The pessimist in me often thinks that there are too few movie moments these days that remind me why I fell in love with cinema. However, last night I saw for the first time William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) at Truro’s Plaza cinema and as the film developed I increasingly felt a sense of experiencing the truly cinematic. The screening was part of the “Mark Kermode presents” series and the critic was there to introduce the film, defining it as a lost classic that was unceremonious panned by critics and ignored by audiences.
Released at the same time as Star Wars (1977) Sorcerer arguably disappeared into a vacuum of shifting filmic sensibilities with its existential bleakness and baroque visuality seemingly at odds with the burgeoning era of colourful blockbuster spectacle. The film is currently going through a critical renaissance with a digitally remastered version set for limited theatrical rerelease and a BluRay edition in the works. MK's enthusiasm was obvious but I didn’t really know what to expect having deliberately avoided doing any research on the film.
The first 40 minutes of Sorcerer undoubtedly requires a certain level of patience. Four split narrative strands set up the back-story of how the four main characters find themselves needing to disappear from society. These opening scenes in Veracruz, Jerusalem, Paris and New Jersey are as intricate as they are idiosyncratic not only seeming narratively disparate but also, tonally, almost looking like different films. However, this jarring incongruity actually serves to amplify the intensity of the main section of the film, which brings the protagonists together in a remote hell hole of a village in the Dominican Republic. This is where the film really takes shape.
The four – Scanlon (Roy Scheider), Manzon (Bruno Cremer), Nilo (Francisco Rabal), Kassem (Amidou) – penniless and desperate, are picked to drive a cargo of unstable explosives two hundred miles through the South American jungle using two refitted trucks. It is a journey that pushes the men to their limit physically and mentally, the centrepiece being an incredible twelve-minute sequence in which the two trucks attempt to cross a dilapidated bridge. The possibility of death is ingrained in every irascible frame and further sequences powerfully build the visual intensity and pushing to the extreme the descent into existential crisis. After the two-hour running time there was a palpable release of anxiety after the battering the audience had taken.
Sorcerer has so many riffs and connections to other movies it could almost be read as a gateway to understanding what 70s cinema is all about. The film is obviously linked to an earlier adaptation of the source novel The Wages of Fear (1953) directed by Henri-George Cluzot. In terms of theme and form the most obvious comparison is with the work of Werner Herzog particularly Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcaraldo (1982). The opening scenes bear resemblance to myriad films including Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969), Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) along with Friedkin’s earlier work The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). The aerial shots of the lush green South American forest, decimated by explosions and fire, are incredibly similar to Apocalypse Now (1977) and the fluid mobility of the camera, often moving in and out of exterior and interior spaces, reminded me of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). The tone of tense, foreboding strangeness is also imbued through the metallic, electronic mood of Tangerine Dream’s score.
Undoubtedly the specific industrial and cultural context conspired against Sorcerer but now, in 2014, in an era often accused of hyper-commercialisation and formulaic derivativeness, it stands out. I felt it somewhat ironic that this film was screening the same week as Darren Aronofsky’s biblical apocalyptic spectacle Noah (2014) went on general release. In the age of CGI it was incredible to see a film from 1977 that possesses a texture and weight that is often lacking in contemporary film. Not only was the film introduced by Mark Kermode the audience was also treated to a short filmed introduction from William Friedkin himself who directly addressed the Cornwall audience about his joy that the screening was happening and that it is receiving this reevaluation. The best complement one can pay to Sorcerer is that nearly 40 years after its initial release it stands up as a reminder of what a truly cinematic film should look like.