May 2, 2012

SORCERER: Do NOT See This Movie

Starring Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou. Directed by William Friedkin. (1977, 121 min)

You shouldn’t see Sorcerer.

This is one of those movies hardly anyone I know has ever seen, and the few who have really hated it. I can actually understand why. It's long, slow moving and has very little action until the third act. There are long stretches with little or no dialogue, and most of the first twenty minutes are presented with subtitles. The film is ugly, grimy, humorless, sometimes depressing and doesn't end happily. No handsome actors, no major stars, no quotable lines. None of the main characters are particularly likeable. And most damning of all, the title has nothing to do with the story. There isn’t a wizard, warlock or Sith Lord to be seen.

But for some reason, I love this film. I've loved it ever since I snuck in to see it at the Southgate in middle school, when it was the bottom half of a double bill. Me and my best friend chose it simply because we'd already seen everything else playing there. Greg got bored quickly, and couldn't understand why I'd want to sit through something so confusing and dull when greatest arcade game ever, Space Invaders (this was 1978) beckoned from the lobby. Greg took off to throw away what was left of his allowance; I stayed until the end, totally fascinated.

You gotta remember I was 14 at the time, and kids like me were supposed to be getting off on stuff like Star Wars, Close Encounters and Superman. While I liked all of those movies very much, Sorcerer held a special fascination for me...and apparently me alone. You know how kids sometimes get together to talk about great movies they watched, either because they were the first to see it or to confirm with their buddies how awesome it was? Whenever I brought up Sorcerer, I'd be met with blank stares and comments like, "What's that?" or "Never heard of it" or "What's a sorcerer?" (regarding that last question, I didn’t know what a sorcerer was either...but, man, what a bitchin’ title!)

I'd occasionally try to explain: "It's about these bad guys from different parts of the world who are hired to drive these old trucks 200 miles through the jungle while carrying crates of nitro-glycerin so they can put out a fire, but they gotta drive really, really slow or else they‘ll blow up!”

More blank stares. Sometimes someone would ask, “Why don’t they just fly it there?” I’d try to tell them the nitro is so unstable that the turbulence created by a helicopter makes it impossible. Another kid said, "Then they shoulda just used fresh dynamite." I wanted to punch him because I hate when people point-out massive plot holes in my favorite movies.

Aside from fielding the occasional question, “What’s turbulence?” my 14-year-old summary was enough to confirm this was a movie they’d never watch. Despite its PG rating, Sorcerer was never intended to be adolescent entertainment, and I guess the fact that I found it as cool as Star Wars must have seemed a little weird to them.

I didn’t see the movie again for another 20 years or so. It was eventually released on DVD in 1998, and I snatched it up the second I saw it on the shelf. I hadn’t seen it since I was 14 and hoped it was as good as I remembered. But if not, it would be a fun nostalgia trip. But unlike movies I loved as a kid that became stupider with age (Heavy Metal, Grizzly, Smokey and the Bandit, Halloween and almost every 'soundtrack' movie Paramount released in the 80s), I fell in love with Sorcerer all over again. It was just as suspenseful, hypnotic and exciting as I remembered it 20 years earlier. And even aesthetically, it has aged remarkably well.

I still have trouble explaining to others why I think the movie is so great. Ever since landing it into my movie collection, I pop Sorcerer into my DVD player at least once a year. On more than one occasion my wife has asked, “Why the hell do you like this movie, anyway? It's depressing.” I’d sometimes try to offer some half-assed arguments, such as the movie’s incredible cinematography, which manages to find beauty in its dingy images, or the use of that same imagery to tell the story without a lot of unnecessary dialogue, or the absolutely hypnotic music score by Tangerine Dream, which would seem more at-home in an Italian zombie flick, yet somehow fits this film perfectly (even more amazing when you realize the members of Tangerine Dream never saw a single frame of footage from Sorcerer before composing the entire score), or Roy Scheider’s amazing performance of quiet desperation (he’s truly one of the most underrated actors of all time).

But just as often, I'd just shrug, because I've never been able to convince anyone this movie is any good. Besides, in between the 20 years trying to enlighten my adolescent friends and current wife of the virtues of Sorcerer, I developed a fondness for things just left of the mainstream. One of the reasons I loved Metallica in the 80s was they were too extreme for radio or MTV at the time. I loved their early records, but once the The Black Album made them a household name, it simply wasn’t as much fun to be a Metallica fan. I was also one of the first guys I knew who got his ear pierced in the 80s, but since now that damn-near everyone pierces every conceivable extremity, I quit wearing an earring altogether.

