3.25.2017

Sorcerer (1977)

Today's selection:
(1977)

I started The Scenic Route to showcase the cars and landscapes of a bygone age, as captured on the films of yesteryear. Sorcerer is a bit of an outside choice for such a series. It fits the mission statement, but not quite as snugly as other selections (Gone in Sixty Seconds, Blow-Up, etc.) Nevertheless, as one of the most purely brilliant films of any genre, any decade it fits in wherever it wants, I guess. Plus, few films are cooler to just sit back and look at, so away we go.

(Soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Hit play on this and enjoy the pictures, friends.) 


The set-up: four men on the run from the law, scratching out an existence in "Managua," a fictional South or Central American country. When the local oil refinery blows up and threatens to burn away the  rainforest, its owners have to move six crates of leaky dynamite over uncertain and dangerous terrain by truck.

Beset upon by the jungle, the rebels, the equipment, and those ghosts they carry with them, they trudge inch by inch towards their individual - and inevitable - destinies. 


Sorcerer is a remake of the French New Wave classic The Wages of Fear (based on the book La Saliere de la Peur by Georges Arnaud). I bought both films as two of my very first DVD purchases when I finally got myself a DVD player in 2001. I've never read the Arnaud book, but having seen Sorcerer first (and many times) I've always been at a disadvantage with the original French film. It contains much of the same symbolism and existential despair, but I just prefer (vastly) the later American version. It's such a perfectly made movie - that's not to say Wages of Fear is not, it's just that from Sorcerer's score to its cinematography to its message and tone to the performances to just-all-around-coolness to dear-God-how-did-they-film-this-ness, it will always appeal to me more than its cinematic predecessor.

My late friend Klum agreed on how cool Sorcerer is, but he always gave me crap for preferring the American version. He was very loyal to the idea that anything French New Wave had to be superior.
 
This shot where he places the shovel on the back of the Peligro is conspicuous. Foreshadowing!

Sorcerer has earned a reputation as a high water mark of the American New Wave, but it went unnoticed at the time, thanks in great part to Star Wars coming out the following week and finishing what Jaws had begun a few years before: paving over the New Wave with a Blockbuster Connector Freeway to the Future. Perhaps it's too glib a read on things, but that's the popular perception, anyway. There were a few New Wave classics to come out after Star Wars, but the party was over.

Four sequences are worth isolating.

1. 
"ESTA LOCO."

The plight of the native population who happen to live somewhere oil is discovered is indirectly but powerfully condemned. First with the Indian who playfully obstructs the progress of the trucks as he runs barefoot along the pipeline and in the middle of the road.

"Get the hell outta the way!"

And then, upon coming across a fork in the road, they ask a spooky native who's just hanging around in the rain which road leads to Poza Rica, which leads to this surreal exchange:

"Esta loco. Vamanos."

2.
THE BRIDGE

The most memorable and set-piece-impressive sequence in the film is the storm-drenched impossible crossings of the dilapidated wooden bridge. The intensity of both crossings is amazing - easily some of the most uncomfortable and anxious moments in the movie.

No CGI, kids. This is Friedkin trying to top his French Connection derring-do.
My favorite escalation: when the storm presses the trees over the causeway and into Bruno Cremer's back.

I threw this movie on one rainy day at the VFW (the canteen I used to manage back in RI.) It can be harder than you think to keep a bunch of old drunks entertained. Outside of one day where I played Cheers DVDs all day and another one with The World's Fastest Indian, the only time I had any success was the afternoon I brought this in. It's such a visually arresting and tense piece of filmmaking - this scene in particular - that it sucked everyone in from start to finish. I like this detail, because Sorcerer is a very surreal and existential flick, imbued with an American New Wave sensibility - not at all the sort of thing my customers were in the habit of enjoying (or letting me enjoy) as Saturday afternoon fare at the VFW.


3.
"IT IS FIVE MINUTES BEFORE NINE..."

"Are you from Paris?"
"I lived there, yes. Do you know Paris?"
"I was there for two days. Very expensive."
"So they say. I met my wife when I first came to Paris. The day she gave me this
was the last day I saw her."

"It is five minutes before nine...
in Paris."


4.
"I DON'T KNOW WHERE I'M GOING..."

Speaking of ANW sensibility, in the final stretch, Roy Scheider's character finds himself on what looks like the surface of the moon. He's lost the road and adrift in a barren landscape. His face extra pale from loss of blood, gunpowder, and the stink of imperialism, he searches for the lost road through a land once so abundant and generous. 


He staggers into the camp on foot, walking the last few miles and carrying one of the crates of dynamite.

I won't spoil anything after that, nor add any more notes. A personal favorite and (not to repeat myself but just as an objective fact) one of the all-time best. Friedkin must have been absolutely baffled when it failed to launch. He may never have gotten over the failure; his work is clearly divided between everything up to this movie (most notably The French Connection and The Exorcist) and everything after. He made some great pictures after Sorcerer, but never with the same blend of total creative freedom nor cohesion of personal vision, scope, and ambition. (Not to mention money.)

THE CAST

Francisco Rabal as Nilo.
Amidou as Kassem / Martinez.
Bruno Cremer as Victor / Serrano.
Roy Scheider as Scanlon / Dominguez.

