[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]
The American cinema owes the French cinema—which is to say French critics and audiences as well as French filmmakers—an enormous debt. And so do any American cinephiles whose cataracted vision began to clear only after Gallic enthusiasm pointed the way to a discovery of our national cinematic treasures. Why, the film noir, one of the richest veins in our movie mines, bears a French moniker; and French cinéastes have emulated that particular tradition time and again, from the commercial likes of Borsalino to the more personal genre work of the recently deceased Jean-Pierre Melville to the radically stylized, self-aware poetry of Godard’s Breathless, Bandof Outsiders, Alphaville, and Pierrotle fou. The progression syntactically implied there is stylistic rather than chronological: Borsalino, an enjoyable piece of period fluff concocted by Jacques Deray, postdates the others. It would be nice to say that Deray’s first American-made film added new dimensions to the genre; that a foreign filmmaker practiced in shooting French-based derivations of our native genre might reveal to us unsuspected strains of exoticism gleaming out of the domestic bedrock. But no.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
Jaws begins with a chillingly realistic sequence of shots that are at the same time metaphysically portentous and eerily beautiful. The camera pans slowly across a group of college people singing and drinking around a beach campfire, cuts a fluid swath along a bluish twilight New England sand dune, eases into a placid sea behind a pretty girl, and follows her as she swims fatefully out over those murky depths where we all know what is waiting. As the girl splashes innocently against a postcard sunset, we cut to a couple of quick shots whose point of view is somewhere below the water, evilly hovering, gazing up at the girl’s form and the dusk sky which swims and shimmers above her like an out-of-focus image of another world. The underwater camera and the presence it represents move progressively closer, intercut with shots of the girl from the surface, until finally she gets this funny look on her face, bobs once or twice like a cork floater on a fishing line, and goes shooting through the water at shark speed. And then she’s gone. There’s this silence, this beautiful fading sunset, a few harmless waves lapping the beach….
“Despite all the problems and setbacks, bruised egos and shattered friendships, I felt then and still do that Sorcereris the best film I’ve made.” – William Friedkin
After William Friedkin’s career took off with the consecutive successes of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), he used his clout to make a passion project, a reworking of Henri-George Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) (Friedkin insists that it’s not a remake) that he rather abstractly titled Sorcerer, named after one of the two trucks that set out across treacherous jungle roads with a cargo of unstable dynamite in the back.
It was a resounding commercial failure and it took the luster off of Friedkin’s golden boy image. Forty years later it’s being heralded, at least in some quarters, as an overlooked masterpiece. Distance, along with the film’s unavailability for well over a decade, has allowed viewers to return to it with fresh eyes and a better understanding of Friedkin. I’m not part of the “masterpiece” chorus, at least not to the extent of The French Connection, but I find a terrible, beautiful power in the film’s primal imagery and almost abstracted conflict of man and nature. Like Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate and other passion projects by seventies filmmakers that spun out of control in a perfect storm of ambition, obsession, arrogance, and bad luck, Friedkin’s passion and commitment comes through in some superb filmmaking and riveting scenes and stunning imagery.
Sorcerer (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) – William Friedkin spent years trying to untangle the rights to his 1977 film, an expensive dream project that he made after hitting it big with The French Connection and The Exorcist, and after suing to force the studios to clear up the legal morass he supervised a restoration, mastered from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative, that screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2013 and played around the country before making its Blu-ray debut in April.
It’s a remake of Henri George-Clouzot’s survival thriller The Wages of Fear, about four men hiding out in a grimy South American village who agree to drive two trucks with unstable dynamite in the back over 200 miles through the jungle, and apart from a lengthy prologue that introduces the men and the crimes that sent them into hiding, it’s a faithful remake with a very different feeling. Friedkin gives the jungle a primal quality, an aliveness that makes their journey feel like a trip through an alien world waiting to swallow them up, and makes the trucks themselves characters in the film (the title Sorcerer is actually the name of one of the old trucks, which are practically reconstructed by the drivers for the trip). In contrast, the men are oddly without dimension apart from Roy Scheider’s New Jersey mobster Jackie Scanlon, who takes the name Juan Dominguez in his underworld witness protection plan. A gangland wheelman in his former life, he’s the driving force (so to speak) in grinding through the challenges of the overgrown road: a fallen monster of a tree, a rotting suspension bridge, cliff roads almost washed away by monsoon rains, and a terrorist band hiding in the jungle. The score by German electronic outfit Tangerine Dream—their first soundtrack for an American film—helps set the otherworldly tone. Their music is actually used sparingly through the film but their slow but insistent rhythm and electronic tones (unique at the time and still quite effective) is the film’s defining sound.
Though Friedkin hinted that the release would feature new commentary and other supplements via his Facebook page back in 2013, there disc features no supplements beyond a letter from Friedkin and the 40-page booklet in the Blu-ray Book package, featuring photos, art and an excerpt from Friedkin’s autobiography. The disc looks and sounds superb (the greens of the jungle look unnaturally overbright though it gives the ordeal a hallucinatory quality) but beware that Warner botched the DVD, producing it from an unrestored master, and Friedkin himself has warned buyers to wait until Warner comes out with a remastered DVD on June 10.
