Sorcerer (Friedkin, 1977)

"I wanted to make an action-adventure film that had a more profound meaning... Sorcerer is about the mystery of fate, purgatory and redemption"
- William Friedkin (Quoted in Adams, 2014)



Arriving after the critically and commercially successful films The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), William Freidkin's Sorcerer (1977) marked the 'pinnacle of his confidence' (Kendrick, 2009: 58), yet it did not share the same success as his previous two pictures (it had the unlucky timing of being released just after Star Wars captured the hearts of countless cinema goers). Despite this, the film is far from forgotten today, the director has chosen it as the favourite of his own works on several occasions and its critical re-evaluation over the years, particularly following its restoration, has ensured that it is now rightly seen as one of the best of the decade. It was the one picture in his filmography that Friedkin said came closest to the vision he had for it even before he started production, and even though he's admitted to there being an aspect of every single one of his films that he would change in retrospect, whether that be the editing or the narrative, this is not the case for Sorcerer. Explaining the meaning behind the title, the director stated that it was a synonym for "an evil wizard, and in this case, the evil wizard was fate" (Quoted in Kermode, 2017). Describing his own worldview as one that could be described as cynical or jaded but ultimately realistic, Sorcerer is a film that reflects this vision, following four men who do not have control of their lives and who are simply delaying what is to be their ultimate fate. 

"The film became an obsession, it was to be my magnum opus...I felt that every film I'd ever made was preparation for this one... it turned out to be the most difficult, frustrating, dangerous film I had ever made." - William Friedkin (2014: 328 & 329)

Sorcerer begins with four separate vignettes to introduce us to the main characters. In the shortest introduction, we see Mexican hitman Nilo (Francisco Rabal) assassinate an unnamed target before fleeing. In Jerusalem, Palestinian terrorist Kassem (Amidou) and two other accomplices bomb a group of civilians, whilst Kassem is able to escape, his other conspirators are either arrested or killed. In Paris, French banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is forced to leave the country when he is accused of fraud. Finally, whilst escaping the robbery of a corrupt church, New York getaway driver Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) loses control of the car, killing his gang members in the process. He too is forced to flee the country when the mob boss who controls the church vows to kill him. All four of the criminals end up in the same run down, poverty stricken, deprived village in South America. With no money and no passports to leave the country, the four men are desperate enough to take a job transporting highly volatile explosives (the slightest jolt or bump in the road will set them off) 200 miles in two trucks in order to extinguish a huge, incessant fire which has erupted following an explosion at an economically important oil well which provides much of the local populace with employment.  

William Freidkin's Sorcerer

In interviews, Friedkin has made it clear that Sorcerer is not a remake of the 1953 film The Wages of Fear (Clouzot), but rather an adaptation of a work which he felt had many universal and timeless messages. Focussing on four complete strangers from different continents of the world who have little in common with each other besides their utter desperation was one of the most significant themes within the story that appealed to Friedkin when he decided to adapt it. Regardless of the conflicting religious or moral ideologies of the men, they are forced to collaborate or face certain death from the moment their suicidal mission starts. To him, this concept was deeply rooted in real world events at the time:

"Each of the countries of the world were beginning to enter a conflict. Nuclear energy, the ability to explode the entire world had come into being, the world was in danger and threatened by the possibility it would blow up if the nations of the world wouldn't cooperate. If they didn't cooperate, even though they didn't like each other or their policies, they would all blow up together anyway. That struck me." - William Friedkin, in the documentary Sorcerers: A Conversation with William Friedkin and Nicolas Winding Refn (Paley, 2015)

William Friedkin's SorcererRobert Cumbow's negative (later retracted) review of Sorcerer at the time stated that the director was too concerned from start to finish with injecting the picture with 'bleakness, squalor, ugliness, and the absurdity of defeat' (1977), but this underlying message of cooperation amongst starkly different personalities is an unusually optimistic inclusion for such a dark picture to take, particularly since Friedkin was trying to make a positive plea for collaboration between nations whilst the d├ętente era of the Cold War was collapsing. Cohan & Hark argue that 'the road movie is, like the musical or the western, a Hollywood genre that catches peculiarly American dreams, tensions and anxieties' (1997: 2). Whether audiences find these characters likeable or not (Friedkin admitted in his autobiography that he and screenwriter Walon Green wanted to make them difficult to "root for"), what is undeniable is that the four men each bring their unique and instrumental skills into play at the most crucial times of the story, allowing both progress and survival. Friedkin wasn't interested in characters who were all good or all evil and there are many points in which these cold criminals elicit our sympathy not just because they are in danger, but because they are working with one another to overcome the barriers in their path. Even though they hate each other's guts, the cunning Nilo (arguably the least redeemable of the whole bunch) saves the life of Scanlon when the two are ambushed, while Kassem is the only one who has the experience to know how to build a crude device that blows up an enormous tree trunk blocking the road. All men are comparable to the broken and forgotten trucks they must rebuild, and their mission suddenly gives them a new meaningful purpose, even if that purpose simply delays the inevitable.

