William Friedkin’s Sorcerer remains one of the most curiously mistreated Hollywood films of all time. Mark Fraser looks back at what happened following its initial release.
During late August US director William Friedkin chose to show a restored version of his 1977 masterpiece Sorcerer when he collected the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. While the movie has garnered a dedicated group of followers over the past 36 years, it remains one of the most curiously mistreated Hollywood films of all time.
There’s a person missing from the index of William Friedkin’s 2013 autobiographical memoir The Friedkin Connection. And while it might be a slight exaggeration to say his name is conspicuous by its absence, he nevertheless played a significant, albeit indirect, role in the butchering of what the director has said is the film by which he would most like to be remembered.*
When Friedkin’s US$20 million-plus Sorcerer first came out in June 1977, the late Vincent Canby (1924-2000) – The New York Times’ leading movie critic circa 1969-1993 – was one of a number of influential American reviewers who was eager to quickly write the movie off as a costly flop. Canby’s disdain for the director was already well known in some circles after he hammered the film maker’s blockbuster, The Exorcist, following its release during late 1973. Using his wonderfully wry and sometimes acerbic wit to great effect, the usually incisive NYT reviewer and Chicago-born author/journalist moaned that the horror movie reflected “the extent to which audiences will go to escape boredom by shock and insult”.
In his December 27 critique, he also questioned The Exorcist’s US$10 million budget, suggesting the cash outlay for its eerie opening in Iraq was wasteful as the scene was “not essential to the business that comes after” (a point Friedkin disagrees with in his book when he calls the Iraqi sequence “essential in creating an atmosphere of dread and ancient prophecy”). “The money,” Canby griped, “could have been better spent subsidising a couple of beds at the Paine-Whitney Clinic.” With blunt observations like these, it was obvious this newspaper man had some kind of axe to grind with Friedkin. Therefore, it wasn’t much of a surprise when he came out with similar guns blazing four years later after the director’s follow-up movie hit the screens.
Although Canby shouldn’t be completely blamed for Sorcerer’s massive failure at the box office during its brief domestic opening, his willingness to quickly dismiss it as some kind of bloated remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 black and white masterwork La Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) was partly instrumental in sending the film out into the cinematic wilderness – an exile that was to last the best part of two-and-a-half decades before it was properly reassessed by the revisionist crowd. Aside from helping put Friedkin’s skyrocketing career into reverse gear, the initial critical hammering of Sorcerer also resulted in it becoming one of the most punished Hollywood movies ever seen when it was eventually released to the international market during 1978.
Not only did the studios that bankrolled the project, Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures, change its name to Wages of Fear, but they completely re-edited it – so much so that it became a much different film from the one initially shown in the US the previous year. During a visit to Australia back in 2002 to promote the theatrical release (and 25th anniversary) of the original Sorcerer, Friedkin provided a somewhat glib account of what happened around 1977 when one of the most expensive American films ever made was re-arranged in a desperate attempt to recoup some of its massive budget.
In interviews with Tom Ryan of The Age and David Stratton on SBS Television, the Hollywood Oscar™-winning director lay the blame for this massacre directly at the feet of Cinema International Corporation head Pedro Teitelbaum (CIC was the international distributor for Paramount and Universal). Describing him as “an altogether loathsome gentleman”, who was subsequently fired for embezzlement, Friedkin told Ryan that Teitelbaum would chop films at his whim depending on how well he thought they would do in various territories.
“We only learnt that after the fact,” he explained. “I successfully sued CIC in France where they have something called droit morale, giving film makers ownership of the film; not literally financial ownership, but creative ownership. They had to restore the picture.”
Although not as scathing of Teitelbaum’s character when he spoke to Stratton on SBS’s The Movie Show, Friedkin remained just as adamant that the CIC boss was pretty much responsible for the Sorcerer re-edit.