Trouble Every Day (KimStim / Oscilloscope, DVD), Claire Denis’ wigged-out 2001 take on the vampire film, makes it stateside disc debut more than a decade after its theatrical debut. It’s about time. While it had its boosters, the film was lambasted on its original release (look at Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll see the majority of its positive reviews from the 2013 revival) for its utterly insane portrait of a madwoman (Béatrice Dalle, but of course) who is locked in a basement because of her propensity to devour her lovers. And I mean literally devour them.
It’s a cannibal film, but in the Cronenberg sense—horror as biology and disease and psychological transformation—with Denis’s weird mix of too much intimacy and observational distance. The tangle of sex and death is obvious but no less visceral: Dahl giggles and coos and barks in pleasure as moves from caresses and kissing to eating her lover come dinner. She’s never sadistic; it’s more like playing with her food. Vincent Gallo, Tricia Vassey and Alex Descas co-star. The disc features an audio introduction by director of photography Agnès Godard and a booklet with an essay by Melissa Anderson.
The Outside Man (MGM Limited Edition Collection) is out-of-town contract killer Lucien Bellon (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a Paris gunman hired to take out a Los Angeles mob boss, which he does with no fuss or loose ends. Or so he thinks, until he realizes that he’s considered a loose end when a local hitman (Roy Scheider in a largely unspoken performance) targets him as he prepares to leave the country.
Though set and shot in Los Angeles, with a largely American cast (including Ann-Margret as the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold who helps Lucien out, Angie Dickinson, John Hillerman, Alex Rocco, Talia Shire, and Georgia Engel) and a distinctive score with funky soul guitar and wah-wah pedal, this gangster movie turned cat-and-mouse thriller is a French production with a European sensibility shot on the streets of Los Angeles.
Director Jacques Deray may not be the best French crime movie filmmaker of his era but he has way of taking his time and methodically playing out his situations. He isn’t so much interested in action as atmosphere and his portrait of American culture gives the crime movie conventions a distinctive sensibility. Deray and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière are fascinated with the urban landscape of Tower Records and hamburger joints and busy streets, and the perspective is as much from their perspective as it is of the Paris hitman abroad. Lucien runs across hippie hookers and a Jesus freak hitchhiker, checks the news on coin-operated TVs in the bus station, and takes refuge with a single mother and her bratty son (a very young Jackie Earle Haley), where they watch “Star Trek” reruns over dinner.
The script is clever and woven through with witty asides and blasts of dark humor, and if it never really tense or suspenseful, it features a superb cast (including Michel Constantin as Trintignant’s Paris connection, who flies in to help settle the score), some very clever set pieces, and a great look at American urban culture from a European perspective. And the obligatory third act payback, a matter of honor and obligation doomed to mutual destruction, is both perfectly American and utterly French. Some gangster movie conventions are universal.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
The recurrence of certain thematic ideas clues us to a consistency of vision at work in Steven Spielberg’s last three films. For one thing, all are “disaster films” in the sense that they deal with the revelation of character in time of stress. Each of the three films, in one way or another, treats of a battle to the death between a pursuer and a pursued, each respecting and fearing the other’s power. Most fascinating, though, is the fact that all three films deal in some significant way with people’s relationship to machines. (It comes as no surprise that Spielberg’s current work-in-progress, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is about human encounters with UFOs.) Even his earliest television work is marked by an interest in the struggle of the human against the Object. The second section of the Rod Serling trilogy Night Gallery(1969) starred Joan Crawford as an art collector who arranges for an eye transplant, and awakes from the operation just in time for a New York power blackout, with frantic results. A more mature made-for-TV feature, Something Evil(1970), pitted Sandy Dennis against a houseful of poltergeists. But it was with Duel(1972) that Spielberg first dealt specifically with that curiously American simultaneous dependence upon and fear of machines.
Richard Matheson’s script for Duel is a vertiginous plunge into the American collective unconscious, with an enormous, wheezing tank truck metamorphosed into a contemporary dragon that irrationally menaces the allegorically surnamed hero, David Mann. His first name is as apt as his surname: the fact that the driver of the truck remains unseen turns the truck itself into a giant Philistine enemy opposing this modern David. Spielberg presents the truck to us not from the point-of-view of Mann’s eyes, but from a fragile point deep inside the mind of the threatened salesman. In closeup, the truck is always overpoweringly huge; in middle- and longshot its size is emphasized by comparison with Mann’s car, making the truck more than ever an insatiable monster bent on gobbling up helpless prey.
The metaphoric impact of all this is heightened by the fact that Mann has chosen to drive this winding, hilly country road to avoid freeway traffic. Inhis life’s journey he has strayed—but willingly—fromthe Dantean true path, and found himself confronted by a ravening beast. The snake, too, that most allegorical of creatures, makes its appearance in one of the film’s most interesting scenes, Mann’s stop at a garage that, in the tradition of Cable Hogue’s “Cable Springs” stagecoach stop, offers an exhibit of snakes as a roadside attraction. Interestingly, the snake sequence comes just after an incident in which the truck has nearly forced Mann into the path of a train at a crossing, and precedes the climactic sequence in which a radiator hose gives out and spews steam about as Mann’s car grinds to a halt on a steep grade. Whether this is an intentional proliferation of phallic symbolism or merely a sequence of variations on shape, Spielberg’s emphatic treatment of the images demonstrates his awareness of the coincidence.
[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 ConnectionII, 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 TheExorcist, 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.