Sorcerer (1977, USA, William Friedkin) AKA Wages of Sin
Hot on the heels of some of the biggest grossing pictures of the first half of the 1970s it seemed William Friedkin could do no wrong. How appropriate, then, that a director so enamoured with fatalism, so besotted with the cynicism of the age, would fall so quickly from grace, his vertiginous decline signalled by the rather colossal failure of his follow-up to The Exorcist, the action-thriller Sorcerer. A remake of the Henri-Georges Clouzot classic Wages of Fear, Sorcerer was made for what was at the time a massive budget of $21m, but returned a meagre $9m domestic after its initial theatrical run. So what the hell went wrong?
Well, whatever it was, you can’t see it up on the screen, because Sorcerer is one helluva fine piece of filmmaking. I do not plan to spend much time praising or burying Friedkin’s film through comparison to Clouzot’s, other than to note that Friedkin’s re-imagining of the similarly-cynical Clouzot’s film keeps most of what was good about the original, such as biting socio-political subtext (which really ain’t so subtextual in Clouzot’s film; it’s pretty much right there in your face. Still, in both films it is clear that, particularly in the developing world, corporations and the people who run then, are evil bastards who leave the place much worse off than when they found it) and some remarkably tension-filled set pieces, none more fingernails-sinking-ever-deeper-into-the-armrest terrifying than that captured by the image of two trucks and four men inching their way across a rickety suspension bridge during a hellacious storm, and all this while adding in some typical Friedkin dashes, such as his frequent cutaways to a sinister bird’s eye view of the proceedings, to produce a film that is damned riveting from start to finish. And speaking of finish, the ending of Sorcerer is one place that Friedkin’s film certainly has more bite and resonance than Wages of Fear, whose pat conclusion is a tad too flippant for my tastes. And regardless of their relative merits, what I love most about both Sorcerer and Wages of Fear is the way that these master filmmakers tell their stories in pictures, abjuring dialogue whenever possible. Their narratives are moved forward mainly through images, and the characters are developed primarily through their actions, behaviour and manner; this is what good action filmmaking is all about.
However, there are a couple of places to look when trying to figure out why such a potent bit of filmmaking as Sorcerer failed to capture an audience. One is in the darkness of the screenplay itself, wherein the audience is asked to identify with four nefarious characters who have few redeeming characteristics between ‘em, and all of whom suffer ignominiously at the hands of their fellow man. However, this never stopped people from gobbling up stuff like Bonnie and Clyde, so that can’t be the only reason Sorcerer sank so quickly from sight. Ultimately, I fear that it is in casting that Sorcerer suffered its fatal blow. As the film calls for actors who can create engaging characters out of action rather than dialogue, it makes complete sense that Friedkin’s first choice for the film’s central character of Jackie Scanlon was Steve McQueen; few actors in the sound era do more by saying less than he. Billy’s second and third picks were Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson, and while I can see Clint being right at home in Friedkin’s world, it is hard to imagine the very modern Nicholson’s cranky snark would have cut the mustard. However, McQueen had just married Ali McGraw, and didn’t want to be apart from her for the ten-month shoot, while neither Eastwood nor Nicholson took up Friedkin’s offer. So, instead we are left with the ill-cast Roy Scheider in the central role of a fugitive American in dire need of cash. Scheider seems ill at ease throughout the film, quite aware that he isn’t ever really up to the task of commanding the screen in the way an action hero must. Of the remaining three actors, Amidou, Bruno Cremer and Francisco Rabal, who round out the cast, none is American, and therefore unlikely to have had much of an affect upon the domestic box-office. I will note none of their performances is particularly good OR bad, but rather simply endurably workmanlike.
However, since the main characters are decidedly anti-heroic figures, it is perhaps forgivable that none of them is terribly appealing. And while Friedkin surely succeeds at getting us to hope that these men can accomplish their goal of transporting some very volatile dynamite 218 miles through a dense and forbidding jungle, he is never quite able to get us to really root for them in the way we would if there were better actors, or at least more appealing actors, cast in the roles.
Still and all, despite receiving some decidedly mixed reviews at the time (contemporary reviewers have been more kind, hindsight being 20-20 and all), and failing in rather spectacular fashion at the box office, Sorcerer is a mighty fine film, and not the harbinger of Friedkin’s rapidly declining skills as a filmmaker that some revisionists have suggested. No, for that honour, I’d rather point the fickle finger of fate at Cruising or Deal of the Century. Thankfully, the director has pulled out of that early 80’s nosedive to produce a few gems since those disasters, such as To Live and Die in L.A. and The Hunted, but regardless, nothing Friedkin has made since Sorcerer has shown a filmmaker burning with the same white hot passion for his craft.