By James Hancock (Originally posted on my personal blog)
In one of the more complicated legal battles I’ve ever heard of in film history, one where two studios claim not to own a particular film, director William Friedkin was forced to threaten both studios with a lawsuit in order to gain access to his film ‘Sorcerer’ (1977) and give it the restoration and rerelease it was due. Having failed commercially upon its initial release, the film languished for decades but is now finally able to be reassessed as one of the more important films of Friedkin’s career, certainly his most ambitious failure. “Sorcerer” is a remake of the classic ‘The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur)’ (1953), a film adapted by French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot from the novel of the same name. Both of these films are superb exercises in tension and suspense and are well worth hunting down for your viewing pleasure. The story of these films takes place in an impoverished South American village where the only job opportunities are provided by an American Oil Company. After an accident, one of their oil wells catches fire and the only way to extinguish the blaze is with a powerful blast of dynamite or nitroglycerine. The sole option for getting the explosives to the site is for four drivers in two trucks to transport the dynamite over several hundred miles of rough terrain. The catch is that the slightest bump in the road could set off the explosives meaning there is a good chance neither truck will make it to the end of the trip. Four men, down-on-their luck with nothing to lose, are offered a colossal sum of money to take the job and what follows is absolutely riveting to watch.
I have never read the source material but having watched and enjoyed both films I want to talk about my theories for why ‘The Wages of Fear’ became an acknowledged classic while ‘Sorcerer’ became a flop that nearly ended Friedkin’s career. Both films are essentially the same when described in broad strokes but Clouzot and Friedkin both made some crucial decisions that changed the trajectory of their films. The myth surrounding “Sorcerer” is that it would have been a hit if only ‘Star Wars’ had not come out at the same time. I’m not buying that, although the release of a bonafide movie phenomenon certainly didn’t help the box office prospects of ‘Sorcerer’. At the time he made ‘Sorcerer’, Friedkin was coming off of two monster hits, ‘The French Connection’ (1971) and ‘The Exorcist’ (1973). Like Francis Ford Coppola with ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) and Werner Herzog with ‘Fitzcarraldo’ (1982), Friedkin used his new power in the industry to shoot a highly ambitious, costly production in an inhospitable environment. Call it directorial hubris or the pursuit of a distinct vision, the result was that Friedkin soon endured a nightmarish production that went millions over budget, with most of his crew suffering from disease and in a few cases death while trying to finish the film. The film is arguably Friedkin’s most impressive effort of his career but this depressing atmosphere of the shoot spills over into almost every frame of film of ‘Sorcerer’.
Stylistically the two films couldn’t be more different, particularly in the first hour. ‘The Wages of Fear’ features the dashing Yves Montand as the hero of the story and the opening of the film is basically a buddy movie between him and Jo played by Charles Vanel. The pace of the story is quick and lively with great character interactions as well as all the information the audience could ever need to understand the stakes of the story and the strategies the drivers are going to use to try and survive. ‘Sorcerer’ on the other hand is bleak, slow and depressing (in a good way if that is your thing) and has almost no dialogue. ‘Sorcerer’ opens its story in four different locations to give the drivers some backstory, delaying the beginning of the central storyline unnecessarily. Roy Scheider plays the lead and he does a solid job overall but his part was originally offered to Steve McQueen who backed out when his wife Ali MacGraw couldn’t get a part on the movie. McQueen’s star power and likability would have helped the film a great deal commercially at the time of its release. Ironically ‘The Wages of Fear’ has the longer running time of the two but doesn’t feel that way. ‘Sorcerer’ seems to take for granted that the audience already knows the story and offers almost no information to the viewer. One of the greatest sources of confusion is the title of the film, ‘Sorcerer’ which takes its title from the name of one of the trucks used in the story. Audiences uninterested in sorcery simply stayed away while geeks who love wizards were left scratching their heads in bewilderment.
The real crucial difference between the two films is how they handle the relationship between the two central characters. In ‘The Wages of Fear’, Montand and Vanel’s relationship gradually disintegrates when Vanel reveals himself to be a coward, one not up to the strains and anxieties of the job they’ve accepted. Montand rises to the challenge even when it means that Vanel must be cast aside when his fear and incompetence threaten their ability to complete their task. ‘Sorcerer’, on the other hand, features almost no human interaction of any kind and makes the foolish decision of splitting the two leads into different trucks bringing what little dramatic interaction the movie has to a screeching halt.
I might sound as if I’m bashing the film, but I’m not. ‘Sorcerer’ has some of the most gripping suspense sequences I’ve ever seen, the kind that makes audiences curl into a ball in their seats from the tension. That said, I’m fascinated by flawed masterpieces that find an audience decades after their initial release and I’m always interested in dissecting the reasons why. From Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (1980) to as far back as D.W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’ (1916), the story of film history has many sad cases of brilliant directors seeing their career derailed by one overly ambitious commercial failure. Fans of the quintessential American cinema from the 70s will be delighted with ‘Sorcerer’ but there is nothing about the film that makes me think it was a victim of how quickly popular tastes changed from the director-driven hits of the early 1970s to the popcorn movies of the late 1970s. ‘Sorcerer’ is gorgeously shot with impressive action, but it is also a brutal, sweaty movie that gives the audience no form of entertaining payoff to reward them for their time. This is a movie about pain, suffering, and death, but if that is your thing you should absolutely check out the film. Very rarely does an ambitious failure get this kind of second chance and I for one am thrilled that Friedkin’s neglected opus is finally getting the attention and consideration it deserves.
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