[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
by Gregory Dean Way
Two priests chant “The power of Christ compels you!” as the possessed child floats in the air above her bed. The shot is a static one, both visually and behaviorally, one of the few inert moments in a film full of forward energy: The child remains rigid, resistant to the droning incantation. Paradoxically, it is at this most static moment that The Exorcist hints at truly coming alive as a worthwhile experience, by suggesting the agony of endurance that its symbolic battle of good against evil requires. However, one’s hopeful expectations go unfulfilled: The child gravitates downward far too soon; the potential for truly subjective, protracted participation by the viewer in the elemental confrontation of this two-hour picture is cast aside (one suspects because of the filmmakers’ fear of an impatient, negative viewer response to unfamiliar, nonlinear film experience). That TheExorcist should cast aside (i.e., spend so little time developing) one of its thematically most significant moments, yet sum to overkill its moments of more cretinously comprehensible shock, is a telling comment on the locus of Friedkin and Blatty’s concerns.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
The situation is hopeless. The film became a box-office phenomenon the day it opened. The public said Yes and the candyass critics said No and the frothing-at-the-mouth daily reviewers scuttled to assure the public it was right. You just know what those snits at the little film magazines are going to say. They’re going to say No. Big deal. If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich? All right, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I thought it wasn’t a very good movie.
I read TheExorcistduring a summer more disengaged than most, a time when I didn’t have very much to do and felt guilty about not doing it. A discerning friend later observed that the book seemed to him “one of the finest trash novels ever,” and while it had never occurred to me to invoke the stern god of Literature, I knew he was quite right. As narrative, it belonged firmly in the couldn’t-put-it-down class, and no one had to feel ashamed of succumbing to its spell. The film, written for the screen and produced by the man who’d so cozily chilled the summertime reader’s blood, had every right to exert the same spell. But it doesn’t.
Paul Crump, an African American Chicago man convicted of murdering a security guard during the robbery of a meatpacking plant and sentenced to death in 1953, had faced 14 stays of execution when William Friedkin, a young television producer, took on his story. The People vs. Paul Crump became his directorial debut, a documentary that eschews any pretense of balance and instead makes Crump’s case directly to the viewers. This is documentary as advocacy, championing a cause with passionate and persuasive filmmaking, and the filmmaking is indeed provocative and compelling. The first shot of the film, an evocative shot of Crump leaning against the prison bars of his cell while another inmate blows a harmonica, comes right out of a social drama of injustice, immediately putting our sympathies with Crump.
It starts conventionally enough, with newspaper reporter John Justin Smith narrating in hardboiled newsman mode as he outlines Crump’s case with a mix of historical fact and personal connection. Smith introduces us the man behind the story in an interview that plays out like an old movie, with Smith hammering questions at Crump like a tough but committed investigative reporter grilling an indicted politician, skeptical but moved by the testimony and the compromised evidence against him. Crump comes off calm and measured in his responses and his confessions of other crimes and failings give the ring to truth to his account of events. Then Friedkin jumps from the static new newsreel interview style to a stylized recreation of the crime with actors playing out the robbery on the actual locations. Friedkin shoots it with a mobile handheld camera, a cinema verité style by way of a B-movie crime thriller or hard-hitting exploitation exposé.
“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.
[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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]
Who’s the biggest box-office star at the moment? Not Redford, not Newman, not Eastwood, but, it would seem, the Prince of Darkness, whose presence in or on the periphery of a large number of popular movies in recent years has led to what Variety might call a Beelzebub boffola. And why? Look to the times: devil movies are not a portent of impending Armageddon, as the originator of TheOmenwould have us believe, but a result. World crises in the Seventies have implied that we may well be merrily off to hell, in metaphorical terms, and it’s nothing unusual for movies to take such phrases literally. Putting it bluntly, devil movies offer a kind of reassuring disturbance. They give us something apart from the grim realities of life to worry about.
It’s an old trick. Chinatownhad the citizens of L.A. suffering from a largely invented drought, and their concern with it diverted their attention from what was really going on. When a real drought hit Great Britain in 1976, everyone had a wonderful time worrying about it, encouraged by their political masters, who were glad of a breathing space in which to tackle the actually rather more pressing problems of the pound. Britain didn’t actually die of thirst or turn into Death Valley, but it was a popular summer madness trying to figure out what might happen. The big thing was that it was a danger from outside. It wasn’t our fault. There was no way we could stop the onslaught of unimagined terrors, but we might conceivably blame people for such mundane and equally depressing (more depressing) things as unemployment, strikes, political corruption, and the balance of payments. Whenever a society is in big trouble, as Western society certainly is right now, it’s vital for the public to find all manner of bogeymen on which to vent its otherwise quite impotent wrath.