Sunday, 28 January 2007

Sorcerer (1977)

William Friedkin’s fraught remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic Wages of Fear (1956) is one of the great works of the New Hollywood movement. However, the paucity of the director’s later career and the poor critical reception on the film’s release means that it remains relatively obscure, despite its towering ambition and forceful execution. Before the juvenlisation of Hollywood by Spielberg and Lucas, there was Sorcerer, a film of rare and courageous power. In many ways a rival to the later, insanely driven Apocalypse Now, we follow a group of desperados stranded on the borderlands of oblivion, never certain if they are moving toward or backing away from destruction.

The narrative is a punishing one from the start: to extinguish a refinery fire, four hopeless men stranded in a squalid South American town are hired by an oil company to transport two truckloads of rotten and unstable nitroglycerine over two hundred miles of treacherous mountain terrain. If the men succeed – if they manage to survive - they will be paid enough to escape the godforsaken country they find themselves in. The journey is arduous and offers almost certain death. Friedkin deviates from the original only in the smallest details, inserting some particularly arresting visions of the town: a hot, wet pocket of hell where the shit of the world has piled high. His remake has a timelessness thanks to the consistent greed of ‘the corporation’: ‘where there’s oil, the Americans aren’t far behind’ mutters a local under his breath. Not only that but corruption always stinks and there’s plenty to sniff at here.

Friedkin cuts down severely on the characterization and exposition of Clouzot’s original, which has been the cause of much derision. However, he makes the film even more rigid with anxiety, evermore difficult to witness with the context removed. If anything, Sorcerer is an improvement on the classic because of the intervening years. A remake has an inevitable relationship with the original and the time between the two has incubated a livid desperation in which the repulsive little town has sunk further still into the mire and the men willing to risk their lives, incomprehensibly, value them just that little bit more. As bad as Clouzot could imagine things, Friedkin made them that much worse – his capacity for searing nightmare reaching that much deeper.

There is something pure about the narrative, basic and essential: each movement, every expression of humanity could be punished with death along the rocky road. Sorcerer depicts the ultimate repression of the body and soul. The results are nerve-wracking and the intensity unmatched. These are men way beyond themselves, stranded and floundering in un-negotiated territory. Friedkin has forged a grim, cruel and fatalistic film that surpasses anything he created before or attempted since. Perhaps if he hadn’t blown himself so hideously and arrogantly before Hollywood the film wouldn’t have been the vehicle for the backlash against him. A sustained and singular mood of despair is irresistibly drawn out of the perilous situation and the bitter will to live of the desperados is compelling. They move toward the fiery depths as some sort of salvation, inching toward the heat and certainty of damnation, torching at last the caged false identities they have caged themselves within. Long time dead, they seek the cleansing that only burning can bring.

The road becomes something more, a ribbon of crisis and exasperation, wending its way through the dark heart of the jungle and beyond, into an alien and jagged landscape of the mind, suggesting a transcendental plateau has been reached through the pain and torment of their journey. Friedkin’s control of the waning psychological conditions of his characters is intimate and pressing. There’s no need for analysis or existentialism here, their souls are plastered to the windscreen, in the suspension of the trucks, under its creaking wheels, even soaking through the sweaty pores of their faces as they inch over the rickety bridge between life and death a splinter at a time. Everything is on the line and Friedkin ratchets the drama until snapping point.

The lead role was originally written for Steve McQueen, however, Friedkin refused to expand the small role of the bar girl to incorporate Ali McGraw. Frightened that a year in the jungle would destroy his marriage, McQueen passed. Friedkin was right, there is no place for the female touch on this testing, masculine pilgrimage of agony. These men long ago abandoned notions of love, the only recipient of their affection is escape. However, as the director later noted, a single close-up of McQueen would have made the film the success it deserved to be. Hot from Jaws, Scheider came on board and is absolutely terrific: taught, menacing and lean, he seems the embodiment of desperate discontent. An actor of great poise and intent, when Scheider let’s loose he is thunderously wild. The rest of the cast, particularly Bruno Cremer as the suave, doomed Serrano, are pitched just right, framing their characters with the freedom of the damned. Friedkin never quite allows them the camaraderie of Clouzot’s band of ruthless jokers, keeping the reigns tight and the tension high – always just a moment away from slitting one another wide open, they are outcasts until the end.

To gain Clouzot’s permission to remake the film, Friedkin promised that it wouldn’t be as good as the original. It’s not easy to say whether or not he kept his promise and I suspect he did his best to break it, but it certainly plucks at the audience’s raw nerve with a more delicious conviction. Criterion’s 1999 restoration includes important material cut from the original, adding a more rounded view of the characters without ever betraying their essential mystery. The insidious soundtrack, synthesised and baroque, jangles against the Goya-like wastelands to ill effect –ensuring that in almost every way this is a remorseless piece of work with a cruel and heartless end. However, the film is not an exercise in cynicism, rather it celebrates the dogged heroics of the human spirit, the quiet determination of life to prevail even against the fiercest opposition.

Directed by William Friedkin
with Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Ramon Bieri

This first appeared in Stylus Magazine (
P. Cabrelli

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