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Cinema: Where Did All the Magic Go?

4 minute read
Richard Schickel

SORCERER

Directed by WILLIAM FRIEDKIN Screenplay by WALON GREEN

Sorcerer is a puzzling picture. It is adapted from the same Georges Arnaud thriller on which Henri-Georges Clouzot based his well-regarded 1953 film, The Wages of Fear (that’s the one about trucking nitroglycerin over the mountains). The new movie is handsomely shot and crisply edited. Why, then, does one rather distantly respect it instead of just plain liking it? It is an odd, disappointing feeling to take away from a summertime movie.

It is possible that the trouble lies more with us than with the picture. Maybe we have been so brainwashed to expect nothing but implausibilities during the dog days that it is hard to respond to a film that takes itself as soberly as this one does. Or maybe we expect something loopier from Friedkin, who prides himself on making slam-bang movies (The Exorcist, The French Connection) that are expertly designed and executed to appeal to us at a low, visceral level. Or—just possibly—Friedkin, despite the noisy response he made to critical hooting over The Exorcist, is answering it with a distinctly muted picture, which takes its material just a tad more seriously than it really warrants. Whatever. The fact is that Sorcerer exists in a kind of limbo, offering neither the silly fun of a movie wallowing happily in its own trashiness nor the more profound pleasures of genuine art.

Depression and Dynamite. The basic situation of The Wages of Fear is retained. The setting is still an imaginary Latin American dictatorship, more corrupt and depressed than even Conrad might have dreamed up. Once again there has been a blowout in a remote oil well, for which the only remedy is a lot of dynamite. Friedkin carefully—too carefully—sets all this up. He explains just why the well is not reachable by air and why the only available dynamite has aged into a highly volatile condition. Finally, as before, four desperate characters, men with nothing to lose, are recruited to drive the explosive by truck over a road that traverses swamps, rain forests, mountains and deserts. Unlike Clouzot, Friedkin gives us extensive biographies on three of them—an Arab terrorist, a French banker who has been caught in fraud, a small-time hoodlum who has made the mistake of robbing the parish church of a Mafia boss (during which his brother, a priest, was wounded).

These backgrounders do not add an awful lot to our enjoyment of subsequent proceedings, but the mini-action sequences promise bigger, better things to come. This implied promise of livelier things to come also helps get us through a middle passage where Roy Scheider, as the punk criminal, and Bruno Cremer, as the banker, are seen to suffer interminable misery in some of the most squalid squalor anybody this side of a PBS documentarian has put on a screen in a long time. Friedkin has probably been more rigorous about all this than the requirements of popular film making dictate. Since he has an international cast working in a foreign locale, much of the dialogue is translated in subtitles, which is going to cause a certain impatience in the action houses.

Once the little band of ill-assorted brothers hits the road, the suspense picks up considerably, but, frankly, there is a strange monotony in their travails. If the road is not washed out, then you can bet that around the next curve a huge tree is going to be lying across it. And, of course, all the bridges are just terrible. Everyone is pretty brave and persevering about all this, and reasonably ingenious in solving the problems. Still, nerves should be screeching steadily instead of intermittently as Friedkin and company wend their way, more or less tragically, through fen and forest.

One hates to be hard on a director who is so earnestly trying to reform, who wanted to make something that feels suspiciously like an art film so badly that he spent as much as $21 million-worth of two studios’ money in the attempt, has issued directives to theater managers insisting that the houselights be dimmed while an overture, for godsake, which he ordered up, plays us into a mood suitable for his work. Friedkin’s pretensions do not entirely defeat the film, and his craftsmanship often rescues him from self-betrayal. But Sorcerer lacks the kind of low cunning — the sorcery — that is Friedkin’s strong suit.

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