“(He) would just say let’s cut these things down so we get more shows and get more ticket sales,” the director said. “He did severe damage to Sorcerer in Australia, France and Germany.”
While all of this may have been true, it was nevertheless an unsatisfactory answer as to how a reportedly US$21-23 million (in 1976 dollars) movie – made by one of the hottest film makers of the day – was so shabbily treated by the studio bosses who agreed to put the money up to produce it in the first place. It also failed to explain how it was that Paramount and Universal got such cold feet when it came to unleashing this extravaganza on international audiences that they hastily decided their only recourse was to reissue it as a literal remake of the Clouzot film.
One interesting aspect of The Friedkin Connection is that the author, after all these years, remains a tad coy when it comes to discussing some of the finer points of what really happened back in 1977 when his darkly cynical and very expensive masterpiece was vilified and unnecessarily sacrificed. Indeed, the director seems so intent on regurgitating a lot of the popular folklore regarding the making and release of the film – as initially recounted in Peter Biskind’s 1999 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – that he not only ignores the Canby connection, but forgets to mention Teitelbaum as well.
From the outset it should be made clear that this is not to suggest Friedkin is, in any way, being disingenuous in his memoir. Like Biskind, he highlights the fact audience expectations were changing after the arrival of George Lucas’ first Star Wars installment (the two films were released within a week of each other and both played at Mann’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard). He also acknowledges Sorcerer’s title is “probably misleading”. More importantly, he admits that his ego was way out of control back in the 1970s and that there were many “waiting for me to crash, and I obliged them in spades”.
It is arguable, however, that this mea culpa represents a lost opportunity – a wasted chance for a director of great stature (which Friedkin is) to set the record straight about one of the sad realities of cinema; something which, undisputedly, played a part in his own undoing and still affects film makers today. Had he done so, he may have helped answer a critical question: how was it that so many people got it so wrong when Sorcerer first came out?
While standing on his soapbox, Friedkin could easily have argued that leading film critics – despite their repeated denials – do possess quite a bit of sway when it comes to a movie’s success at the box office; that, to some degree, because of their positions of authority, they can influence what an audience (or a potential one) thinks. Whether he should have addressed this issue is probably a moot point – after all, according to the author in the 2013 “spoiler” that appears at the start of the book, his intention was not to write something salacious or entertain his audience with a series of “objective truths”. But given his most personal film was thoroughly misunderstood and unfairly trashed by critics, audiences and studios alike – and in the process cut to shreds based on what was essentially the opinion of the leading critic from The NYT – Friedkin could easily have broached the subject without looking too much like he was complaining or blaming scapegoats (like Teitelbaum) to help account for the disaster.
And let’s face it – at the age of 77 this film maker had earned the right to make a few acute and level headed observations regarding some of the injustices in the world of cinema, particularly as he was eating a good dose of humble pie at the same time. After all, he did direct three of the best Hollywood movies of the 1970s and made the studios millions of dollars to boot. If anything, he had an obligation to help set the record straight with an objective truth.
Stellar run ended
When it first came out, Sorcerer was, up until 1977 at least, one of the strangest American big budget releases ever seen, being in part a truly existential remake of a dark and gritty French road movie (which itself was based on a 1950 novel of the same name by the late Georges Arnaud) that contained no real superstar clout, no identifiable heroes, no romantic sub-plots, plenty of moral ambiguity, an extended opening sequence that was spoken mostly in subtitles as well as a completely downbeat ending.
Taking this into account, the immediate box office response was probably not too surprising – while it’s difficult to find any updated numbers regarding its performance since 1999, according to Biskind and Variety the film only grossed US$5.9 million domestically and US$9 million globally. Judging from his book, this universal rejection of Sorcerer was a sobering slap in the face for Friedkin who, over the previous five years, had directed two movies that collectively won seven Oscars™ from 18 nominations, with the second being one of the biggest money-makers (pre Jaws) of all time.