Incidentally, I've been using Scheider's Managuan alias "Juan Dominguez" as an alias of my own for many years. Scheider was not Friedkin's first choice. He wanted Steve McQueen. While it's definitely fascinating to picture McQueen in this role, it's like recasting Brody in Jaws. Or any Scheider performance, really - you can see other people acquitting themselves just fine, but why get rid of Scheider? Ever? Anyway, McQueen, at least according to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, didn't want to leave new bride Ali MacGraw to spend months in the jungle with Friedkin, so he passed.

As for the others, scroll through their imdbs; you'll be surprised. Bruno Cremer may be best known to PBS audiences as Maigret, but I first saw him in Costa-Gravas' Shock Troops. (Underrated flick)

Until next time. 


~

5 comments:

  1. (1) It took precisely four seconds for me to be in love with "Betrayal." No shock there; I dig what I know of Tangerine Dream, so I always figured this would absolutely be my cup of tea. I'm going to cultivate an obsession with them one of these days.

    (2) Boy, these are some great screencaps. I mean, Friedkin, so you'd probably have to work hard to get crappy ones.

    (3) "He was very loyal to the idea that anything French New Wave had to be superior." -- Pure snobbery. But it's the sort of snobbery that appeals to me, so I applaud it even when I disagree with it. Having seen neither movie, I have no dog in this fight.

    (4) "Sorcerer has earned a reputation as a high water mark of the American New Wave, but it went unnoticed at the time, thanks in great part to Star Wars coming out the following week and finishing what Jaws had begun a few years before: paving over the New Wave with a Blockbuster Connector Freeway to the Future." -- I tend to think that the movies themselves are less to blame for that than the audiences were. I mean, people went to see Star Wars for some reason, and decided not to go see Sorcerer for some reason. In either case, it's likely due to the culture trending in whatever direction, and that was a thing that was happening regardless of what was happening at the cineplexes. It's a perpetually interesting topic, though.

    (5) Do my eyes correctly see a big-rig truck driving across a wooden bridge? Holy smokes. Here's the thing: the humanist in me sees that and thinks it's unquestionably better that we have CGI so that nobody ever again has to risk their life doing nutty things for insane directors. But the film lover in me feels like it might have been worth the risk. There must be some medium between these two viewpoints, and we need to find it.

    (6) "His face extra pale from loss of blood, gunpowder, and the stink of imperialism, he searches for the lost road through a land once so abundant and generous." -- This sentence for the win!

    (7) My film-knowledge is weak on the subject of Friedkin. I know and love both "The French Connection" and (especially) "The Exorcist" (a perennial favorite in October in my apartment), but that's about as far as it goes. Whenever I finally decide to stretch it a bit further, "Sorcerer" WILL be the top priority.

    (8) I ... do not blame Steve McQueen.

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  2. (1) Oh yeah. I mean, we're the same age so we're helpless, I think, before things like Tangerine Dream. It's the cinema of the mind we were promised! Great stuff. Their album count is somewhat intimidating. I'm actually making my way through all of it at the moment and am only up to 1977. Doing the solo stuff, too, so I have an excuse to listen to Froese's "Stuntman," again. (Like I needed one!)

    (2) I was struck by that this time around, myself. How the hell is EVERY shot in this movie a masterpiece of composition? Ay caramba. What the hell happened to this guy? Like Oliver Stone, I bet getting off the drugs saved his life, but it sure didn't improve his filmmaking.

    (3) Klum was very loyal to the idea that European films would always be superior. I think this was because in his heart of hearts he saw himself as a romantic young man in a French New Wave film. And his ultimate dream woman was, probably, Catherine Deneuve. All understandable. But yeah, sometimes that snobbery led him to finding some French cinema that was pure dreck (like "Base-Moi") to be intellectually stimulating.

    (4) Without a doubt. I agree completely. Like Lucas said, "popcorn movies have always ruled." Things go in phases. There's only so many "Taxi Driver"s a culture can stand before it needs to go to "Star Wars" and "Back to the Future," then the pendulum swings, and so on. Personally, all those great New Wave directors who blame Lucas and Spielberg for the loss of their careers are dead wrong; if they kept making great movies, they'd have been fine. De Palma and Scorsese seemed to do just fine. Anyway, filmmaking is 80% luck and perserverence, 20% talent, and that's probably being generous.

    (5) Absolutely. I am in awe of real-life stunts and movie magic, but there's something to be said about lessening the "people could die for this make believe" factor.

    (6) I appreciate that. It was this viewing that really brought home the symbolism of this scene to me.

    (7) Check out his imdb - he still made some good stuff, but, like Coppola, he became more a director-for-hire and just never did anything like his 70s work ever again.

    (8) No sensible man would! Poor Robert Evans.

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    Replies
    1. (4.5) I say this as someone who loves and appreciates both "Taxi Driver" and "Back to the Future." But yeah, whenever one group has the reins of culture/national mood, everyone else just waits their turn.

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    2. (1) Good lord, I think Christopher Franke on his own may have released about 7000 albums just from his "Babylon 5" music.

      (4.5) I don't trust any so-called movie lover who doesn't love both "Taxi Driver" and "Back to the Future" (or, if not those two specific films, then films in general of their type). If you're only into blockbusters, then you have no soul; and if you're only into art films, then you have no heart.

      (7) There aren't all that many directors who are capable of truly doing their thing across three, four, five decades. It happens, but it seems to be rarer than it is common. But hey, if you made "The French Connection," "The Exorcist," and "Sorcerer" then you are in the record books no matter what came before or after. And that's as it should be.

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  3. Nice review: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2016/sorcerer/

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