Monday, 27 January 2020

Sorcerer (1977)


Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Walon Green, based on the novel Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud
Stars: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou and Ramon Bieri


The birth of the modern blockbuster can generally be dated to 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in 464 theatres at once, becoming the hit of the summer and the highest grossing film of all time up to that point. Readers in 2020 might be surprised that such an approach was a big deal, as it’s utterly standard today, but, before Jaws, wide releases like that were generally associated with exploitation movies of, shall we say, dubious quality, that needed to make money quickly before word of mouth killed them. Jaws wasn’t the first, as some James Bond films, among others, had seen wide release, but it was the turning point after which the industry changed and it became the norm. William Friedkin, who had directed a proto-blockbuster in 1973 in The Exorcist, missed out on this change, as that film opened in a mere 24 theatres, gradually expanding nationwide. However, he was right there when the next big change happened and it’s why Sorcerer isn’t particularly well known today outside certain circles of film fans.

It opened theatrically on 24th June, 1977. It was budgeted at $15m but had cost over $21m to make so, adding in marketing, it had to make at least double that to break even. It didn’t by a long shot, eventually earning less than $6m in the US, a number that only expanded to $9m worldwide. It was a huge flop. There are many reasons why, from the misleading title that led many to believe it was another supernatural film, like The Exorcist, to the fact that it takes sixteen minutes to hear a word spoken in English, However, the biggest reason is surely that it arrived in the wake of a phenomenon: Star Wars. Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, which had premièred Star Wars less than a month earlier, was still showing it to huge crowds, so had no wish to replace it with Sorcerer. They had to, because of contracts, but when Sorcerer failed dismally, Star Wars promptly returned and the audiences returned with it. Suddenly, Sorcerer seemed like a silent movie after the advent of sound, or a black and white movie in an age of colour.

And that’s unfortunate, because Sorcerer is also a highly impressive movie in many ways, flawed but often brilliant and with some of the most suspenseful sequences ever shot on film. I was very happy to finally catch up with it, because it’s somehow eluded me for years. I’ve long been a fan of the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. I’ve also seen and thoroughly enjoyed The Wages of Fear, a 1953 French movie based on the same source novel, a stunning film that deserves its place at the beginning of a strange cinematic chain reaction. The success of The Wages of Fear enabled its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, to make Les diaboliques. The critical reception given to that film, including suggestions that Clouzot was better than Alfred Hitchcock, prompted the latter to shift from films that he started to call “glossy TechniColor baubles”, like North by Northwest, to a back to basics black and white thriller called Psycho, made for a fraction of the cost and with the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show. Sorcerer was stepping into real history here.

It starts out like a foreign film and not only because the opening three vignettes unfold in different foreign languages subtitled into English. The very idea of shooting these vignettes in different nations is quintessentially European, where people are more aware of geography. Casting four international actors who each speak in a language appropriate to their setting is something we might expect from world cinema rather than Hollywood. And situating these introductions at the very start of the movie sends a message that Sorcerer thinks of itself as a filmmaker’s film, something that sees art as more important than money, that might be praised at Cannes and in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma but not something that the hoi polloi might grasp, let alone enjoy. It’s ironic to think of this as a natural approach for the New Hollywood of the early seventies, William Friedkin certainly being part of that movement, because George Lucas was too and he’d taken as wildly different a path as could be imagined with the ultra-commercial Star Wars.
The first vignette takes place in Veracruz, Mexico, where an assassin who looks like the epitome of sixties cool eliminates his target. Then we’re off to Jerusalem, where three men smoke outside a printing company but leave a bomb behind when the bus shows up. Here, we see the aftermath, in which the bombers are quickly caught by the authorities: one is killed and a second arrested, but the third eludes capture. Over to Paris, where a baron’s daughter works on a book about a philosopher soldier in her elegant house and gives her husband an expensive watch. We’re here for him not her, as the Bourse has discovered that he and his brother-in-law are 15m francs in the red from fraud. That brother-in-law shoots himself in his Porsche after the baron refuses to bail them out. And, in Elizabeth, NJ, a bunch of Irish crooks rob a church during a shotgun wedding. The key problem here isn’t that their getaway car hits a truck and kills all but one of the crooks, it’s that they’ve inadvertently stolen from the mob and killed the boss’s brother.