The first, The French Connection (1971), received five gongs – including best film and one for Friedkin as best director. Meanwhile his next project, The Exorcist, garnered two awards (out of 10) and became the third highest grossing movie in history. No doubt thinking that he couldn’t go wrong with the mass audience with which he had obviously connected, the Chicago-born film-maker went about producing the grim, crime-come-existential jungle suspense thriller that was not only a part remake of the Clouzot film, but also a homage to one of the great American films of all time (John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre).
Based on an updated screenplay of the Arnaud story by Walon (The Wild Bunch) Green, Sorcerer is about four criminals who – after fleeing the scenes of their respective crimes – end up in a squalid Dominican Republic backwater working for an unscrupulous oil multinational. When one of the company’s wells is blown up by terrorists, the fugitives jump at the chance to drive two truckloads of shaky nitroglycerin across 218 miles of hostile jungle to put out the resultant blaze.
Like Clouzot’s LaSalaire de la peur, which takes place in mountainous South American terrains, the Friedkin movie spends a good portion of its time in the town where the outlaws are living (called Porvenir in the film, but identified as Las Columnas in the director’s memoir) before it hits the road. Unlike the French movie, however, it contains four opening vignettes of varying length explaining how each of the men (a Mexican assassin, a Palestinian terrorist, a fraudulent French businessman and a New Jersey gangster) happen to end up in the same Latin American hell hole.
By splitting Sorcerer into these two distinctive blocks, Friedkin not only created a richly layered and sometimes disorientating narrative that successfully crossed genres, but he also managed to cram one hell of a lot into an international thriller which, aside from the Dominican Republic, was set in Mexico, Israel, France and the US.
Moreover, he presented a fairly damning visual commentary on the exploitation of South America via his brutal depiction of searing poverty and corporate exploitation in the jungle backwater. Regrettably, all of this was largely ignored by cinemagoers of the day.
Worse still, some of the film’s better moments were derided by the critics, who not only complained about the film’s supposedly lengthy and (allegedly) wasteful exposition, but also its sense of emotional detachment from its four chief protagonists.
In his review for The Village Voice published on July 18, 1977, for instance, Andrew Sarris – the man who introduced the auteur theory to American audiences – said he had trouble identifying with “the stupefying disjointed” opening episodes and accused the director of being more intent on displaying his production facilities than on defining his characters.
“What Friedkin has managed to fabricate with all of his enormous resources is a visual and aural textbook on everything that is wrong with current movies: no narrative flow, no psychological development of characters, no interaction of performers, no true unity of locale amid all the exotic locations, no build up, no pay offs, no structure, not a single line of resonant dialogue, not a single scene of dramatic tension,” he wrote.
This rather unfair (and arguably inaccurate) analysis came just over a week after Canby’s second attack on the film, which pretty much ran along the same lines as the Sarris piece and appeared in a weekend column that was run in The NYT on July 10. On this occasion he repeated an observation he had made at the end of June, when he whined that Sorcerer’s opening vignettes stopped it from getting under way until it was almost an hour long “which is nothing in the life of an infant, but is middle aged for a movie”. Furthermore, he said, this narrative device diminished “the impact of the sometimes stunning melodrama that unfolds” in the film’s second half.
“Inside this two-hour-plus film … there is a good one hour movie, shot in the Dominican Republic, about four bums, outcasts from their own countries, who agree to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerin through virtually impossible Latin American terrain to fight an oil well fire,” Canby wrote.
“Instead of being as simple and as straightforward as that, though, Friedkin has seen fit to spend almost an hour of screen time showing us how each of the four men wound up in such desperate circumstances in the jungle.”
(This is simply not true – it only takes around 25 minutes before the story shifts from New Jersey to Porvenir, which in itself says something about the director’s sense of economy.)
Unfortunately, when CIC eventually released the film internationally in 1978, Teitelbaum and his cohorts pretty much followed Canby’s recommendations to a tee, re-cutting Sorcerer using his review as a kind template for the altered narrative.
