Saturday, June 02, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: Sorcerer

In any other year, by any other director, and with any other pedigree, SORCERER would be recognized as a towering achievement in filmmaking. But alas, the movie came out after both ANNIE HALL and STAR WARS, and before CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND; it was a remake of a classic (H. G. Clouzot's THE WAGES OF FEAR), helmed by an arrogant auteur, and had gone wildly over budget during a long and extravagant shoot spanning two years and five countries. Ultimately cofinanced by two studios, William Friedkin's SORCERER was dumped into theaters with little promotion (including a trailer which manages to completely avoid explaining the film's central premise), turned off audiences who had no idea what they were supposed to expect anyway, and marked both a long downturn for Friedkin's career and the beginning of the end for the "New Hollywood". And yet it is something of a masterpiece. A rare remake that stands wholly apart from its predecessor, SORCERER takes a great thriller premise and turns it into both a gritty, grueling piece of melodrama and an existential, vaguely mystical journey through Hell itself.

The film starts (except in the European version) with four prologues telling the stories of four men who find themselves on the lam. The first is Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a laconic and well-dressed hitman, and his prologue is nothing more than a quick and easy job in Vera Cruz. The second is Kassem (Amidou), a Palestinian bomber who barely escapes arrest after an attack on a Jerusalem bank (this was in the days before such bombings were of the suicide variety, obviously). The third is Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a French businessman who must leave his wife of ten years when his firm is caught engaging in fraud. Then there's Scanlon (Roy Scheider), driver for a small-time group of Irish mobsters who knock over a church; one of them shoots a priest before a crash wipes out everybody but Scanlon, who escapes the cops but finds out that the priest's brother has a hit out on him. All four men find themselves traveling to an unnamed hole-in-the-wall village in an unnamed South or Central American company, ruled over by a dictator (or at least someone who dresses like one) and dominated by an American oil company. All but Nilo take aliases- Scanlon is "Dominguez", Manzon is "Serrano", and Kassem is "Martinez"- though it does them little good, as the cops can easily tell they're frauds and garnish their already-meager wages accordingly. Nobody wants to stay, but nobody can earn enough money to leave.

One day, local rebels bomb an oil well, starting a fire which feeds on the oil, and thus can only be put out by blowing the hole shut with explosives. The company needs to get the well running again very quickly, and the only cases of nitroglycerine in the area have been kept in a small shack in the jungle. Because the cases haven't been turned over, the nitro has leaked out of the sticks and into the bags, making them extremely volatile and very dangerous to take anywhere. Suddenly the company needs four people to drive two trucks (one is named "Sorcerer", hence the film's title) carrying six cases of leaky nitro across 200 miles of poorly maintained roads, and they're willing to pay unheard-of wages to anyone who's qualified and willing to take on a dangerous job. Dominguez, Serrano, and Martinez all qualify, and Nilo gets in by killing the fourth driver (a German man played by Karl John) hours before the trucks leave. Nobody trusts him, but nobody has much of a choice.

SORCERER takes its time to work up to the journey itself (which is basically the second half of the movie.) It's a risky choice, and makes the film overall rather slow-moving, but it's also effective in establishing both the oppressive atmosphere of the nameless village and the desperation of the characters (and it is desperation that seems to motivate everything they do, from going to the village to escape punishment to taking a job that may kill them in order to escape life in the village.) Despite all the time spent on exposition, there is very little dialogue, especially compared to the original WAGES OF FEAR. The film establishes more through visuals, and as such has to render its characters in fairly broad strokes. They end up less detailed than their Clouzot-ian counterparts- Kassem/"Martinez", in particular, veers close to being a fairly stereotypical terrorist- but strong performances from the cast and an overall low-key approach to the acting keep the characters both real and relatable. (An early scene between Victor and his wife is particularly tenderly played, forming a strong emotional tether for the viewer.) Much of this time is also used to establish the atmosphere of the town, which is another strong point of difference between this film and WAGES; the latter, a wonderfully cynical picture, takes place in an overbright, bleached, bone-dead landscape, while the world of SORCERER is lush, humid, and dark, alive but treacherous. (Unfortunately I cannot compare either film against the original novel by Georges Arnaud, as I have never been able to locate it in English.) Finally, the emphasis on montage gives the film an unusual kind of rhythm, and the film deliberately drifts away from the main characters at times to tell the story through other eyes.