As you might imagine, each of these vignettes ends with someone needing to get the heck out of their farflung equivalent of Dodge faster than those inevitably coming after them. In each instance, they get as far as Porvenir, a village somewhere in Latin America, but also find themselves unable to get any further. For three of them, it’s the end of the line because they simply ran out of money. We’re never quite sure why the assassin, who’s on his way through, stays there but he does and it promptly becomes the end of the line for him too. It’s a perfect location, not a place where people with options choose to go. Is that a corpse in the mud? I believe so. That’s certainly an army of crabs rooting through the trash. The real location for Porvenir was a village called La Altagracia in the Dominican Republic, which Friedkin described as “a prison without walls” that had a “sense of timeless poverty and persecution.” He’s not wrong and this and other locations really add another level to the film that couldn’t have been found shooting on a set.
The assassin is Nilo, ironically played by a Spanish actor who is known almost as much for his humanitarian work as for his career on screen. Friedkin had wanted him to play the villain in The French Connection but was unable to recall the name of “that Spanish actor” so ended up hiring Fernando Rey instead. Having worked for acclaimed directors such as Pedro Almodóvar, Claude Chabrol and Michelangelo Antonioni, not to forget Luis Buñuel for whom he starred in Nazarín and Viridiana, his final film, Stuart Gordon’s Dagon, is dedicated to him: “a wonderful actor and even better human being.” Nilo is the only one of the four core characters to go by a single name; the others all adopt pseudonyms in Porvenir. The terrorist is Kassem, but he goes by Martinez. He’s played by a Moroccan-born French actor named Amidou, who appeared in eleven films for Claude Lelouch , as well as others better known in the west, such as John Frankenheimer’s Ronin and John Huston’s Escape to Victory, even the Scottish film Hideous Kinky.

The fraudster is Victor Manzon aka Serrano, and he’s played by French actor Bruno Cremer, surely best known today for a fourteen year run on French television as Inspector Jules Maigret. He had a half-century film career that included movies directed by names like Costa-Gavras, Luchino Visconti and François Ozon, among many others. Unlike the other three core cast, this is his best known film in the English language. That leaves the thief, Jackie Scanlon, who goes by Dominguez, because Friedkin chose to introduce the three faces that his audience wouldn’t recognise first before the one that they would. Having failed to acquire Steve McQueen (who required that a part be written for his wife, Ali McGraw) and Robert Mitchum (“Why would I want to go to Ecuador for two or three months to fall out of a truck? I can do that outside my house.”) and with the studio rejecting Warren Oates as not a big enough star, Friedkin hired Roy Scheider, who he had cast in The French Connection but not, at William Peter Blatty’s request, in The Exorcist.
For a while, these four characters take odd jobs in Porvenir and try not to turn into part of the scenery, like Carlos, the bartender, a German who “Dominguez” jokes used to be a Reichsmarshal. The joke works best because we’re never quite sure if it’s actually true or not. It certainly could be, as there are other ex-Nazis in town, again using fake names. Friedkin does a fantastic job settling us (or unsettling us) into Porvenir. The core actors are all excellent, their characters distrusting of everyone, including each other, as they are all feeling the isolation of being on their own but surely hunted. Half the atmosphere, though, comes from the location and the locals, as many of the people we see are surely not actors. I haven’t seen so many fantastic faces in a film since maybe The Passion of Joan of Arc. The harsh reality of life in La Altagracia translates through those faces into the harsh reality of life in Porvenir, which is dependent on an American oil company operating 200 miles away, the source of whatever money and employment it has.

