By Gloria Heifetz
Sorcerer is a bleak, harsh, and uncompromising film, adjectives that may have reflected the inner state of William Friedkin after the reviewers were done with him. It had the misfortune to appear around the time of Star Wars, and although the simple- mindedness of that film was decried, Sorcerer was found to be confusing, pretentious, and most evil of all, depresseing. A certain conformity seized even the lowliest writer, and only the single brave voice of Newsweek’s Jack Kroll rose to defend the film. It is amazing how attitudes sweep through the press, but considering the financial failure of the film, perhaps the sociological indifference of audiences merely found feeble articulation in the media.
I think Sorcerer is superior to both Georges Arnaud’s original novel, The Wages of Fear, and the film from it directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and written by Clouzot and J. Geronimi. The “existential” novel was published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1952. The Clouzot film follows the book closely, but with certain changes in structure and temperament. The novel opens directly with the explosion at the Crude Oil Corporation’s oil field in Las Piedras, Guatemala. The main character is Gerard Sturmer (Mario in the movie, Jackie Scanlon/Juan Dominquez in Sorcerer) just the sort of person one would expect in the quickly drawn atmosphere of the grubby town and its stolid roll call of 20 other men, hiding and trapped. There is much anti-American attitudinizing and talk of fear as a “colorless liquid” and much colorless swearing. The 300 mile truck journey is set up and begun in a matter of a few chapters, and there is crying, railing against life and American imperialism. Gerard actually has his own Linda — she is not just a Hollywoodesque role stuck in the film for Clouzot’s wife. Here is an example of the “tough” and “spare” dialogue which the novel presents, taken from page 90 of the Avon edition (Norman Dale, Translator):
“A little later [Johnny] turned to Gerard and cleared his throat. He had something rather difficult to say.
“Hey — Gerard.”
“Thanks for what?”
“Well, for not leaving me in that ditch when I let you take those bends on your own. You’re all right, Gerard.”
“For God’s sake!”
“Yes, you’re all right…’ “
Besides Gerard there is Johnny Mihalescu, a Rumanian who once stabbed his best friend in Tequcigalpa; Juan Bimba, a Stalinist Spaniard; and Luigi Stornatori. The events of the drive are echoed or expanded for the film, but the book concentrates on the shifting tensions between Gerard and Johnny of fear and courage. The film adds scenes that give the sociology mobility. For the most part characterizations are carried over to the film intact. Johnny becomes Jo, and Gerard Mario. Rather than committing itself immediately to the catastrophe, Clouzot’s film spends the first twenty minutes or so setting these characters. When it occurs, the four obvious men are selected, and the mission begins with Linda clinging to the side of Mario’s truck exuding nihilistic romantic passion. The units of suspense are the washboard, the platform, the stone, the pool of oil, and the final leg of the journey, the delivery, ending in a twist, Mario, in his exuberance, accidently driving off the road and killing himself, all of which have comparable analogues in Sorcerer. (The gust of air that blows away the tobacco of Jo’s cigarette as a predecessor to the explosion that kills Luigi and Bimba is particularly good — there is no similar scene in Sorcerer). The film making is adequate, the scenes are tense, particularly after the tedium of the films opening, but the constant interruptions that illustrate Jo’s descent into crazen abjection are repetitious and annoying. The intended comparison of Mario and Jo, though beneficial to Mario, doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and the pacing of the film is thrown off by this intermittance. Thematically the points are made. We understand the moral differences between them. Unfortunately, the final two of the four drivers are not well-communicated to the spectator; as characters their deaths mean nothing because their lives meant nothing to us. This imbalance, among other defects, leads to the detachment one feels while watching the film, a detachment different in quality from that felt while watching Sorcerer.
Friedkin solves this problem by the use of four opening vignettes introducing the four principals; Nilo, whose first, shortest, and least important scene realizes the air of sudden, fated death; Kassem, the politically engaged arab terrorist, a reflection of the terrorist guerillas who bomb the oil-rig in (apparently) Chile and who actually kill him later; Victor Manzon, a French businessman caught in a fraud, in his desperation deserting his beloved wife, finding Porvenir eggs a sharp contrast from lobster, (reminding one of the contrast developed between Charnier and Popeye in The French Connection, realized in one particular shot with a zoom, and a contrast of warm restaurant colors and cold street gray); and finally Jackie Scanlon, who is given poetic profiles, utilizing Roy Scheider’s incredible face, and the photography of John M. Stephens and Dick Bush. Scheider is the spiritual center of the film, being the “ordinary” fellow of the lot: though a hoodlum, nowhere in the performance is there any sense of evil, maliciousness, or extremes, which make him most likely to reflect the self-image of the spectator.