Maybe it’s that same mindset that makes me love Sorcerer even more than I did when I first watched it at 14. It's a bleak and uncompromising film that, although intended to be a blockbuster, wasn't destined to be appreciated by too many people, regardless of age. Maybe part of me loves it because of its relative obscurity. Somehow, the fact hardly anyone's ever heard of it makes it more mine, just like back in the days when I was the only guy listening to Metallica.

I know some of you might be saying this makes Sorcerer a cult film, since today it does have a small share of admirers. But it isn’t a cult film on a level like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even at the time those were made, their creators were well-aware of the fringe audience who’d appreciate them. Today, a lot of people who champion those films do so because proclaiming your love of Rocky Horror makes you part of the hipster crowd that isn’t really hip anymore, especially since it's one of the most profitable films ever released by 20th Century Fox.

Sorcerer, however, was supposed to be a Hollywood blockbuster, and ended up costing so much money it took two studios, Paramount and Universal, to cover the expense. Considering it was directed by William Friedkin, whose previous two films were The Exorcist and The French Connection, and based on one of the greatest French-language films of all time (1953’s The Wages of Fear) there was little doubt Sorcerer would be huge.

Instead, it bombed. Hardly anyone went to see it, especially with Star Wars cleaning up at the box office around the same time. Again, I can see why. Who wanted a long and depressing flick about four fugitives on a 20 mile-an-hour suicide mission just so they can earn $8000, when you could catch Luke Skywalker rescue a princess and defeat an empire? Hell, the only reason I actually saw Sorcerer was because it was the only movie playing at the Southgate I hadn't yet watched.

There have been lots of movies that totally tanked in theaters, only to be embraced years later, like The Wizard of Oz, The Shawshank Redemption and The Thing to name a few. But there’s been no outpouring of retro-love for Sorcerer. Again, I can see why. It isn’t what one would call a fun movie. Yet after seeing it at least 20 times, I think it’s fun, but still can’t explain why. I read somewhere that William Friedkin considers it his best film, and I share that opinion.

And I’m actually really glad Sorcerer remains an obscure, seldom-seen relic. It keeps the film fresh and fun for me. So, please, if you ever see this available on a used-DVD shelf, an on-demand service or YouTube, do me a favor and don’t watch it. I’d like to keep this one for myself.

By the way, Sorcerer gets its title from one of the two trucks used to transport the nitro, sloppily painted just under the driver’s side door and only glimpsed onscreen for a few seconds.


Unknown said...

Hello D.M. - I admire your enormous enthusiasm towards this movie. Actually, I first saw Sorcerer about 2 months ago and I'm still mesmerized - still under its spell. I can't seem to get enough of reading about it and thinking how it should've been considered a classic right up there with the best-known films of the New Hollywood Era. To me Friedkin is a genius, even if some of his movies were hit-and-miss. I also share your opinion that Roy Scheider might have been one of the most underrated actors of all time. I've seen the original Wages of Fear and I admire it highly as well, but I still prefer Sorcerer to it (even if my score would be about the same). It has very European arthouse feel to it, German one in particular, like Werner Herzog's films - Aguirre: Wrath of God in particular. I absolutely love the convention of creating 4 anti-heroes with little-to-none redeeming features, so that we couldn't really root for them, but the concept of fate that you cannot really escape no matter how hard you try is really strong in this movie. I really love the ending, it really wraps up the whole thing really well. Plus the "heart of darkness" motif with Jackie Scanlon having a nervous breakdown and hallucinations around some almost surreal, outherworldly scenery. I could go and on about this movie. It's a real masterpiece that needs to be rediscovered, re-released properly, in blu-ray, with proper aspect ratio and refreshed quality; film critics should dig this one up and re-evaluate it.

Unknown said...

D.M.-- Your description of your personal journey with this film describes my own experience. I also love great unknown movies, and could care less about what others think. I have just spent about an hour online trying to find a free streaming site showing this movie with no success. I guess I'll have to break down and buy the DVD.

I did get lucky and find another film I had been looking for after finally remembering the name. If you liked "Sorcerer", I'm pretty sure you will also like "Exposure", starring Peter Coyote.

It is a movie about a semi-famous art photographer in South America who becomes embroiled in a murder of a friend, committed with knife by nearly martial-art knife practioners.

He accidentally finds himself linked to a similar assassin, who owes him a debt, and uses this person to train himself to defeat these murderers using their own weapon.

VERY good step-by-step training techniques shown, and a very satisfying conclusion, if you love your anti-heroes to be melancholy.

I think you'd enjoy it!

Mike in Texas