This not only resulted in the offending expositionary sequences either being completely deleted (as in the opening moments in Veracruz) or trimmed to a bare minimum so they could be inserted as brief flashbacks throughout the new edit, but it prompted some significant shifts of dramatic emphasis within the story. CIC’s tampering also saw the modification of a number of other scenes, the redubbing of chunks of dialogue (with a few of the resultant lines sounding like something out of a spaghetti western) as well as the addition of new footage that didn’t make it into the original version.
As mentioned above, the recut Wages of Fear saw Sorcerer’s opening in Mexico – in which assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal) shoots an unidentified man in his hotel room – completely excised, meaning he does not appear in the film until his mysterious arrival in Porvenir by plane. Also ditched is practically all of the Jerusalem section, when a happy-go-lucky-looking Kassem/”Martinez” (Amidou) meets with his just-as-relaxed pair of friends in the street before they embark on their mission to blow up a bank, only later to be shot at/killed as they try to escape from the Israeli authorities.
In regard to this truncation, there are two things worth noting. Firstly, the director’s visual nods to Gillo Pontecovo’s 1965 film The Battle of Algiers (the soldiers running up the stairs of the apartment block; the angry mob protesting when Kassem’s friend is taken away in an army truck) have either been watered right down or removed altogether. Secondly, Friedkin, in his book, boasts how his crew also filmed some of the carnage resulting from a real terrorist bombing that took place nearby on the day of the bank shoot, adding some “documentary reality” to the moment. This too was given the snip.
The next episode, which is set in Paris and involves the financial downfall of Victor Manzon/“Serrano” (Bruno Cremer), fares just as badly in the CIC version. Removed are all the dialogue scenes between the swindler and his wife Blanche (Anne Marie Descort), including a seminal moment when she reads him a passage from a book she is editing about a colonel in the French foreign legion who accepts the killing of an innocent woman as necessary collateral damage (in his memoir, Friedkin maintains that a line from this exchange, when Blanche states “No one is just anything”, is Sorcerer’s main theme).
Then there’s the gift – a silver watch she gives him to commemorate their tenth wedding anniversary. The downgrading of its importance in the recut is significant as it is this timepiece that eventually prompts “Serrano” to muse (in one of the film’s few sentimental lines) “It’s five minutes before nine… in Paris”, just before he and “Martinez” are killed when their truck plunges into a valley.
The Teitelbaum version also slices the scene when the cigar-smoking Manzon gets an ultimatum from the head of the French bourse (Jacques Francois); it removes a heated clash he has with his partner-in-crime/brother-in-law Pascal (Jean-Luc Bidean) before the latter’s eventual suicide; and it makes sure no Mozart is playing in the fancy restaurant where he is having lunch with Blanche for the last time.
As for what happens to the New Jersey episode – in which mob driver Jackie Scanlon/”Dominguez” (Roy Scheider) emerges as the only survivor of a car crash after he and his Irish gangster colleagues rob an Italian church during a wedding – it is so butchered it’s not funny. Gone are the nuanced moments that suggest these hoodlums are a little loose. Aside from the fact he brazenly double parks in a busy street before entering the building, Scanlon drives like a maniac when they flee the scene of the crime (Friedkin slightly undercranks his camera as their vehicle hurtles down a road to the dissonant organ strains of Keith Jarrett), at one point almost running into a pedestrian.
The argument between Donnelly (Gerard Murphy) and one of the gangsters in the back seat** is also trimmed, another important omission given their fallout causes the wheelman’s fatal collision with a freight truck. Also chopped are the shots of the bride with a black eye and the priest giving his final blessing to the couple before they leave the alter, presumably to start a new life of domestic violence.
All of this, though, is nothing compared to how the truncation of this segment completely changes the eventual outcome of the entire story. In Sorcerer, Scanlon flees the US because a contract is put on his head by Carlo Ricci (Cosmo Allegretti), an Italian don whose brother, a priest, is shot during the robbery. In CIC’s Wages of Fear, there is practically no mention of any of this (except for the priest getting it in the leg); rather, the audience is led to believe that he goes into hiding out of fear there will be some sort of gangland reprisal after he botches the getaway and kills his colleagues in the process.
This not only means that the pivotal, dramatic crossover from outside a sleazy New Jersey motel (where a battered Scanlon meets his friend Vinnie – played by Randy Jurgenson – who helps him escape) to the jungle-covered mountains of the Dominican Republic is missing, but it reroutes the entire ending of the original film when Ricci’s hit squad, which now includes the turncoat Vinnie, finally turn up in Porvenir.
Instead, “Dominguez”, being the sole survivor of the mission, gets his cheque from COREPET’s Corlette (Ramon Bieri) and stares mournfully into the camera before a series of fly-over shots (one of which is of the damaged rig still being hosed down), accompanied by the film’s closing credits and Charlie Parker’s I’ll Remember April on the soundtrack, suggest he is being helicoptered to some kind of freedom. (By some strange coincidence, this montage is very similar in style to the closing of Friedkin’s 1985 crime caper To Live and Die in LA).
Oddly enough, if one overlooks the fact the truncation of all these scenes is tantamount to some kind of cinematic crime, the flashbacks in Wages of Fear do make a certain amount of sense: the New Jersey episode is slotted in at the start of the movie when “Dominguez” is sitting alone at the El Corsario bar staring at the painting of the Coca Cola woman on the wall; the Paris segment appears just after the jungle road journey gets in full swing; while the Jerusalem one occurs when “Martinez” is preparing – and then fleeing – a makeshift bomb and timer he has designed using a box of shaky nitro to remove a giant koaba tree which is blocking the road somewhere deep in the rainforest.
As mentioned earlier, Canby can’t be wholly blamed for this fiasco. Although his 1977 reviews were arguably instrumental in helping reshape the overall narrative (including his initial June 25 one that called Sorcerer a “big, fat, satisfying shapeless spectacle” and a “walnut movie … a good little melodrama surrounded by thick pulp”), they didn’t offer a scene-by-scene analysis of what other trims could be made. That, in the end, was taken care of by Teitelbaum and his CIC editors, who really did go to town rechopping and fiddling with the other parts of the movie, presumably with the blessing of the heads at Paramount and Universal.
After reducing to a bare minimum all the messy exposition that upset the New York critics so much, this team of butchers then hacked into the Porvenir segment for no obvious or explainable reason other than what Friedkin purported to Stratton – to boost ticket sales by speeding things up and fitting in more daily screenings.
Missing, for instance, is a short sequence when “Dominguez” walks down a small flight of stairs and out onto a busy road, where he lights a cigarette and trudges off to work. Aside from opening with one of the film’s recurring visual motifs (people carrying heavy burdens across their backs like packhorses … it’s kind of Bunuelian), this moment also briefly introduces the character of Spider (an unusually trim Joe Spinell), who works with the gangster and later gets knocked back when he applies for the suicide mission.Then, from a different angle, the camera pans across a run-down set of buildings and settles on the El Corsario, where “Serrano” is inside about to have breakfast. Not only does this give the audience a good idea of what downtown Porvenir looks like, but the cheery, uptempo Latino music on the soundtrack acts as an ironic audio counterpoint to the dire squalor being depicted on the screen. (To be fair here, the shot of El Corsario – after the camera movement has finished – and the accompanying music are included in Wages of Fear.)
This tidy edit also establishes the Dominican Republic hell hole as a true company town – one that has been crushed by the resources curse, where the morning peace has been replaced by the roaring engines of the endless convoys of trucks that make their way through the muddy streets of the backwater and out into the jungle where poor desperate bastards like “Serrano”, “Dominguez”, “Marquez” (Karl John) and “Martinez” earn their pitiful living shifting supplies, laying pipelines and maintaining the oil refinery.