Friedkin is the poet of frustration. Gene Hackman’s embodiment of it in French Connection, where Charnier elludes him on the subway, and Tony Lo Bianco on the freeway, are studies of the emotion. Although frustration plays a certain role in The Exorcist, especially in Jason Miller’s attitude to his mother and later the Devil, it is hardly the principle element. Even lesser films, like Boys in The Band, the oddly tilted Birthday Party, and the otherwise execrable Night They Raided Minsky’s, with its triad of frustrated show and antishow people, offer variations on this theme. Not until the cast of Sorcerer, however, have despair and futility had such an overall physical manifestation. Hackman was perfect, of course, and the subtle touch of his hat flying to pieces understated the shattering outcome of his driven nature (Popeye’s mostly uncommented-on boot fetish makes thematic, though not psychological, sense by pointing his sexual drive in the direction of an item of apparel most used for basic locomotion, appropriate for a character constantly giving chase).
Walon Green has given Friedkin a script of supremely fluid structure and tempo. It can be divided into approximately five parts: the opening vingettes; the interlude setting the scene of entrapment in Porvenir; the blowing of the well and Corlette’s selection of the men; the drive; and Scanlon’s return. Scenes of quietude (the funeral march, the departure of the trucks) follow or preceed perfectly balanced scenes of excitement (the riot, the brilliant “grind” montage) creating a hypnotic and yet satisfyingly full effect.
Before discussing the film section by section, and in order to show the difference in tone between Sorcerer and its predecessor, I want to compare the piss-comaraderie scene in Wages of Fear with — nothing. Sorcerer, bleak, and unromantic, does not offer friendship as a scale by which to judge life. One little scene in which Manzon reminisces preceeds directly his death (but this could be merely ironic, rather than “fated”). Clouzot’s scene is touching and is consonate with the thrust of the film, but given the isolation of Green/Friedkin’s characters, whose occasional happinesses are frustrated, the ambience is different and, I think, improved.
After the opening (each environment is shot in a slightly different fashion) and particularly after the cold blues and grays of New Jersey, we find the, perhaps misleading, soft yellows, greens, and blues of South America (according to Scanlon’s work permit, it is September of 1976). There are a number of scene-setting shots, moving progressively from long to close, culminating in Scanlon’s sudden awakening, from a nightmare, at the screech of a slaughtered pig, a scene created with a rarely communicated felt reality. (Having read in Key’s Media Sexploitation that Friedkin allegedly used certain subliminal effects in Exorcist, I was extremely curious about the brief unidentifiable shots that flicker just prior to Scanlon’s awakening, resembling to the futile, but fiercely focused eye, roosters. After a good deal of trouble I was finally able to look at a print frame by frame, and the shots, 15 in all, actually are of a rooster, one we see earlier. However, to save others the silly effort of running down the film, I herewith print a list of the shots:
— Scanlon’s hand on sheet
— 24 frames of a dead hood on the street
— Scanlon’s hand
— 24 frames of bars, before a white wall (Frames 1-5) The rooster moving right, ducking its head in normal movement.
(6) A white frame
(7) The rooster
(8) The rooster with its head ducked
(9) White, faintly negative, of 8
(10) Rooster, head ducked
(11) White, faintly negative, of 10
(12) Rooster’s head ducked
(13) The same shot as 12, printed negative
(14) The same shot as 12, but white
(15) Scanlon’s hand again
The orchestration of these simple frames to create a jolting nightmarish effect is amazing.
The peacefulness of Porvenir is an illusion. Such shoved-in-the-comer sights as a man carrying the severed head of a goat, (also appearing at the film’s conclusion) contribute to the disquiet, the relentless seediness. There is the quietude of the four opening locales, which disguise violence and deceit, epitomized by the enormous formal Catholic wedding, in which the bride has a black eye, and the schoolgirls walking the street before Manzon’s house. Manzon’s wife, literate and loving, is the focus of the humane possibilities of life, by virtue of the gift she gives her husband of the watch (which still is not enough to get him out of Porvenir — we are made aware that necessary human qualities of kindness and love have no value in this dark underside) as well as by the short exchange between them that sets the tone for the struggle the men endure against the limitations of life and themselves.
“The cannons were trained on the village,” she reads from the military memoir she is editing, about which he asks “Another soldier poet?,” and she replies, “More philosopher than soldier.” “Soon I would lower my hand and the firing would begin. Through my field glasses, I could see a woman with a jug of water on her head, walking slowly toward her home as she had always done. In a second, my simple gesture would remove her from the face of the earth. Whose gesture would remove me? When and how would it come?”
Manzon: And did he lower it?
Manzon: Then he was just a soldier.
Blanche: No one is “just” anything.
We could reduce the film to this maxim, but Friedkin’s compassionate but unsentimental realization of the film prevents the phrase from diverting us from the true vividness of their fight against despair. However, it lends a mature respect to the men at the film’s conclusion. When the hoods come to get Scanlon, part of our disappointment arises from our knowledge that they are coming from another world, operating under the same thesis as Manzon, that Scanlon is “just” a cheap hood, which conflicts with our appraisal of him.
All societies are two societies operating side by side, the innocent and the dark. In Porvenir, it is mostly dark that has superseded the usual need to disguise, to hide the inevitable darkness, summarized as death. The morbid shorthand of shots of the dying, burnt men at the oil field emphasize the outrage of sudden death, in this case caused by guerillas, which hangs like a stench over the rig, Porvenir, the world. It is Camus’s sense of man living under sentence of death. When the burnt carcasses are delivered to the town wrapped in plastic and dripping with blood and pieces of flesh, the stunned silence of the crowd turns into irrational rebellion, towards the oppression of the corrupt government, and toward the tyranny of death itself.
Yes, yes, Porvenir can be seen as a metaphoric condensation of life itself. After the sabotage, there is a beautifully acted scene between Corlette (Ramon Bieri) and his superior in COREPET: the situation is set up. Four men must drive the nitro 218 miles to the field. Corlette is another moral force in the film, the familiar man-doing-a-dirty- job character, but the actor’s skill gives the character a ragged, tired humanity. The film’s focus is temporarily him and his frustration. “I’ve seen worse” his explosives expert tells him, but this doesn’t make blowing it any easier. The announcement to the village follows, and then the excellent montage, in a film that is almost all montage, of the potential drivers being tested. Scanlon, a driver in his previous life, does well, as do the four other most desperate men, each driving in a fashion that articulates his character. In a humorless film as is this one, even the gag of the bad driver knocking down the men in the bed of the truck contributes to the malaise; on a minuscule level it reiterates the suddenness of life’s, usually deadly, jolts. A second montage follows quickly, brilliantly: the men assemble two trucks (“Sorcerer” and “Lazaro”) from the wreckage of several. The music of Tangerine Dream, here, as elsewhere, supplies the emotional continuity of pursuit, driveness (much could be written of Friedkin’s use of sound, as in for example the transition from New Jersey to Porvenir, with the gradually-louder el abruptly superseded by the dawn birds of South America. The roar of the second bridge scene contributes to its tension by virtue of its giving the spectator no relief from the scene’s doom-filled possibilities). Nilo, who also wants out of Porvenir, waits and watches silently, while his ultimate victim, Marquez assists the others. The combination and succession of the different framings, camera movements, and lighting situations must be seen to be appreciated, culminating in the beautiful shot of the switching on of a truck’s lights.
Now the specificity of frustration is realized. Rather than the metaphoric city of stasis Porvenir, now a chain of incidents engage the spectator in the plight of the four men. Though their numbers are reduced until only Scanlon remains, each obstacle is overcome: the two bridges, the tree, delirium. The careful character construction pays off as the interactions resonate under the weight of each crisis. Manzon assumes a take-charge attitude, Scanlon grubby greed and exasperation, Nilo both calm and cowardice, and Kasem angry determination. The tests-of-wills between each one is the very essence and evolution of the journey, the dictation of its form, and a response to its content. Ingenuity destroys the tree, but once it is gone, they relax, and Manzon begins to reminisce. Just as earlier Scanlon’s contemplation of happier moments precedes problems, so Manzon is doomed. Sex is Friedkin’s shorthand for communion, relaxation of the will, and peace, leading inevitably in this severe film to slip-ups. Existence is relentless and impatient. As he speaks of Paris, their tire is shot out, and Manzon and Kassem are killed. They are not “just” anything, despite the efforts of life to confine them.
