[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
William Friedkin’s last three films offer irresistible temptations to compare his work with that of other directors. John Frankenheimer made French Connection II, a sequel to the film for which Friedkin won an Oscar; and although the spinoff might not have been as well crafted a film as the parent, Frankenheimer’s work had vision and feeling, while Friedkin’s had little more than method. In the same way, John Boorman’s recent muddled effort Exorcist II: The Heretic, while undeniably one of the most monumentally dumb movies of all time, still shows itself to be infinitely more spirited, adventurous, and visually exciting than Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which relied on ugliness rather than personal involvement to create its spell of horror. Comes now Sorcerer, a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear in which Friedkin tries to go Clouzot one or two better, and hedges his bet by dedicating the film to the Frenchman. But for all the information Friedkin gives us about the background of the four social outcasts who come together on a dangerous mission hauling nitro through South American jungles, we never care about them. There’s no denying that some of the episodes are tooth-grindingly suspenseful; but again the tension does not spring from involvement with the characters. The French Connection, for all its borrowings from Pontecorvo and Costa-Gavras, remains Friedkin’s best film, because in it he made no pretense of getting close to his characters, but kept his concern always with plot. At heart, the film was a police procedural, and paid off in much the same way that a Martin Beck novel does. The Exorcist and Sorcerer, by contrast, are simply inappropriate vehicles for Friedkin because they rely on audience involvement with the characters; and, try as he might, that’s the one thing Friedkin has never been able to bring off. Even in his more modest, pre-renown Boys in the Band, a more than serviceable cinematization of Mart Crowley’s play, any caring we do is brought about by the script, and one constantly senses Friedkin’s camera and staging fighting the intimacy that Crowley’s play cries out for.
In both The Exorcist and Sorcerer, faulty camera placement makes Friedkin’s calculated thrill sequences lack the exposition that might have made them stronger. When the truck “Sorcerer” is crossing the suspension bridge, for example, the Frenchman (Bruno Cremer) suddenly gasps and finds himself entangled in a choking mass of branches; the gasp startles us, as does the shock cut; but then we are suddenly so busy trying to figure out where all this dead vegetation came from to get very involved in his and the Arab’s (Amidou) efforts to extricate themselves from it. (Yes, I know the problems Friedkin had, and how rivers kept drying up on him, and that’s no excuse.) And after giving us our fill of near misses with both trucks crossing the swaying bridge, Friedkin blithely refuses to deliver a payoff of any kind. The Frenchman and the Arab are still trying to get “Sorcerer” off the bridge when the sequence ends; and later they simply show up farther down the road. They made it, gang. Elliptical editing for narrative economy is one thing, but this is ridiculous.
The same is true of the sequence in which the Arab terrorist blows up the huge fallen tree that has—seemingly hopelessly—blocked the road: after taking us step by step through the whole procedure and delighting us with the genius of the Arab’s plan, Friedkin gives us a monumental explosion and slowly clearing smoke and dust; but we never see the newly reopened road from a properly clear and triumphant angle. It’s no accident that Friedkin excludes shots like these. They would yield too much hope. In or out of context, they could only be regarded as optimistic; and Friedkin, concerned from start to finish of Sorcerer with bleakness, squalor, ugliness, and the absurdity of defeat, has no room for that.
What’s finally wrong with Sorcerer, though, is not the director’s refusal to get close to his characters, but his appalling gall in pretending he has. The whole last sequence, with Roy Scheider’s “Dominguez” in the cantina, is shamelessly dishonest. Sure, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) saved his life; but you can’t convince me that he’s so sold on the guy that he has to say, “There’s no way I can go to Managua,” or dance with the wrinkled whore as a kind of emotional duty. Friedkin and his characters haven’t earned the right or been given a reason to behave in this way. In fact, every time we did start to get close to one or more characters, Friedkin cut us off: the suicide of Manzon’s friend (Jean-Luc Bideau), bringing to an abrupt end our hope for the gentle Frenchman to escape a prison sentence for a bad debt; the summary explosion of “Sorcerer” ending the few moments’ intimate chat between Manzon and the Arab; the interloping banditos turning the nodding friendship of Nilo and “Dominguez” into an orgy of absurd violence. The fake finish of that lingering ECU of Scheider’s face in the bar, just before he asks the old chippie for a dance, is an unearned privileged moment, calculated only to throw us off guard. The final shot is another Friedkin cheat: a carload of New Jersey hitmen showing up here to wind up old business with Scanlon/”Dominguez,” who has finally bought his way out of this hellish exile. The real finish of the film, for me, is the track-away from Scheider, through the window of the café, to reveal that all of this has taken place behind an enclosing screen: these characters are all trapped, and we can’t even see them clearly, much less reach them. Nor can Friedkin. He can’t be blamed for trying, or for betraying even himself with his own bleak vision of human endeavor. What rankles is that he pretends to himself—and to us—that he has succeeded where he has failed so utterly.
Direction: William Friedkin. Screenplay: Walon Green, after the novel The Wages of Fear by Georges Arnaud. Cinematography: Dick Bush, John M. Stephens. Production design: John Box. Editing: Bud Smith. Music: Tangerine Dream; music editing: Richard Lambert. Production: Friedkin; associate: Bud Smith.
The players: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Amidou, Francisco Rabal, Ramon Bieri, Friedrich Ledebur, Karl John, Peter Capell.
2010 Afterword: Maybe the times changed, maybe I did, or maybe I just didn’t take a very understanding look at this film in the first place. Over the years, Sorcerer has come to impress me more and more, and as I now read with embarrassment this initial reaction I had to it, I realize that what I took for inconclusiveness was Friedkin’s narrative economy, visceral impact, and avoidance of visual cliché. We do see the wheels of “Sorcerer” make purchase on the bridge just before Friedkin cuts away, and that, for him, was enough. For me, too, now. And, for what it’s worth, the narrative dumbness I initially found in Exorcist 2: The Heretic has long since been outweighed by its cinematic brilliance. It took me some years and some growing up to fully appreciate Boorman and to come to love Friedkin’s Sorcerer.
© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow