedkin is an amazing director, and this is a true gem.  

Author’s Note:
I can’t stress this enough: the bridge sequence must be seen to be believed.  Seriously.  It is clearly one of the most dramatic scenes ever captured on film, and it looks positively incredible.  It is totally mesmerizing, and it may stand as perhaps the finest example that though modern effects and the marvels they allow our filmmakers to create for our enjoyment are truly spectacular, it’s impossible to top reality when it comes to delivering the goods.  Is the picture truly Friedkin’s masterpiece?  As a devotee of both The Exorcist and To Live and Die in L.A., as well as a fan of The French Connection, I’m not sure that I can fully agree with the director on that point.  However, if we’re talking scenes, the bridge sequence is surely his best setpiece, and I can’t think of many epic scenes that can stand alongside it without suffering by comparison.  The closing reel of The Road Warrior is equally impressive and that’s yet another testament to doing it the old and crazy way: doing it for real.
Oh, and one other thing: the new Blu-Ray transfer is a wonderful achievement.  The picture looks positively sublime, therefore there has never been a better time to sit down and enjoy Sorcerer.

Sorcerer Trivia

A French version of the source novel bearing the book’s translated title, The Wages of Fear, was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and is widely regarded as a true classic.  It isn’t surprising that many who treasure that picture were exceptionally hard on Sorcerer.  Wages of Fear, released in 1953, is a fantastic movie and was the fourth highest-grossing picture released that year.  Having said that, I prefer Sorcerer. 

Friedkin wanted McQueen and a number of other A-listers to take the lead, but he was spurned several times.  McQueen was intrigued, but demanded a part for Ali McGraw.  In the end, Friedkin went with Scheider (who he had previously directed in The French Connection), a decision he came to regret.  Friedkin has expressed that while Roy did a good job, he wasn’t a big enough star to drive the picture.  Like many, I couldn’t disagree more—Roy may not have been a true A-Lister in Hollywood terms, but he was a highly capable leading man and he nailed the part.  I can’t picture anyone else in Jackie Scanlon’s shoes and the movie surely benefits from his presence. 

Tangerine Dream provided their highly-regarded score for the film without ever seeing the picture.  They were given a copy of the script and composed the score based on it. 

Many who cherish the film as much as I do feel that the movie’s failure to inspire critics or the mainstream public could be tied to the fact that it was released only a week after a movie called Star Wars hit the scene.  Sorcerer is gritty, grim, and explores some seriously dark territory, making it pretty much the anti-Star Wars in terms of tone and effect.  Others tie the picture’s failure to the odd title.  In my opinion, both of those camps make points that are hard to argue against.

About the name: Friedkin has said that he chose the title as sort of a nod to his previous film, The Exorcist.  He has also stated that in addition to the fact that one of the two trucks in the movie is labeled “Sorcerer,” he also felt that the title alluded to some dark “Sorcerer of Fate” who was making life miserable for our would-be heroes.

 Some viewers have made a pretty good case for the movie serving as a metaphor for a stint in purgatory for our four main characters followed by a woeful trip to hell, complete with a crossing of the River Styx and hellfire. 

There’s a scene in the Paris prologue where Victor’s wife is telling him about a bit in a memoir she is reading.  The book is a about a retired French Foreign Legion officer and the passage in question concerns a situation where he must decide whether or not to kill a civilian.  Victor asks if the officer pulled the trigger and his wife answers that he did.  Thus, Victor reasons that he was “just another soldier,” but his wife disagrees.  Friedkin says that her response, “No one is just anything,” is the central theme of the picture.

. . .

If you liked this, feel free to share your thoughts on Sorcerer or suggest future selections for Cult Classics from Dimension X.  Also, scope this one out: Cult Classics from Dimension X: Vice Squad (1982)

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