The cliff-hanger ending is well-prepared for. The town’s cops are there in the cafe, and we know from a previous scene that they want part of Scanlon’s reward. The plane overhead, we soon discover, carries the hood and Scanlon’s betraying friend. Corlette gives Jackie the letter Manzon gave him, but once again the fate of the letter is questionable, as “April in Paris” begins to play, and Scanlon (in an Asphalt Jungle- inspired moment) begins to dance with the old woman. If only he had left immediately… Again, like the sex talk between Nilo and Scanlon, and the Coke ad (where the segmentation of the ad into three shots builds up the gag of the Coke bottle in the model’s hand), the desire for warmth and solitude lead to trouble. Just as the pretty girl holds a Coke, just as Porvenir hides violence, and a wedding ceremony hides oppression, so does the seed of sentimentality spawn self-destruction. The plane that before had represented freedom, now brings potential death. It would have been vulgar of Friedkin to show the climax that seems inevitable. Instead the camera pulls back from an explosive situation. The continuation of life’s struggle is suggested. The ending does not so much doom Scanlon as pause before another crisis. After all, just as he was the single hood to escape the car accident, and the only one of the four drivers to survive, he may once again prevail. We know that, if he does, he may never rest again.
Cinemonkey, Winter 1979
* * *
ROAD TO PERDITION
Forty years after the release of the masterful ‘Sorcerer’, William Friedkin’s blistering remake of The Wages of Fear, about a group of men driving a cargo of explosives across perilous terrain, the director reminisces about how a brutal shoot gave way to an equally brutal critical reception
by Mark Kermode
After the global successes of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), director William Friedkin mounted the riskiest film of his career – an adaptation of Henri- Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic The Wages of Fear. Based on a novel by Georges Arnaud (aka Henri Girard), Clouzot’s film followed four disparate Europeans, variously stranded in South America, who agree to drive two truckloads of volatile nitroglycerin over treacherous terrain for financial reward. A critical hit which inspired such lesser American knock-offs as Howard Koch’s 1958 Violent Road, The Wages of Fear seemed ripe for contemporary reinvention in the strife-riven mid-7os.
With The Wild Bunch screenwriter Walon ‘Wally’ Green, Friedkin recast the key characters as a Mexican hitman (Francisco Rabal), an Arab terrorist (Amidou), a French businessman (Bruno Cremer) and an American gangster (Roy Scheider). Requiring two studios – Universal and Paramount – to cover its expanding budget, Sorcerer (1977) was a gruelling masterpiece. Yet the results proved fatally out of step with audiences flocking to see Star Wars. A critical and commercial failure when it opened 40 years ago, the film has since been reassessed, and is now considered an overlooked gem; the author Stephen King recently called it his favourite film of all time. Unveiled in a new 4K transfer at the Venice Film Festival in 2013, Sorcerer has been rediscovered in cinemas and on Blu-ray by a new generation of fans astonished by its grinding, visceral power.
Mark Kermode: After The Exorcist, you could have done anything. Why did you opt for a remake of The Wages of Fear?
William Friedkin: Wally Green and I used to work together at Wolper doing documentaries for the ABC network. We were talking about the world situation; that if there was no way for world leaders to get together, we were probably going to be the generation that blows up. And we started talking about The Wages of Fear.
Kermode: The Clouzot film or the source novel?
Friedkin: Oh, the film. There was no English translation of the novel. But we both remembered and loved the film from 1953. It had not been widely seen in America. It had played in arthouses, with subtitles. We thought it was a great film that perfectly captured this notion of the separate countries of the world either co-operating or dying together. So we took that premise and ran with it. Then Wally, who spoke five or six languages fluently, got the novel. It wasn’t great – it was good pulp, which often makes the best movies. We decided to create our own characters, different from the ones in Arnaud’s book and Clouzot’s film.
Then I went to France to do some press for The Exorcist, and I met up with Clouzot. I told him I was interested in taking the premise of The Wages of Fear. He didn’t seem very happy about it – understandably so – but he wasn’t against it. But it turned out he didn’t have the rights to it anyway — they were with Arnaud, who hated Clouzot’s film. He was crazy — a very ornery old guy. He hated my film too! Anyway, we bought the rights from him for very little money, and we set out to make it in our own way.
