Sorcerer William Friedkin (USA 1977) Roy Schneider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 28 Dec 2017; ticket £6.75
In the opening credits William Friedkin dedicates Sorcerer to Henri-George Clouzot, the director of Wages of Fear (1952), of which Sorcerer can only be seen as a remake.
This is the only moment of honesty in Friedkin’s movie.
Clouzot’s original movie, based on the novel by Georges Arnot, was an extraordinary achievement. His film set out its stall from its opening shot which pulls together in one succinct take a complete replete expression of his film’s core idea. In Clouzot’s opening shot we see a number of scorpions climbing over one another in a dusty hole in the road. As the camera tracks back we see that each of the creatures is attached by a string to a stick manipulated by a boy. When the boys starts in response to a street commotion, the insects are yanked up, their legs and bodies thrashing about in mid-air, all them completely helpless, hapless. The shot is of course about power. Who has whom by the balls. In Wages of Fear the answer is always the oil company. Clouzot’s genius was to take good action novel, and keeping the action make it into a left field existential political statement. Clouzot’s Wages of Fear is driven by political perception, made magnificent by his understanding of the settings: the town - the oil field - the dirt road - the trucks.
William Friedkin doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand the heart of the film he is trying to replicate. The material he tries to animate is out of his depth, he hasn’t seen, or hasn’t wanted to see, the forces Clouzot brought into play in his scenario: the exercise of raw power set against a background of men who stripped of their identity are marooned in a town, that like a concentration camp, reduces them to the status of body or corpse. Where the difference between body and corpse is that one of them can be put to work.
Friedkin remake, strangely titled Sorcerer, is simple a hollow vessel. It has form. It makes some noise. It is empty of content. Friedkin brings to the movie the usual Hollywood attributes of fussy details and big bang production values.
But Friedkin's approach simply tries to exploit the unnecessary detailing of action. Instead of Clouzot’s marvellously economic depiction of the four men as they come to terms with their existential situation in the border town, Friedkin’s pads out his script with four back stories. Friedkin thinks we have to know who each one of the protagonists is and how they got there. As if in a concentration camp it matters what you ‘were’; all that matters is if you know how to survive. Clouzot understands this and it is reflected in his cinematography: the shots of his protagonists, his shots of the town favour wide perspective allowing us to see relations. Friedkin of course favours the close shot, as his film is committed to individuation not situation.
Coming from the director of the Exorcist who built refrigerated sets so that the actors’ breath would condense, it is no surprise that Friedkin’s script gets bogged down in irrelevant detail. As if overwhelming the viewer with slickly edited detail, would distract from having to think about what they are seeing. His emphasis on detail dominates the section of action immediatly before his four characters set out on their journey. We are shown them as they fit out the two antiquated trucks, repairing them, readying them for the journey. Uninterested in social relations, Friedkin has to bulk out ‘Sorcerer’ with American 'can-do', the literalism of fix-it mechanics.
My memory of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear is that, although little is known about the protagonists their situation creates a level of audience identification that is lacking in Friedkin’s direction and script. Certainly Clouzot’s Frenchman, with his carefully preserved Paris Metro ticket, a psychic token binding him to the city, has a more powerful symbolic hook than Friedkin’s Frenchman, with his engraved watch given him by his wife. These symbols and their place in the film highlight the differences in approach of the two directors. The Metro ticket symbolises a series of possibilities and of social relations; the watch one individual relationship. We have all had subway tickets; few of us have had expensive engraved watches.
Viewing ‘Sorcerer’ it is difficult to see why Friedkin chose to direct this remake. Bogged down in detail it delivers nothing beyond the immediate series of spectacular images. Sorcerer looks as if it is nothing more than a macho statement of an A list director, wanting to show he can mix with the best of them and handle the big budgets. ‘Sorcerer’ is William Friedkin. Perhaps in his own mind, after being the Exorcist, he becomes Sorcerer, the Hollywood bigshot whose movie weaves the spell that enchants the Big Studios into parting with pots of money.