Though the cinematography for the film was divided among two people (with Dick Bush leaving early in production due to conflicts with Friedkin), it is remarkably consistent, adding to the film's heavily naturalistic look. Not only is everything muddy and ugly (there are not very many attractive people in this film, at least by Hollywood standards), but it is presented in a straightforward manner- there are some clever angles, but they are used sparingly, and throughout the camera seems to have no presence; nothing looks staged. No doubt much of the money was spent achieving this verisimilitude (a car crash in Jersey was staged some 14 times before it looked good enough to Friedkin.) I guess the lesson here is, sometimes arrogance and artistic self-indulgence pays off.

The journey itself is a masterful arrangement of setpieces which grow increasingly surreal as the trucks journey through the wilderness. There's a pass on a rotting wooden bridge across a steep hillside (with the wreckage of one truck already sprawled below), a giant tree blocking passage, and most memorably, a windswept crossing over a stormy river on an almost-nonexistent rope bridge- we actually see both trucks make this pass, and it's utterly riveting both times. Just about everything was done full-sized, of course, and the actors did most of their own driving. Even when a wire is noticeably visible in this scene, it doesn't begin to answer the question of how it was achieved. The suspense is grueling, and works on a level I simply haven't seen in any other film. It is somehow larger, more real, more primal and almost mythic.

And this is the film's great paradox. It is, as I said, gritty and real and naturalistic, but it is also almost as much a fantasy as its name would suggest. There is a sense that this nameless town is almost a limbo existing on the edge of Hell- when the four men journey outside of it, they encounter strange sights- a devilish face carved into a mountainside, and an old man who, when asked which road leads to their destination, merely responds that the place is dead. Their sanity begins to break down under the stress, and when a great tree is swept down the river onto the bridge, it is like the hand of a demon. The men seem to seek something like redemption, or new life, absolution maybe, and to do so must travel the underworld. This kind of resonance compensates for scant characterization- we don't need as much detail on the characters because we can project ourselves onto them and understand the quest they are on. This Jungian mysticism is heightened by a heady score by Tangerine Dream- the soundtrack was actually composed and recorded by the group after reading the script, and Friedkin used these early passes (as well as frequent "quotes" from "Spheres (Movement 3)" by Keith Jarrett) to fill the film. The picture was nominated for a Sound Oscar, and the emphasis on the beastlike noises of the trucks gives them an animalistic quality that's quite interesting.

I'm glad that Friedkin was cocky enough to make this movie and spend over twice what STAR WARS cost to do it. It is a unique epic, one which strained the limits of what Hollywood could do at the time, and even now is possessed of a raw and vibrant power. It is alive, just like the groaning, roaring machines which dominate its vistas. As far as comparisons to THE WAGES OF FEAR go, and the question of which is better is concerned, I'm going to chicken out. It's apples and oranges- both films are telling the same story in profoundly different ways, so much that the difference really boils down to what style of filmmaking you prefer, be it Clouzot's post-Noir cynicism or Friedkin's New Hollywood existentialism. Nobody ever said a remake had to be better than, or even as good as, the original- well, actually, a LOT of people have said that, but they're wrong. A remake can get by just being different. SORCERER is such a remarkable movie, such a strange journey through the depths of human desperation, that it would be a shame to cast it aside as merely an imitation of something else. Its accomplishments should be hailed in their own right.

And that's what the Academy of the Underrated is about.

From the novel by Georges Arnaud
Screenplay by Walon Green
Directed by William Friedkin

Grade: A

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