Kermode: You originally had Steve McQueen in mind for the lead. What happened?
Friedkin: I talked to Steve about the film, and sent him Wally’s script. Two days later he called and said, “This is the best script I’ve ever read.” Then he said, “I’ve got a favour to ask. I just married Ali MacGraw and you’re gonna be off in some jungle for six months. Would you consider writing a role for her?” I said, “Steve, you just told me it’s the best script you’ve ever read. There are no women in it. There’s a very small part for a French woman, but it’s not a part for Ali.” So he said, “All right, make her an executive producer, or an associate producer.” Back then, I was really an arrogant punk. If Steve McQueen had asked me that today, I would have immediately agreed. But I said, “Steve, that’s a bullshit credit. Don’t you have more respect for your wife than to give her some bullshit credit? I’m not gonna do that.” And he said, “All right, then find locations where you can shoot it in the US.” I just said, “Steve, I’m very happy with the locations I have.” I was just an arrogant moron. So he said that under those conditions he couldn’t do the film. Now, with McQueen I had commitments from Marcello Mastroianni and Lino Ventura. But when I got Roy Scheider instead of McQueen, neither Mastroianni nor Ventura would take second billing.
Kermode: Do you think having Scheider rather than McQueen was one of the reasons the film failed to find an audience?
Friedkin: Scheider was great, but he was not a huge star like McQueen. He certainly scored in The French Connection, and he had done Jaws (1975), but he wasn’t in a place where he could just take the audience with him. I think he’s brilliant in the film. But he was not a movie star. And in those days you needed a movie star.
Kermode: The shoot of Sorcerer was famously grueling. What was the most difficult thing about it?
Friedkin: Almost everything that physically could go wrong did go wrong. We built this bridge, which was hydraulically operated, that looked like a rickety old wooden bridge. We built it in the Dominican Republic over a rushing river that was about six feet high, and which had never gone down during the months that we were going to shoot. So we built the bridge over this river, at a cost of a million dollars, because it was going to be the big set piece of the film. And gradually the river went down and down and down, until there was less than a foot of water flowing through it. Impossible. We had weather experts and all kinds of meteorologists telling us, “This is impossible! This can’t happen!” But it happened.
So [production designer] John Box found a similar location near Tuxtepec, in Mexico. They had totally similar topography, about the same-sized rushing river, that again had not diminished in living memory. So we took the bridge out of the Dominican Republic, broke it into pieces, and shipped it all the way to Mexico. Then we rebuilt it over this vast rushing river… which proceeded to go down and down and down.
In the mornings you had this overcast, perfect even light, but then at about noon the sun would come out and burn everything off. Every day. So like when we were shooting in Iraq for The Exorcist, we had to shoot a split schedule. Sometimes, in order to disguise the sky, we had to make it rain. I wasn’t planning to do the bridge scene in the rain — I thought the bridge swinging over a fast-moving river was enough. But now we’re getting tips of sunlight everywhere, so we had to bring in these rain-making machines. Then people began to get sick. People got gangrene. I got malaria.
We had these Mexican labourers who built the bridge, 20 or 30 of them. I was very friendly with them. There was one guy in particular I liked very much. And one day he whipped out a Federales badge. He was an undercover cop. He said, “Senor Bill, you have people on your crew who are doing drugs. You’re a very nice man and I like you, otherwise I would arrest all of these people. But I like you, so I’m not going to arrest them, but they have to leave this country tomorrow.” This included stunt men, key grips, make-up artists, special effects guys. So I lost about 20 members of the crew. Those were just a couple of the problems I can remember.
Kermode: How long did you end up shooting for?
Friedkin: Oh God, I think it was like ten months, maybe more.
Kermode: And when you were shooting it, did you think, ‘This is tough, but the results are really good’?
Friedkin: I thought it was all great! But when we were in the jungle we couldn’t see the footage, there was no way to get the dailies. Dick Bush, the great British cinematographer who did Mahler  and Tommy  for Ken Russell, had shot all this wonderful footage in Paris; Jerusalem; Elizabeth, New Jersey; and a little in Vera Cruz. But when he got to the jungle, Dick was lost because the light in the jungle constantly changes. And Dick just couldn’t manage it. He couldn’t find places to put lights and he wasn’t skilled at using reflectors. In the end I brought in John Stephens, who was a commercials camera operator, and who was wonderful at building rigs for the camera. He and I had worked together on documentaries at Wolper along with Wally, and he did all the jungle stuff.