And, with the stage set, here’s where our story really gets moving. This unnamed Latin American country isn’t politically stable and there’s guerrilla activity in the area. Presumably to make a point about ruthless Yankee capitalists or some such, the guerrillas blow up the oil well. The only way to keep Parvenir alive is to keep the oil company there. The only way to keep the oil company there is to put out the fire. The only way to put out the fire is to extinguish it with dynamite. And the only dynamite they have in town is as far from optimal as can be imagined. It’s been stored outside in a shack with a damaged roof for most of a year. It’s been soaked by rain. None of it has been turned during that time, so what isn’t completely spoiled is leaking nitroglycerin. “It’s risky moving one of those cases ten feet,” warns the expert. “That fire is over two hundred miles away.” And so they recruit truck drivers for very high wages to transport it over those two hundred miles of mountain roads and jungle. Of course, our four leads end up with the job.
Now you’re imagining the tension and Friedkin cranks it up as high as it can go. Given that it’s on the poster and pretty much every piece of promotional material the film ever had, I feel safe in jumping forward to the bridge, because that’s where I’ll introduce our centenarian, production designer John Box. I could have mentioned him earlier, as he was involved in finding La Altagracia, but the bridge is as much him as anything in film and the man won four Oscars and three BAFTAs during his career, each of those numbers the record to this day and, hilariously, each win for a different film. Ironically, given that the bridge scene was shot in appropriate jungle, he was more famous for conjuring up outstanding imagery that wasn’t shot where we think. The walled Chinese city in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness was built in the Welsh national park, Snowdonia, while the Russian snow palace in Doctor Zhivago was shot in the deserts of Almeria in Spain, the home of spaghetti westerns, surprisingly during the height of summer.

Box was born in London but grew up in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, a British colony where his father worked as a civil engineer. After a stint in the Royal Armoured Corps during World War II, he entered the film industry even though he had trained as an architect, serving as assistant to the acclaimed art director, Carmen Dillon, who won an Oscar for her work on Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and provided quality to films as varied as Henry V, Carry On Constable and The Omen. Box’s career would be just as varied. His first five pictures as art director were, respectively, a romantic comedy (Man with a Million), a drama (Chance Meeting), a crime adventure (A Prize of Gold), a war movie (The Cockleshell Heroes) and a sci-fi/horror flick (The Gamma People). His burgeoning reputation, not made on minor movies, led him to even bigger ones: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness for Mark Robson, Our Man in Havana for Carol Reed and The World of Suzie Wong for Richard Quine.
It was Lawrence of Arabia, his first film as what had become known as production designer that started his successful collaboration with David Lean. It also won him an Oscar, his first of four in a span of only ten years. The other three were for Doctor Zhivago, also for Lean, Oliver! and Nicholas and Alexandra. Clearly, as far as the Academy were concerned, nobody could create period settings like John Box. His BAFTAs were for different movies: A Man for All Seasons, The Great Gatsby and Rollerball, which I guess is just an utterly different period. His work on A Passage to India was nominated for both awards, but lost out to Amadeus for the Oscar and Brazil for the BAFTA. All in all, he received six Oscar and six BAFTA nominations across nine different films, amazing given that he had only made thirteen as a production designer before retiring after A Passage to India (eventually returning to make three more). It’s even more amazing to realise that Sorcerer isn’t on that list and neither is The Keep, a terrible movie that still looks amazing.

It was Box who designed the bridge in Sorcerer. It took three months to build in the Dominican Republic and it cost a million bucks, as the wild movements of the seemingly rickety bridge were controlled by carefully hidden hydraulic components. Unfortunately, the river that it spanned dried up completely, even though local engineers had assured them that water levels never fluctuated in the dry season. Box was forced to scout for a new location and he found one on the Papaloapan river in Mexico. The crew took the bridge and its mechanisms apart, shipped it to Mexico and reassembled it all over another river, only to find that drought hit them yet again, albeit not so badly that Box couldn’t work around it. He implemented sewage pumps to drain water from the river and transfer it to a sprinkler system to create the rainstorm needed. By the time the picture wrapped, this single scene, which lasts for twelve minutes, had racked up $3m in costs, more than the entire original budget of $2.5m.
But, my goodness, it was worth it! Let me stage the scene. Our lead characters have found a couple of battered old trucks and fixed them up as best they can with used parts. They’ve loaded up three cases of leaking dynamite into each truck, bedding them loosely into sand. They’ve done well on the mountain roads, narrowly avoiding falling over a succession of high cliffs. But the weather has turned bad and, after mudsliding down a small hill that they’re never going to get back up during a worsening rainstorm, they find themselves faced with the bridge. It’s a suspension bridge over a river, apparently constructed out of vines and rotten wood. It’s so dangerous that you wouldn’t walk over it, let alone drive a truck over it. A truck containing such a volatile cargo makes it worse, as does the rapidly worsening wind and rain. Trees are starting to float downstream, uprooted by the wind and hurled at the bridge. But there’s no choice. They have to try it, inch by inch, and we stop breathing for twelve long minutes.

