Sorcerer (1977) Review
Sorcerer (1977) Review
Exiled from their home nations, four strangers from separate corners of the earth agree to undertake a dangerous mission to transport unstable dynamite through the hot, dense jungle of South America in order to earn their passage home. When the slightest bump in the road could equal instant death, the real question is not whether these men will survive this nerve-shredding ordeal but who will they have become if they return at all?
Prior to receiving Sorcerer ito review I had incorrectly assumed that I had seen the film before. I had it confused with an earlier film, also based on the 1950 book Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud, The Wages of Fear (1953). I never really took to the film. I found it a chore to sit through. I think I actually fell asleep. The exact opposite happened with Sorcerer. I was hooked from the start and remained glued to my seat throughout. Sorcerer is a tense, thrilling ride, the sort of which is sadly lacking on the big screen of late.
The score by electro pioneers Tangerine Dream, their first for a Hollywood film. is one of their best, feeling less generic than the later soundtracks that they contributed to the Eighties cinema landscape. After seeing the band in concert Friedkin considered them to be on the cutting edge of electronic synthesizer sound and offered them the job to score his film. Tangerine Dream wrote the score after reading a draft of the script and without seeing any footage.
Friedkin wanted his film devoid of any sentiment or melodrama – something that had the film been made today would have milked for all its worth – and it’s all the better for it. Sorcerer has no clear-cut heroes or villains, just people, they are all bad people but you root for them anyway. This is a film that, for the most part, doesn’t need dialogue and for two key sequences pretty much does just that.
Director William Friedkin was on a roll having previously enjoyed critical and financial success with both The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). However Sorcerer met with a dismal response from the critics and this followed at the box-office where Friedkin’s film suffered in the wake of the release of a little film called Star Wars (1977). This failure marked the start of a career decline for the director, his later Cruising (1980) again bombed, and it’s fair to say that he never really found his form again.
Originally conceived as a side-project to Friedkin’s planned major film The Devil’s Triangle, a sequel to The Exorcist, the film was originally budgeted at just $2.5million. However when plans for The Devil’s Triangle stalled Friedkin put everything he had into making Sorcerer his masterpiece. Sorcerer’s production cost was significantly increased to $22million partly because of the difficulties the production had filming on location mainly in the Dominican Republic.
From an estimated budget of US$22million Sorcerer grossed just US$9million worldwide. Both critics and Friedkin were of the opinion that the film’s financial failure was down to its being released in the wake of Lucas’ original Star Wars which effectively redefined the cinematic landscape. Sorcerer was later re-assessed by critics who now state that the film is actually a masterpiece rather than the failure they labelled it at the time of release.
Friedkin says that the film’s title was “an intentional but ill-advised reference to The Exorcist” – very ill-advised as paying punters thought that they were getting something of a supernatural leaning, causing some patrons to walk-outs. This led to distributors adjusting advertisements to advise punters that this was not a film about the supernatural.
That wasn’t the only confusion audiences had with Sorcerer. Given that the film’s first sixteen minutes contains no English dialogue some viewers assumed incorrectly that they were watching a foreign language film and would walk out. To counteract this lobby cards were printed with the following disclaimer ‘YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE. To dramatize the diverse backgrounds of the principal characters in ‘Sorcerer’, two of the opening sequences were filmed in the appropriate foreign languages – with sub-titles in English. Other than these opening scenes, ‘Sorcerer’ is an English language film’. It didn’t work.
It has also been reasoned that what lay behind the harsh response from critics, at the time, was that they too were confused about what they were seeing, or perhaps took offence that Friedkin was remaking a French classic. Ironically The Wages of Fear, once considered the better of the two, is now looked at as the lesser paling in comparison to Friedkin’s superior picture and I would concur. Maybe it was just Friedkin’s time to take a critical pasting – after all no one likes people being successful. Perhaps they felt it was time to knock him down a peg or two.
Along with the similar failures that befell Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Scorsese’s New York, New York and Coppola’s One From the Heart, Sorcerer was jointly responsible for ending the auteur approach to American cinema that had dominated the 1970s. Intellectual cinema had died at the feet of Star Wars and the rise of the summer blockbuster. Tough, rough and uncompromising material that excelled in creating decent adult cinema was dead in the water unable to compete with the quick-fixes that passes for entertainment from the mid-to-late Seventies.
Rather encouragingly this summer saw notable stand-a-lone successes, such as Dunkirk and Baby Driver, send out a signal to the studios that perhaps not everything needs to be a franchise in order to bring in the bucks. Perhaps too there will be a return towards the unique experience that films and cinema once offered in spades – especially for most of the Seventies. There’s always room for disposable entertainment but let’s have a return to the more cerebral too.