"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." - William Friedkin (Quoted in De Semlyen, 2018)

What Friedkin didn't want was to create four men without fault, contrasting his outcasts to the protagonists of many blockbusters today, he wanted to make sure that they were flawed men rather than superheroes, and part of what makes the whole picture so unbearably tense is this very human element they are characterised by. At every stage of the journey, the director shows us how each man is teetering on the edge of a catastrophic error, every close up shows us their visible exhaustion and each passing minute holds the potential for them to suffer a fatal lapse in concentration. What enhances this is the editing, the film has a tendency to immediately cut from one nightmare scenario to another with little or no respite. We share the weariness of the drivers on their gruelling journey and rarely do the characters, or by extension the audience ever get an opportunity to rest and recover from what has just been witnessed. It gives the sense that this journey is never-ending, making the potential for mistake all the more prevalent. Because of this, human error itself feels like it is as much of a villain as the jungle or the unreliable, mechanical beasts they are driving (after all, they are in this life threatening situation hundreds of miles from home because they made mistakes in their lives in the first place). There are as many man-made obstacles in their path as there are natural ones, and in the end, Scanlon's fate is sealed before even going to South America. Mistakingly placing his confidence in an associate back in New York ultimately turns out to be his undoing when it is revealed that Vinnie (Randy Jurgensen) has betrayed his trust and informed the local mob boss of his location, no doubt for his own personal gain. In Sorcerer, 'Friedkin creates a fully dimensional world of deceptive appearances and relationships' (Smith, 2003: 78), in which those in the story are increasingly corrupted by their circumstances, it was this aspect of the story which stemmed from one of his biggest influences. 

How the Treasure of the Sierra Madre influenced William Friedkin's Sorcerer
John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), is a film that Friedkin credits as being the reason that Sorcerer itself exists. Describing it as the best action adventure film he has ever seen, Friedkin saw it as a picture which had "an underlying moral sense about what greed can do to otherwise decent people" (TCM, 2014). Besides the obvious aesthetic similarities when it comes to comparing the appearance of Scanlon to that of Humphrey Bogart's character (Schieder's wardrobe was based on Bogart's 'Dobbs', particularly the tattered hat and scruffy facial hair), it is indeed this corrupting nature that the promise of riches has on the individuals in both films which is one of the most notable similarities. Upon falsely believing that the truck being driven by Kassem and Manzon is never going to make it across a hazardous bridge, Scanlon, in an almost maniacal manner, boasts to Nilo that their demise means that the two of them will now receive double the reward money. Similarly in Huston's film, Bob Curtain (Tim Holt) contemplates for more than a few seconds about leaving Dobbs to die in the cave which has just trapped his friend so that he will get a greater share of the gold, this is despite Curtain being the more humane of the two (later in the film he is more than willing to give a portion of his share of the gold to the widow of a fourth man who joins their posse and dies while helping to defend their camp). As Dobbs states before him and his two other prospectors set out on their search: "Gold don't carry any curse with it.", which Huston believed was a line that outlined an element of stupidity to a man who didn't "see why gold could change a man's soul" (Quoted in Stevens Jr., 1969: 350). 

Mayer states that the masculine endeavours in many Huston films often have a dark cloud hovering over them, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 'these masculine characters are defeated - defeated by themselves' (Mayer, 1978: 185), referring to Dobbs, whose is defeated as a result of his own narcissistic actions. Like Dobbs, whose paranoia and distrust starts to overwhelm him until his mental well-being deteriorates to the extent that he is having conversations with himself, Scanlon slowly descends into madness when on the final leg of his journey. Now completely dehumanised to the extent that he is able to drag the deceased Nilo (dying from wounds he sustained in a life-saving act), from the passenger side of his truck with little regard, his disintegrating mental state is undercut by a jarring change of surroundings. The lush greenery of the jungle is replaced by an almost dreamlike wasteland of desolate rock formations as both Scanlon and the truck itself are pushed to the absolute brink. As he loses his foothold on where his destination is, repeating the phrase "where am I going" which he spoke earlier on in the film, he also loses a foothold on his own sanity as this last surviving member of the crew begins to succumb to both nightmarish delusions and auditory hallucinations. Olson argues that in Friedkin films, 'madness and masculinity often become intertwined... in Sorcerer the four leads are pushed to the limits and none comes away unscathed' (Olson, 2018: 221). By the last ten minutes of the film, Scanlon has absolutely no notion of self-preservation as he walks the last few miles carrying the box of nitro-glycerine in his hands to complete his mission, cementing how far he has fallen. 

'Setting can have a psychological dimension functioning beyond the supportive role of a backdrop... the surface level adventure through this hostile wilderness becomes an inward allegorical journey into the protagonists troubled psyche as he makes a futile attempt to discover his larger purpose.'(Melbye, 2010: 1 & 17)


The blazing sunlight of the dry, sweltering desert of Huston's film couldn't be more different to the perpetual rainfall found in the overgrown jungles of Sorcerer, yet both environments feel equally atmospheric and absolutely integral to the lasting impact that both pictures have on audiences. It's difficult to think about either film without picturing the drought and dust that permeates Sierra Madre or the humid, swampy chaos that is the maze of the South American rainforest. Both feel like incredibly impenetrable and isolated worlds that hold significant power over those who are unlucky enough to be caught within it. This is unsurprising considering the portfolio of work by Sorcerer's John Box, whose production design on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) also created so many evocative images. These environments also help to reinforce the aforementioned notion of fate playing a hand in the journey that the characters go through. Sierra Madre's Howard (Walter Huston) can do nothing but laugh at the irony, and what he deems the "cruel fate" of their gold dust being blown away and lost to the very desert they found it in, while Kassem and Manzon lose their lives not when trying to navigate a dilapidated bridge, but by losing control of their truck when a tire pops on a flat and obstacle free road, suggesting that their demise in this inhospitable landscape was an inevitable prospect no matter how far they ran (similarly, Dobbs' death in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre coincidently comes at the hands the very bandits him and his crew were able to fight off in a shootout earlier on). The ending of the original Wages of Fear played with this idea also, when the last surviving member of the crew (Mario, played by Yves Montand), who now believes himself to be invincible, gleefully tempts fate by driving recklessly through the mountains with his reward money before plunging to his death. The existential threat at the heart of Sorcerer is another reason why it is so fraught with tension; the idea that these men are not in control of their destiny and their lives could be over at the most unexpected of moments, even if those moments don't seem dangerous. 

Despite shedding their previous lives and leaving behind those whom they knew in their hometowns, what the characters in Sorcerer don't seem to be able to do is to truly escape their past. Scanlon is haunted by the memories of the car crash that killed his crew back in New York, while Manzon is unable to pawn a watch gifted to him by his wife. The one material item he has in his possession to define him follows him around for the whole story, and despite his reluctant efforts, is unable to separate himself from this tangible memory of his past life (Manzon's watch can ultimately be blamed for his death when you consider that he was partially distracted from the road in front of him when taking one hand off the wheel to put it back in his pocket). In the end, all of them are doomed to live with their previous burdens and mistakes, which will be with them regardless of how far they try to travel. The visual storytelling is the film's great strength, and once the opening vignettes are over Friedkin shows us, through images rather than words, that while the protagonists may have postponed the consequences of their actions, they are not free men. The village they end up in is viewed as a point of no return; a place where escape is impossible for most and wickedly difficult for the rest. Not only are the 13 introductory shots we get of this new world completely static, suggesting immobility and therefore difficulty for anyone to make meaningful forward progress, but people (even the animals and insects!) in the town are framed in such a way as to suggest entrapment:

Framing in William Friedkin's Sorcerer
Internal framing can be used in the composition of shots to 'visually comment on a character's situation, environment or personality' (Kidd, 2011: 138), and individuals are often enclosed within a secondary frame (2, 3, 6) to isolate and incarcerate them within their environment (in shot 6, Nilo's black shirt makes him blend in with the background to demonstrate his lack of status), or they are obscured by/ trapped behind the production design (1, 4, 5) to highlight this idea that the village is claustrophobic, inescapable prison. 

The only time there is breathing room from this cramped surrounding is during Nilo's arrival at the landing strip; a place which, whilst still inhabited by depraved individuals (officials here are unfairly stern and easily bribed), is a wide open space representing hope in the opportunity for freedom via plane travel (those on the ground look up almost jealously at passing aircraft in close-up). Giannetti states that 'the sensitive director is just as concerned with what's left out of the frame as with what's included' (2001: 48) and rarely in these village scenes do we see any kind of way out, instead inhabitants are permanently viewed as being enclosed and far away from anywhere that could be described as civilised. Friedkin had in mind that this setting be like a kind of "living purgatory" offering only an "attempt" at redemption (Quoted in Reesman, 2014), which comes full circle by the end of the picture when Scanlon stumbles into the oil field and observes the hell-like inferno before him. 

