This month’s review is a guilty pleasure. Like a large chocolate fudge sundae. But more violent. If you considered movies such as Alien, The Terminator, and Predator to be mere juvenile mayhem, stop reading this review now. If you considered them juvenile mayhem, and still had a good time, stay with me. When William Friedkin’s Sorcerer was first released in 1977, probably the nicest thing anyone said about it was that it was merely juvenile. I mean, the critics even hated the title. Had they been able to send Friedkin to bed without supper for a month, they probably would have. And the public was no kinder. Many of them were also confused by the title. They thought they were going to a sequel to Friedkin’s The Exorcist, the projectile vomiting horror-rama that had shell-shocked audiences 4 years earlier. They went into Sorcerer expecting demons & priests battling it out for human souls, and they got …..trucks. Two trucks. Really old trucks. Jury-rigged out of parts from scrap heaps. Looking about as good as the Crawford Bay school cat after a haircut. Two trucks and four drivers. Four drivers willing to do anything to escape a nameless piece of hell somewhere in the remotest jungles of Central America. The four: a professional hitman (Francisco Rabal), a small-time American hood (Roy Scheider), a young Arab terrorist (Amidou), and a once-wealthy French industrialist (Bruno Kramer).
Two trucks, four drivers …..and a cargo of 6 cases of TNT and liquid nitroglycerin.
Oops. Forgot something. That’s 2 trucks, 4 drivers, 6 cases of nitro…..and 218 miles of BAAAD jungle road. One might be tempted to consider all of these ingredients as adding up to a great recipe for serious mayhem. Absolutely right.
Not that I’m a sucker for just any kind of mayhem. Although I’ve easily rationalized my appetite for generally mindless action movies as the result of a warped childhood (I had a G.I. Joe doll, a life-sized plastic M-16, and a bunch of toy soldiers), I’ve just as easily forgotten most of those movies as soon as I’ve popped the tape out of the machine or walked out of the cinema. Sorcerer was a rare exception. Images and scenes from this film have lingered with me since I first saw it some 12 years ago. I doubt I’ll ever forget that business on the rope bridge.
Friedkin took a classic adventure story, slammed it into high gear, and overlaid it with an aura of sheer spookiness. It’s the spookiness I always remembered. Maybe that’s why he chose the title he did. The old trucks, backlit with engines grinding, look and sound like wounded carnivores on loan from the Jurassic. The Mussolini-like profile of the latest dictator stares out like Big Brother from posters plastered on the walls of the nameless behavioral sink the central characters are trapped in. This is the Latin America of the Disappeared, the Death Squads. Of Corruption and Cockroaches Triumphant.
And the Jungle, with its birds of prey wheeling overhead and its grim Mayan/Aztec/Toltec stone gods staring though the undergrowth, is a vast alien entity unrelentingly hostile to outsiders.
The eeriness is amplified via some strange geography and a musical score created & performed by the German band Tangerine Dream (“the somber, meditative end of the pioneering German electronic space-rock void”—Rolling Stone Album Guide). The sound pulses throughout the film like a heartbeat and a curse. Toss in Keith Jarrett’s “Spheres (Movement 3)” and Charlie Parker’s “I Remember April” and the brew gets even stranger.
Sorcerer never loses the steamroller urgency it builds up in the opening scenes, which slam through Vera Cruz, Jerusalem, Paris, and New Jersey. It’s a real tribute to Friedkin’s skill that you still wind up caring for the four main characters after what you first see those scumbags do. We’re all suckers when it comes to empathy. Make the situation bad enough, stack the odds up high enough, and we start feeling sorry for the devil himself.
A lot of critics hated Sorcerer because it was a Hollywood remake of a classic French film: Le Salaire de la Peur (Wages of Fear) (1952), directed by Henri Clouzot. Although in his lifetime Clouzot was the target of attacks more bitter than anything Friedkin faced over the Sorcerer debacle, it is a given of the movie review business that Hollywood remakes of classic French films always stink. For all you Star Trek fans out there, this is the critics’ equivalent to one of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. And 95% of the time it’s correct. I didn’t projectile vomit when I saw what was done to Three Men and a Baby (originally Trois Homines et un couffin), but it was a near thing. Sorcerer is a five-percenter. It is dedicated to Clouzot’s memory, does him justice. It was a great story when Clouzot adapted it from George Arnaud’s novel; it’s still a great story when Friedkin updates it to fit a Central America that became a killing ground in the closing decades of this century.
I’ll even tell you how the movie ends.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I’m just going to crib what I wrote in this section for Andrey Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train: Yeah, still kicks serious ass. ‘Nuff said.
By a happy coincidence, Gabriel Bell just posted a review of Sorcerer on Salon.com: “The brilliant film ‘Star Wars’ wiped from our collective memory.” It’s here: