“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” So ran the tagline of The Neon Demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, but the concept could equally well apply to timing, as discussed when Refn interviewed legendary director William Friedkin at his Los Angeles home in February 2015 about his 1977 film Sorcerer.
Now released on Blu-ray for the first time by Entertainment One and with the revealing conversation between the two filmmakers included in its entirety, Sorcerer is a film which has waited forty years to be reappraised, the critical mauling it received upon its original release having been a shock to Friedkin: “I felt I had made the best of all my films.”
Based upon Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel Le Salaire de la peur, filmed in 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot as The Wages of Fear and celebrated with awards at both the Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals, while Friedkin was inspired by that adaptation he is insistent this is not a remake, screenwriter Walon Green taking the threads of that basic outline and weaving them into a new cloth.
Following the huge global success of The French Connection in 1971 and The Exorcist in 1973, Friedkin wanted his next project to be neither a cop thriller nor have any aspects of the supernatural despite the title which was inspired by the Miles Davis album, but regardless the fractured opening scenes bear all the hallmarks of Friedkin, snapshots of disparate characters with little dialogue and less introduction or context as their lives come crashing down.
In Veracruz, Mexico, there is Nilo (Francisco Rabal), the hitman who has completed his assignment; in Jerusalem, Israel, there is the terrorist Kassem (Amidou) who escapes when the others in his cell are captured or killed; in Paris, France there is Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) whose business indiscretions see him abandoning his wife and country; in New Jersey, USA, there is getaway driver Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) on the run from the mob following the disastrous aftermath of a heist.
To Latin America the fickle winds of fate blow all four, the pueblo of Porvnir where poverty is endemic, where they find themselves without power or protection under the boot of a corrupt regime, the local population accustomed to the indifference or hostility of those in authority.
Yet for four men sufficiently desperate there is a way out when the American company which runs the oil well offers the temptation of danger money for anyone willing to transport sweating dynamite in two rickety old trucks across two hundred miles of jungle so tortuous it is practically hostile.
From the raised voices which echo in the elegant Parisian salons of commerce to the New Jersey church with the bride with black eye, from the ancient holy city of Jerusalem and its history of violence to the stunning wilderness of the Dominican Republic and the almost otherworldly scenery of New Mexico, Sorcerer is at many times a beautiful film but it is never a pretty one.
Released two years after Jaws, ostensible star Scheider was joined by an international and multi-lingual cast in another battle against the embodied forces of nature, Friedkin explaining the meaning of the title in the context of the film. “I thought the evil wizard was fate that controlled the lives of all these people… their lives were out of control.”
Technically it remains astonishing, every moment created with such conviction and realism that the viewer must continually remind themselves that this is a film, that – somehow – all these moments were conceived and designed to give the illusion that these men are in peril without actually placing them quite so close to imminent death as they constantly appear to be.
Man against nature, against machine, against each other, against the broken societies in which they find themselves having fled from their former lives, people trying to get what the other has for themselves and instead reaping only bitter consequences, Sorcerer reflects the angry days in which it was made but it is easy to see how released a month after Star Wars it did not connect with an audience.
An allegory reflecting the need for cooperation if anyone is to survive in an era of global turmoil, a tale of ruin and penance without the promise of a positive outcome with characters who are less concerned about being likeable than with concealing their identities, any positive whispers were drowned out by the roar of enthusiasm which greeted the only film anyone wanted to talk about that summer.
A far cry from the exuberant optimism of a galaxy far, far away even despite the atmospheric and ethereal score provided by Tangerine Dream – the first of almost thirty they have since composed – Friedkin’s presentation of his characters may be more cynical but it is a more honest view of humanity. “There are no heroes. Every one of us is flawed.”
Refreshingly un-Hollywood in his refusal to sugarcoat his responses and frequently rolling his eyes at his interviewer and would-be-peer such as when Refn suggests his own Only God Forgives is a masterpiece, Friedkin remains a supreme realist in his advice: “Do not do a film you don’t believe in. Don’t make any film for the money… unless you’re desperate.”
Sorcerer is available now on Blu-ray from Entertainment One