Kermode: Tell me about Tangerine Dream’s music.
Friedkin: I met them in Germany when I was on tour for The Exorcist. The local Warner Brothers guy took me to an abandoned church in the Black Forest at midnight. There were no lights except the lights from their electronic instruments. You couldn’t see the musicians. They started to play what sounded like the music of the spheres, and I thought it was extraordinary. Synths were a very new thing then — they were popularised later by Giorgio Moroder, who scored Midnight Express  for Alan Parker.
Anyway, I met with [band leader and founder] Edgar Froese and I told him that this stuff was great, and although I didn’t know what my next film was going to be, I wanted them to do the music. Later I sent him Wally’s script and we spoke on the phone. I asked him to write some music based on our conversation. Months later, a package of audio tapes arrives in Tuxtepec. It was terrific. I immediately saw how to cherry-pick what they had recorded, and use it in the film.
Kermode: Where did the title Sorcerer come from?
Friedkin: I originally wanted to call the film ‘Ballbreaker’ – that was the first title. And [Universal boss] Lew Wasserman said, “Absolutely no way.” Then I thought of calling it ‘No Mari s Land’, but as you know Harold Pinter wrote a play with that same title. So I was listening to an album by Miles Davis called Sorcerer and I just thought the word was powerful. It later occurred to me that the sorcerer was an evil wizard, and in this case the evil wizard was fate. The Exorcist was about faith, and this was about fate – in the lives of four different guys who really screwed up.
Kermode: ‘Sorcerer’ is also a name painted on one of the trucks.
Friedkin: Yeah, we named the trucks Sorcerer and Lazaro. When I went to Ecuador, I saw these trucks painted that way, and the drivers all gave their trucks names. So a truck would be called Lucia, after the guy’s girlfriend, or some would have more cosmic names.
Kermode: What about the face that you briefly see carved on the rock as the trucks go past? It’s demonic, like the face of Pazuzu in The Exorcist.
Friedkin: John Box had the idea of putting that on a rock as a kind of warning or harbinger of what is to come – the mystery of fate in some guise. Our art director Roy Walker carved that. He went on to be Kubrick’s production designer on The Shining .
Kermode: After all this effort, at what point did you realise that Sorcerer was in trouble?
Friedkin: I lived in Bel Air, and I would walk every morning down this long driveway and read the papers. There was a great film critic for the Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin, who had always given my films rave reviews. So I went and got the paper the day after Sorcerer opened in two theatres in LA, and two in NY. So I’m walking back up the hill, and I open the page to his review, and it begins: “What went wrong?” And the rest was devastating. That’s when I knew. And then the audiences dwindled, and Star Wars opened and took the whole audience – that was the only film that you had to see that year.
Kermode: Did it hurt?
Friedkin: Well, I was extremely disappointed, because I honestly thought this was the best film I had ever made, and I still feel that way. So I felt bad that I didn’t get it over to the audience. I didn’t feel like something horrible had been done to me. I just thought I had failed. I absolutely felt that whatever I did that I thought was so brilliant just didn’t work. I thought I had let the audience down, and I just couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong.
Kermode: When did the film’s change of fortunes begin?
Friedkin: There was a guy at Warner Video called Jeff Baker, and one day he said to me, “Whatever happened to that picture you made – Sorcerer?” I said I didn’t even know who owned it any more. So I got my lawyer to get into it, and they found out that the rights were no longer split – Universal’s rights had expired, and Paramount controlled it. So Paramount made a deal with Warner Brothers to release it. When the DVD came out, it was a huge hit – same with the Blu-ray. So then they started to think that maybe there was life in it. And then we made a DCP [digital cinema package], and it started getting some theatrical plays.
Kermode: Do you think there’s anything about the times we’re in now that makes Sorcerer more relevant than it was in 1977?
Friedkin: Well, the world situation is much worse today that it was then. But I’m not sure people want to be reminded of that. I don’t want people to look for the metaphor, even though that was something that motivated me. Only the story matters. I thought it was a damn good action adventure that was ‘acoustic’; it’s not made with digital effects. Everything you see in the film, we had to do! As in The Exorcist. I just think it’s a wonderful story.
Sight&Sound, December 2017
* * *
KEEP ON TRUCKING
With tense-as-hell men-on-a mission movie Sorcerer turning 40, director William Friedkin talks us through its equally nerve-racking creation
by Nick De Semlyen
William Friedkin spent the 1970s putting himself through the wringer. For the iconic car chase in The French Connection, he filmed a stunt driver tearing down real streets at 90 miles per hour, without a permit, a daredevil decision that could have backfired badly. The shoot for The Exorcist was so troubled that rumours spread it had been cursed by Satan himself. But rather than following those projects with a romantic comedy set in the south of France, Friedkin decided to embark on his most ambitious and uncomfortable adventure yet.
A very loose re-imagining of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French classic The Wages Of Fear, 1977’s Sorcerer would take Friedkin, cast and crew into the jungles of the Dominican Republic and Veracruz, Mexico, for a fraught shoot beset by illness, angry locals and mass firings.
In his 2013 memoir, Friedkin sums up his tale of four men trucking an unstable cargo of nitroglycerin across remote terrain as “the most difficult, frustrating and dangerous film I’ve ever made”. Still, it had a happy ending — after flopping on release, it has experienced a critical re-evaluation and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of action cinema. We spoke to the legendary director about the experience, and the surprising link between Sorcerer and Brexit.
You probably already know this, but Stephen King recently released a list of his favourite films and Sorcerer was at number one.
I had heard that from the BFI. Stephen King is a guy who really tries to keep in touch with the culture and the Zeitgeist. For him to say that about Sorcerer is a tremendous compliment from a guy who tills the same soil. I take it as a high mark.
You say in your book that you felt “bulletproof” as you started making Sorcerer. You’d just had two giant hits with The French Connection and The Exorcist. Were you feeling very confident?
Yes. To give you a simple, short answer.
At the time it under-performed. Given you had been feeling so confident, how did it feel when that happened?
You can answer that yourself. You don’t need me to give you a quote. You’ve obviously done tremendous research, which I appreciate, but if you wrote something that was not received well, how would that make you feel? I know a number of filmmakers who have stopped when they did not have a success that they thought was going to be a success. But I went on and tried to make other films.
What was it about that story that hooked you?
Oh, everything. It had the potential for tremendous suspense. I decided to do it with four characters that were not necessarily likeable heroes. They were all anti-heroes, which was kind of a gamble at that time and would be more so now. Because what audiences mostly expect from a thriller are heroes and villains. And the heroes went out. I saw it in a much more realistic way. I also saw this story as kind of a metaphor for the world situation, which again is more prevalent today. A group of strangers who don’t like each other who have to co-operate or they will explode. They’ll blow up. That metaphor really stuck with me.
I thought it was relevant in the ’70s, because of the Vietnam War, and even much more so today. I don’t know how much of the relevance of that metaphor is responsible for the continuation of the film. But audiences tend to sense something beneath the surface of a film, if there is anything beneath the surface. And that’s what beneath the surface of Sorcerer.
Is it true you toyed with calling the film Ballbreaker?
That was my original title. And the head of Universal said, “Absolutely no way.” And then I was going to call it No Man’s Land. I was in touch with Harold Pinter and he was writing a play which he subsequently produced before my film came out called No Man’s Land. And so those were the two titles I was going to call it.
You can’t copyright a title, but I wouldn’t call it No Man’s Land out of deference to Pinter. Universal was not going to go for Ballbreaker.
But that’s what the movie is, you know.
There’s a story that you met with the studio in post-production, and they suggested shooting inserts of the mileometers, to which you said, “I don’t shoot inserts.” You then said you’d need to get the actors back and go back on location so you could do it with wideshots. That’s true to some extent. But that was the one good suggestion I thought that they had.
I had not shown, in the cut that I showed them, the distances that had been travelled. And at the famous luncheon that I had with the head of Paramount and the head of Universal, most of their suggestions were stupid, but that one I thought was good. And I did go back and shoot inserts of the mileage travelled. But frankly I had no respect for those guys and wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what they suggested. Except for that. I took two guys to the meeting — Bud Smith, my film editor, and Wally Green, who wrote the screenplay for Sorcerer — and told them that the suggestions we were going to hear were largely things that we would probably want to ignore.
