‘Sorcerer’ or — Shall I Compare Thee to An Exploding Truck?

So last night’s viewing was William Friedkin’s 1977 ‘Sorcerer’, a fantastic film with only one tiny, minor problem for me.

To begin with this is, possibly, the most William Friedkin-y William Friedkin film I’ve seen as from the get go all his trademarks are there from his other movies. The film opens, like ‘The French Connection’, with a hitman taking someone out before cutting to intrigue in Jerusalem giving echoes of ‘The Exorcist’ as old meets new, an ancient locale adding variation to the start of the movie. And all this is played out in Friedkin’s beloved “induced documentary” style. Then there’s the obsessive attention to procedural and mechanical detail that we would later see to full effect in ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ It’s all pretty cool.

And it works (with one problem but we’ll get to that later) with some scenes really capturing that energy of Friedkin’s often quoted touchstone — ‘The Battle of Algiers’. The scene where the bodies of the burnt oil-workers are brought back to their village is a great example of this kinetic chaos.

Then there’s the imagery, some of which must rank as the most beautiful and impressive I’ve seen in a Friedkin movie; the camera, at one point, flying over lush, green tree-tops before whirling past an ancient rock formation to then reveal an immense pillar of red-fire roaring in the jungle. It’s breath-taking stuff.

So what was my one little problem? Part of me, as the film went on, started thinking “This is no ‘Wages of Fear’” Yep, I struggled with it at times and it was purely down to comparison to Clouzot’s original. I know, I know! I tried not to compare them but ‘Sorcerer’ almost intentionally invites it at times. I had also heard that Friedkin had stated emphatically that his film was not a re-make of ‘Wages’ but if that’s the case Billy Boy then why the shot of the plane flying over the village (done twice incidentally) or this bit or that bit? Oh and that part there?

This wasn’t an issue for me at first as ‘Sorcerer’ goes deliberately out of its way to differentiate itself to Clouzot’s work. We see each of the four protagonist’s lives in different cities around the world, how those lives fall apart and how they end up in a village in the middle of nowhere. There’s practically no dialogue and with some really great editing the tone of the movie feels completely its own. “This is looking different and interesting so far” I thought to myself.

But then, like sweat from a stick of TNT, the problems slowly started leaking out. As the trucks embark on their journey ‘Sorcerer’ can’t help but come up against the same plot points as ‘Wages of Fear’ and, for me, was found a little lacking.

The syntax of tension is utterly different in both films. With Clouzot you can see his great clock-work machine’s cogs and pieces turning and fitting together, each little device carefully placed by a meticulous master craftsman. Whereas with Friedkin it seems more about the overwhelming spectacle, the battling of the elements as opposed to escaping a magician’s trick. Both work and are valid but, for me, it is Clouzot who gets to really ratchet up the suspense to unbearable levels. (Having said that ‘Sorcerer’s suspension bridge sequence is, well, suspenseful and spectacular to the point of “How did they do that?!” level of impressiveness.)

Also, ‘Sorcerer’ is a full half an hour shorter than ‘Wages’ and with all the added stuff at the beginning the film feels almost rushed at times. I actually could have done with another 25 minutes or so.

Gone, also, is the sense of a trip into (a symbolic) Hell, maybe something Friedkin wanted to avoid any hint of after making ‘The Exorcist’. It’s more of a delirious dreamscape our characters finally enter — effective, but not quite as striking. Plus, ‘Wages’ almost baptismal drowning in oil is a great image of not only men plunged into the absolute depths but also a fantastic comment on the ravages of the American oil industry on developing nations. Everything these companies touch turns to death. There isn’t so much of that in ‘Sorcerer’ or that overriding feeling of exploitation. There are a few nods to the issue sure and it is there, but these are brief and don’t feel as baked into the bones of the movie.

There is also very little dialogue. Whereas with ‘Wages’ we really got into the skin of our doomed drivers, with ‘Sorcerer’ we don’t really get to know any of the characters as rather than bicker and quarrel with each other, and revealing themselves to us, they silently give one another semi-knowing looks. Gone is almost any interplay between the actors and hence, tension or investment. I can understand why this movie bombed on release and it wasn’t to do with Star wars. The film actively keeps the audience at a distance regarding the characters at times. This silent movie approach also means that, ironically, it is Clouzot’s film with its almost pre-Speilbergian style that feels more modern and contemporary than Friedkin’s.

Friedkin’s South American village is filthy. He nails the fact that this is one of the grimmest places you could end up. But what it lacks is the sense of time having been completely suspended that Clouzot achieved, that endless purgatory that can drive a man to murder. ‘Sorcerer’ has the filth but lacks the ennui.

But I’ll admit — it was me who fucked up. I think I made a mistake. I think I shouldn’t have watched ‘Sorcerer’ a mere two weeks after seeing ‘Wages of Fear’ for the first time. I should have left more time to experience the film on its own terms. It just didn’t blow me away as much as I hoped but maybe that is a problem with the film. In Clouzot’s the trucks are pretty packed with nitro, whereas Friedkin’s trucks have only three boxes each. Is this more realistic? Maybe. I’m not a demolitions expert. But in terms of looking cool in a movie I want those trucks positively heaving with explosives.

I’m being overly harsh on ‘Sorcerer’ and if you haven’t seen ‘Wages of Fear’ then these issues won’t be a problem. But then again, if you haven’t seen ‘Wages of Fear’ skip ‘Sorcerer’ and go and watch that instead.

‘Sorcerer’ is a good film, very good, and I am most certainly going to re-visit it and think it might grow on me, but if I was a film reviewer back in 1977 and had just come out of the premiere I could imagine going back to my Manhattan apartment overlooking the city’s skyline and written a scathing article titled ‘Friedkin’s Unforgivable Desecration of a Masterpiece’.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.