"Billy’s approach to Sorcerer ruled out rear-projection or trick photography. The actors, the vehicles and the terrain were too closely integrated into the composition of each shot. So what you see in the film is exactly what happened" - Roy Scheider (Quoted in Kachmar, 2002: 70)

Sorcerer posterSorcerer is a tale of perseverance both on and off the screen, the characters have to battle through a lot of course, but when looking at the ordeal of the cast and crew, it's a happy miracle that the film even exists. As David Lean once famously said, good films can only be made by a crew of dedicated maniacs. Reading about the logistical and financial terror of making the famous and rightly lauded 10 minute bridge scene feels like that alone was a mission akin to making a full length feature film (Scheider even stated that the experience made the legendarily difficult-to-shot movie Jaws look like a picnic!). There isn't one wasted moment in the whole film; each frame feels like it is integral to reinforcing the themes of its narrative and the suspense of its premise. Each POV shot showing us the obscured vision through the rain soaked windscreen or every meticulous close up of hands and feet battling with the gearstick and pedals of an unwieldy truck offers heart-stopping moments of anxiety every time. Not to mention the aural power of the picture too, which Freidkin 'designed to be as raw as the visuals' (Dancyger, 2013: 385). The snapping and creaking of every bridge plank and the relentless engine revving of each struggled attempt to overcome the terrain thrown in front the drivers' path all add up to make a film so effective that you wonder what critics oversaw back in 1977. 


References

Adams, S. 2014. 'William Friedkin on Sorcerer, his Career, and Fate'. The Dissolve. [Online] Available here: https://thedissolve.com/features/interview/543-william-friedkin-on-sorcerer-his-career-and-fate/ 

Chamberlain, B. 2014. 'Legends of Film: Bud smith Interview'. Legends of Film Podcast.  [Online] Available here: https://library.nashville.org/blog/2014/08/legends-film-bud-smith 

Cohan, S & Hark, I.R. 1997. The Road Movie Book. New York: Routledge

Connor, J. 2015. The Studios after the Studios: Neoclassical Hollywood (1970-2010). Stanford: Stanford University Press

Cumbow, R. 1977. 'Review: Sorcerer'. Movietone News. 55. September 1977

Dancyger, K. 2013. The Technique of Film and Video Editing: History, Theory, and Practice. Burlington: Focal Press

De Semlyen, N. 2018. 'Keep on Trucking'. Empire Magazine. January 2018

Freer, I. 2017. 'Classics Corner: William Friedkin talks Sorcerer’. Time Out [Online] Available here: https://www.timeout.com/london/film/classics-corner-william-friedkin-talks-sorcerer  

Friedkin, W. 2013. The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins

Friedkin, W. 2017. The Mystery of Fate. London: Entertainment One [Blu-ray booklet]

Giannetti, L. 2001. Understanding Movies. New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Kachmar, D. 2002. Roy Scheider: A Film Biography. Jefferson: McFarland and Co

Kendrick, J. 2009. Hollywood Bloodshed: Violence in 1980s American Cinema. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press 

Kermode, M. 2017. 'Road to Perdition'. Sight and Sound Magazine. December 2017

Kidd, E. 2011. The Critical Practice of Film: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 

Lane, C. 2020. Friedkin: Interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi

Mayer, W. 1978. Warner Brothers Directors: The Hard-Boiled, the Comic, and the Weepers. New York: Arlington House

Melbye, D. 2010. Landscape Allegory in Cinema: From Wilderness to Wasteland. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Olson, S. 2018. 100 Greatest Cult Films. London: Rowman and Littlefield

Reesman, B. 2014. 'Inside the Forgotten Movie Masterpiece Sorcerer'. Esquire. [Online] Available here: https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a28501/sorcerer-william-friedkin/

Simon, A. 2014. 'William Friedkin: Why Sorcerer’s Spell Refuses to Die'. Huffington Post. [Online] Available here: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/william-friedkin-why-sorcerer-refuses-to-die

Smith, G. Chang, C. Jones, K & Armour, N. 2003. 'Vidi Vidi Vidi'. Film Comment. 39 (6) pp. 78-79. December 2003

Stevens Jr, G. 2006. Conversations with The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age. New York: Vintage Books 

TCM Guest Programmer William Friedkin - Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Intro). Youtube. [Video File] Available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCtYiKEleLI 

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