Wednesday, September 30, 2009

William Friedkin's Sorcerer Warrants a Second Look

Remakes face the inevitable fate of being compared to the original version--even when they're not a remake, but rather another interpretation of an existing novel, play, or factual incident. Therefore, it is unfortunate for William Friedkin that Henri-Georges Clouzot adapted the novel The Wages of Fear into a 1952 international film success and almost-instant classic. Sorcerer can't stack up to Clouzot's masterpiece, but it deserves a second look. Once Friedkin overcomes a disjointed first half, he transforms his film into an astounding rollercoaster ride where death stands in plain sight around every corner and across every bridge.

The film can be divided into two parts. The first half traces how three men--a French business executive, a terrorist, and an insignificant gangster--wind up down on their luck in a squalid Latin American town. Desperate for money, they agree to drive two trucks, each loaded with three boxes of nitroglycerin-leaking dynamite, over 200 miles of jungle, bumpy roads, sharp ravines, and temporary bridges. An oil company needs the explosives to "blow out" a raging oil fire. The men need the $40,000, of course.

The second half of the film focuses on the gripping, tension-filled journey--the highlight being the crossing of a dilapidated swinging bridge during a savage storm. Friedkin brilliantly combines visual and aural elements to create a chaotic mixture of howling winds, booming thunder, creaking timbers, and slashing torrents of rain. The trucks look like bizarre wingless dragons, with their grills for teeth, hood vents for nostrils, and headlights for eyes. However, in terms of visual power, nothing can match the mesmerizing image of Roy Scheider's truck tilted at an uncanny 45-degree angle as it inches across the crumbling bridge.

The film's only American star, Scheider, plays a man with no meaning in his life. He wants the money--to the point that he gets excited about his share increasing if the other drivers die on a swinging bridge. But the money really means nothing, for Scheider's character has nowhere to go and no one who cares about him. He already is dead emotionally, so his eventual destiny is just a formality.

With its downbeat tone and unlikable characters, Sorcerer looks as if it was made in the late 1960s or early 1970s when films like Easy Rider dominated the theaters. It's easy to see why it did not appeal to the same moviegoers who made Star Wars the biggest hit of 1977. It was pronounced dead on arrival on its original release as critics labeled it a disappointing remake. But it has since found a second life with movie buffs who admire Friedkin's virtuosic direction of the explosive truck trek and are drawn to his existential approach to the tale.

6 comments:

  1. Rick, I have not seen either movie, and your beautifully descriptive article makes me anxious to see both. Wonderful blog.

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  2. I think that Friedkin could sometimes be pretentious. I'm not a huge fan of THE EXORCIST and I didn't enjoy THE FRENCH CONNECTION. These movies were like showcases, truly only focusing on one particular sequence or series of sequences, like the bedroom scenes in THE EXORCIST and the car chase in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. But when he's good, he's very good. I kinda liked TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. Rich characters, solid story. It worked. I'll definitely be checking out SORCERER. If it's even half as good as your write-up, I'll be in for a treat!

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  3. Sark Wait till you see the "Bridge Sceen"one of the best things Friedkin has ever done . I like him better when he's behind a Panaflex instead of the directors chair.

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  4. Rick,i will add these two movies to my list of "must see" movies..Awesome! review.

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  5. This is a vivid review of a memorable movie. The bridge scenes are truly suspenseful. I didn't recall why the title "Sorcerer" was employed and read that it was the name of one of the trucks transporting the nitroglycerin explosives. Great blog, Rick!

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  6. Thanks, toto2! I had forgotten the source of the film's title.

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