"Everybody got a plan, 'til they get hit in the face. Then they don't got a plan no more."--Mike Tyson, paraphrased by William Friedkin
William Friedkin was arguably one of the leading lights of the New Hollywood movement of the 1960s and 70s. Coming up in live television and documentaries, he made a mainstream splash with the gritty thriller The French Connection, which took home five Academy Awards. His next film, The Exorcist, achieved similar fame (if more notoriety), counterpointing its still-infamous scenes of horror with an earnest inquiry into the mysteries of faith. After these incredible back-to-back successes Friedkin planned a lower-budgeted movie to cleanse the palate before his next big project, The Devil's Triangle. But The Devil's Triangle never materialized, and Friedkin's little film exploded into an expansive multi-national, and multi-studio (Paramount & Universal) production that would turn out to be Friedkin's favorite of his films. And the end of an ambitious era in American filmmaking.
Sorcerer was the second film of the suspenseful French novel Le Salarie de la Peur (Clouzot's The Wages of Fear was the first), and Friedkin offered a politically-charged and hallucinogenic take on the suspenseful story. With Roy Scheider nominally leading a cast playing desperate men transporting nitroglycerine across dangerous terrain, and Friedkin's documentary style meshing beautifully with harrowing imagery and Tangerine Dream's pulsating, dreamlike score, Sorcerer is one of the greatest movies of the 1970s.
And more people woulda seen it if it hadn't been released around the same time as Star Wars.
In the shadow of that looming and all-consuming blockbuster, and in the wake of the indifference of audiences and critics alike, Sorcerer proved to be a huge debacle for its creator and a source of personal frustration (given his emotional investment in the work). Some consider the box-office failure of Sorcerer the end of the New Hollywood movement, especially in the wake of the blockbuster era ushered in by Star Wars' runaway success. But though Friedkin would never re-attain quite the status he enjoyed before the movie, Sorcerer has undergone major reassessment in recent years and, in hindsight, has become one of Friedkin's most highly regarded films.
And now, after a lawsuit against two studios and considerable retooling, a digital print of the movie is making the rounds in the run-up to a theatrical and Blu-Ray release. Last night Friedkin unveiled this print at Berkeley's California Theatre (a change of venue from the Pacific Film Archive, currently running a retrospective of Friedkin's work).
The movie remains a beautiful and enthralling piece of work - the basic throughline of the movie (helpfully stated by Friedkin himself: "Cooperate or blow up") remains relevant today, with some moments that arguably resonate more powerfully now than back in '77 (our awareness of US oil interests' role in shaping foreign politics certainly adds to our understanding of the world our protagonists find themselves in, and raises the stakes in their quest.). And Friedkin's documentarian eye juices the movie's suspenseful set pieces, including a particularly heart-stopping pair of incidents atop The Shakiest Bridge In The World.
As thrilling as it was to see again (and as necessary as it is to see this thing theatrically), I longed for the warmth and depth of the original celluloid image. Though Friedkin has enthusiastically embraced digital filmmaking and projection, a tension remains for those who saw this thing on the medium on which it was shot, and as much as the colors pop, a significant portion of the grittiness of the movie's look is lost. Any qualms about the image quality of the format are, for at least this movie, made up for by the stellar sound presentation. The incredible soundscapes of the jungle resonate beautifully here and juice the drama admirably, as does Tangerine Dream's score. During a lively and engaging post-show Q&A, Friedkin allowed that one of his deepest influences was dramatic radio, hence the primacy of sound design and music in his films.
A friend at the screening noted that, for all of his bluster as a headstrong, visionary filmmaker, Friedkin was awfully generous, from remembering names of bit players and technicians on his movies to his effusive and lengthy responses to audience questions. All of Friedkin's qualities were manifest at this screening: SORCERER remains the work (possibly the best work) of a headstrong visionary; its resurrection an act of generosity.