Re-assessing William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer”

Sorcerer image

In his 1977 review, critic Andrew Sarris said of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, “What I can swear to is the total pointlessness of the picture. What Friedkin has managed to fabricate with all his enormous resources is a visual and aural textbook on everything that is wrong with current movies.” It’s a reaction typical of the contemporary response to Friedkin’s massive folly, if a tad hyperbolic. The decades have been kind to Sorcerer, though. The film was recently given a full 4K digital restoration, bringing it back to life and facilitating its continued reassessment. That restoration can soon be seen on Blu-ray, but first it’s doing a theatrical run, including stops at the TIFF Bell Lightbox during their Special Screenings series this month.

Sarris’ reaction to Sorcerer was heavily colored by disdain for its very existence as a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece, The Wages of Fear (also playing at the Lightbox this month). It’s an understandable disdain, given the film Friedkin made. Clouzot’s original, the story of four men driving two trucks carrying nitroglycerine across the jungle to put out an oil well fire, is a work of dark suspense; bleak, but full to the brim with humanist sympathy for its characters. Friedkin, ever the wretch, fashions the same overall structure and material into a work equal parts compelling and mocking of its own characters.

The film begins with a set of sequences, each introducing one of the four main players in the film. Each sequence, set in a different part of the world, finds a man embroiled in criminality, overcome by the potential consequences of their actions and headed for a life in exile. Friedkin constructs these introductory sequences as genre-styled short films offering no immediate payoff. A man shoots another man. A banker is caught up in a fraud scheme that’s come crashing down. A terrorist bombs a building in Jerusalem. A criminal driving a getaway car gets into a terrible accident. All these stories ostensibly introducing us to characters, but in fact simply painting generic pictures in broad strokes.

Of course, Friedkin has always been a genre man at heart. Never a populist, though, his films use the veneer of genre entertainment to obscure a cold, bleak, often punishing undercurrent. The Exorcist is about as punishing as a film can get, but successful largely because such punishment is expected in horror. Sorcerer is a different animal. A film based around the unbearable suspense of trucks that could explode at any moment with just the wrong bump, where the director denies the audience any sort of catharsis.

In the film’s most famous sequence, the huge trucks must cross a battered rope bridge over a raging river, at night, in the middle of a terrible storm. The trucks sway and nearly tip over and all the while the audience holds its collective breath. It’s a harrowing thing to watch, made all the more suspenseful by impressive practical effects and stunt work. The weight of the trucks on that bridge is obviously apparent and terrifying. It’s incredibly thrilling, or it would be, if Friedkin would only allow some relief when it’s over. Instead, right at the moment a sigh of relief can finally escape, the film smash cuts away to the next scene and the next obstacle. Any success merely prolongs the suffering.

It’s a bold display of directorial vision, and one that understandably failed to connect with audiences in the late 70s. And yet the film holds a fascinating allure all these years later. Beautiful production, incredible set pieces, a sense of global scope that while largely unnecessary is also massively entertaining. Sorcerer is hardly a ‘fun’ film, but the level of craft on display, and the conception of its biggest suspense sequences is a joy to watch unfold.

Friedkin’s stylistic tendencies are also in full force. His love of procedure, evident in the structure of films like The French Connection and The Exorcist, is here in spades. It’s not enough to show us that the characters get trucks to drive. Friedkin gives us a long montage of the men creatively rebuilding the trucks from spare parts. That same attention to detail is present in a scene where the men must devise a way of moving a giant fallen tree out of their path. Close-ups of every aspect of their process, with nary a word of dialogue to explain. We come to understand what they’re planning, but the understanding is secondary to witnessing methodical action as a means to itself.

Sorcerer is littered with close-ups detailing the environment characters inhabit, juxtaposing them with the grandness of the spectacle. Of course, that’s entirely the point. Even as the characters themselves are only thinly sketched and developed, the world around them is living and complex, ultimately gobbling them up and spitting them out. Friedkin makes a change to the ending from The Wages of Fear, with a similar narrative result, but a difference in method that suggests a dissimilar worldview from that of Clouzot. In Friedkin’s world, redemption is impossible. Happiness is fleeting. Bleak irony is the driving force behind everything. And what’s more, no man can escape punishment.

In the film’s most poetic moment, actor Roy Scheider stares at a poster featuring a woman reaching for a bottle of Coca-Cola. His longing for a return to normal life, echoed perfectly in the poster, overwhelms the scene, and even here know he will never get what he wants. He can only ever be punished for his crimes and that bottle of Coke will forever be out of reach. There will never be satisfaction, and the same goes for the audience watching him. It’s a cruel joke, beautifully photographed.

William Friedkin used the capital he’d earned off The French Connection and The Exorcist to make this epic suspense story. The production was something of a disaster and the movie flopped hard in the face of Star Wars. For too long Sorcerer had been relegated to the pile of overly ambitious, failed Hollywood New Wave films waiting for rediscovery. Taken all these years later, with that history as mere anecdotal context, it’s easy to be repelled by the film’s relentless bleakness, but it’s even easier to be entranced by its immense scale, impeccable craft and astonishing suspense.

The film is being presented at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the TIFF Cinematheque Special Screenings: Spring 2014 programme, beginning today. Sorcerer screens on April 12th, 15th and 18th.