Do you recall any of the other suggestions from the studio?
Sid Sheinberg, who was the head of Universal, said, “Jeez, we’re going to have trouble putting out a poster on this picture, because you’ve got all of these foreign names.” Referring to some of the actors in the film such as Francisco Rabal and Bruno Cremer and Amidou. And I remember saying to him, “Well, if you want, I’ll ask these guys if they want to change their names. How much money do you want to pay them to change their names so you can put English-sounding names on the poster?” That I remember. I went into that meeting without great respect for their creative input.
The shoot was entirely outside of the United States. You headed to the Dominican Republic…
Well, the bridge was filmed in Veracruz, Mexico. But the village and certain other sequences were filmed in the Dominican Republic, yes. You could do some of it today in a studio, with a massive amount of computer-generated images. But we didn’t have that in those days.
If you wanted to film in a jungle extensively, as I did, you had to shoot in a jungle. You don’t think about the difficulty. You have a plan and you try to execute that plan. The best-laid plans of mice and men, you know, often go awry.
The rope-bridge sequence is the film’s big showstopper. Is it one of the toughest sequences of your career?
Oh, it was the most difficult sequence I’ve ever tried to film. It was absolutely life-threatening and I wouldn’t do something like that again today. It was slow and painstaking, because it was life-threatening. On a number of occasions the truck fell over into the water and we had to fish it out. Often with people in it. I was in it once when it went over. I was inside filming with a handheld camera. Almost all of it, every time you see one of the actors in the truck, they are driving the truck. It’s only in the long-shot sequences that there’s a stuntman for one of the two drivers. But I was in it on one occasion with Bruno Cremer, who was driving one of the trucks, and it went over. It was not pleasant. But the actors were extraordinary. And the fear that they show, and the caution that they show, is real. It’s a kind of acting that you did not have to impose. And I was very conscious of that. I made the experience real for these guys. They knew I was doing that and they were up to the challenge, as was the crew. But I can’t tell you that it was completely safe. We thought it was going to be alright, but there were many unforeseen problems and accidents. Fortunately no-one was ever seriously injured. Nobody lost their lives. About 50 people got sick, though, with gangrene and other things, and had to go home. When I came home I had contracted malaria.
I had malaria for a few months and had to take a series of medications. It wasn’t originally diagnosed properly because my doctors had never seen malaria.
You spoke to Steve McQueen about playing the lead, but that didn’t work out. Why did you ultimately go with Roy Scheider?
I had a great experience with Roy on The French Connection. He was pitch-perfect, he never blew a take, he had a terrific screen presence. And when I cast him in that, he’d only done one other film that I was aware of, Klute, which hadn’t even come out at the time. I cast him when I met him. Then, when I couldn’t get McQueen, I started to think of Roy for that because he had achieved terrific success with another action movie, Jaws, and I loved working with him again. But my first choice was McQueen. I do think that Roy is terrific in the film. When I think of all that is involved in that performance, I think that he probably is a better choice, though he was not a big movie star. At that time it helped to have big movie stars. Today it doesn’t mean a damn thing.
The four lead characters in Sorcerer are not only flawed but completely desperate.
Yes. It really is about that as well. What people will do when their backs are against the wall. And the will to survive — that’s another obvious theme of the film. Whether you like these guys, they are desperate to survive — as are we all in some way. We’re not all driving a truck across a rope-bridge. But allegorically, we are. The grander theme of Sorcerer is that. Whether you take that as disease or family problems or things that come out of nowhere like hurricanes and earthquakes and fires, that as we speak are making us think about the apocalypse again. You know what’s going on in the world. It’s hard to understand for a lot of people, but not for you, because you have the Brexit! At the moment, Brexit is the UK’s rope-bridge to cross.
The ending of the film is fascinating. You don’t know what happens to Scheider’s character, although it doesn’t look good.
I like that, you see. A lot of the films I’ve made, I leave the meaning of the ending to the audience. As a viewer I don’t want to be dictated to about what this all means. If there is a common theme in most of the films I’ve made, it’s the thin line between good and evil. Especially in Sorcerer. Does he survive? Does he not survive? It’s really what the viewer brings to it. And that’s what I strive for.
Empire, January 2018