This scene changes the characters and it changed the actors too, because what we see is what they did. Sure, the rainstorm wasn’t real and each move was meticulously planned but that’s a real river they’re crossing and they did it without stuntmen. On screen, Dominguez seems energized for a while, as if he’s forever conquered fear, but Nilo seems broken, as if the assassin had looked into the abyss and the abyss had grinned back. I should add that, while the bridge scene is what people talk about most from this movie and rightly so, it’s far from the only scene of incredible tension that these men find themselves in. There are others I’d love to talk about but you deserve to experience them for yourself, right down to the hallucinatory section as one of the trucks travels through what appears to be an alien landscape but was really the De-Na-Zin Wilderness in New Mexico. The sequence that begins there is an amazing one that’s all the more tense because we only gradually realise what’s really happening.
The whole film is a journey for everyone involved. It was a journey for the crew. Friedkin himself lost fifty pounds and contracted malaria. He fired five production managers, the chief Teamster rep and cinematographer Dick Bush, among others, and reports say that, beyond those crew members who were dismissed, suffered food poisoning or malaria, or left on their own, like David Salven, a line producer who left to save his marriage, around fifty more followed suit because of “injury or gangrene”. All told, half the crew spent time in hospital. It was a journey for the actors, many of whom have said, in different ways, that Sorcerer was a life-changing experience. It was both a literal and a metaphorical journey for the characters, literal because of their insanely dangerous attempt to transport dynamite two hundred wild miles and metaphorical because being on the run at the edge of civilisation prompts a big reevaluation, sending them through the hearts of their own darkness as they try to survive. The wages of fear, after all, are death.

And it’s a journey for us too. I enjoyed Star Wars, when I first saw it as a child and even now as an adult, but it’s fluff. Sorcerer, for all its flaws, is a real journey to the dark side. None of these men deserve our sympathy and neither does anyone else in the film, with perhaps the sole exception of Corlette, an oil company supervisor who sets up the dynamite trip. He even helps the others load it, a job he really didn’t need to do. We root for the characters not because they deserve it, but because they’re human beings and we all have to stick together in the end, however dark our pasts happen to be. Everyone, Friedkin, tells us, is capable of good, even if they have done terrible things and even if karma is ever waiting to take them down. Much depends on what this assassin, terrorist, thief and fraudster find themselves doing in the depths of the Latin American jungle for money and the freedom to leave. Redemption is a big theme here, with Parvenir Hell and the job the way out, but redemption is never guaranteed, even to the penitent.
Sorcerer has gone through a critical reevaluation. Friedkin thinks its his best work and so do a number of critics. Some who slated it back in 1977 have said that they’re embarrassed to read their original reviews. Roger Ebert, who had listed it in his top ten for 1977, was calling it an “overlooked classic” as early as 1979. It’s Oscar-nominated screenwriter Josh Olson who really nails it though in his video review, because he doesn’t just explain how good Sorcerer is—“You can feel the humidity down there in South America. You can feel the sweat on the sticks of dynamite.”—but just how much was changed through its box office failure—“somewhere there’s an alternate universe where Sorcerer is a massive game-changing hit in Hollywood and I’m doing Trailers from Hell commentary on some unknown cult classic called Star Wars. In that world Hollywood has spent the next thirty years making smart, edgy movies for grown-ups, the literacy rate is 100%, we haven't been in a war since Vietnam and world hunger is just a memory.”

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