Another strange omission from Wages of Fear is when Nilo catches a taxi from the airstrip after he bribes his way through customs in what is one of Sorcerer’s true quirky moments. There is a thread of humour running through Friedkin’s direction*** and, aside from some of his references to the Clouzot movie (of which this is one), his portrayal of the Mexican assassin is kind of comic. This short taxi ride immediately makes him looks like an out-of-place tourist, an image he maintains later in the film when he wanders aimlessly around all of the poverty wearing a Hawaiian shirt and trousers. If anything, this shows that the CIC editors either didn’t understand what they were really dealing with vis-à-vis character development or they just didn’t care.
(Additionally, the images of Nilo sitting in candlelight as the others prepare the trucks for the journey – and of the burning rig in the same montage – were removed).
Also cut is the moment when Corlette and his explosives expert Bobby Del Rios (Chico Martinez) are sitting in a helicopter observing the damaged oil well from the air. While Wages of Fear has a similar moment, it doesn’t include the close up of the two men; instead, it inserts a few lines of dialogue spoken over an alternate visual edit that explains what they plan to do. Interestingly, in Sorcerer, Del Rios tells Corlette he has seen worse, but in Wages of Fear his voiceover suggests the fire is of a far more serious magnitude.
There are other dialogue changes that also help change the tone of the story – some of which turn out to be quite amusing. When “Serrano” is in the El Corsario having breakfast, instead of asking the owner “Carlos” (Friedrich von Ledebur) for two eggs as he does in Sorcerer, he enquires if any planes have arrived from Europe, suggesting he is either hopeful his wife will come and rescue him or is still worried that the French authorities are on his tail.
Later, the two men share another exchange at the bar; in the original, the Frenchman thanks the “ex-Reich marshal” for serving him a slug of his top shelf whiskey … in the CIC cut, there’s no mention of this – rather he softly asks “Who is that guy sitting by your side”, to which the German replies “He’s OK … quiet-type. Why don’t you talk to him?” “Maybe I will,” “Serrano” answers (they are, of course, referring to “Dominguez”).
Another funny redubbing occurs when Lartigue (Peter Capell), Corlette’s English boss, says the damaged well will be closed down if it cannot meet “immediate supply obligations”. In the Teitelbaum version the Englishman (who now sounds white trash Spanish) hisses “We need that well – you fix it!”
Finally, there is the moment when “Martinez” realises his friend “Marquez” has been murdered by Nilo to get in on the trip. In the original, the Palestinian declares angrily to the others “The joker slit his throat”; for the international cut, however, he whines (as if on the verge of tears) “That bastard killed Marquez”.
At the end of the day, it was by fiddling with the dialogue and inserting the odd line in here and there that allowed the CIC editors to make some highly significant changes to what was Sorcerer’s narrative. Possibly the most glaring example of this occurs at the very start of Wages of Fear, which opens with a shot of the functioning oil well before revealing some of its environs as Corlette (in voice-over from a helicopter) tells Del Rios that, aside from being one of the region’s biggest producers, the infrastructure is vulnerable to sabotage. He even refers to – and the audience is shown – the derelict road leading to the project, saying it could be used by saboteurs (no doubt it ends up being the track “Dominguez” staggers in on with his box of nitro at the end of the journey). “We pay you people plenty for the concession,” Corlette says. “I vill tell ze president,” Del Rios replies just before the opening credits roll over a montage made up mainly of aerial shots across the jungle terrain (unlike Sorcerer, Wages of Fear has full opening credits, meaning viewers get to hear the first piece from the soundtrack that was put out by the film’s composer Tangerine Dream).
Possibly one of the most intriguing aspects of Wages of Fear, though, is what CIC added; that is, the stuff Friedkin decided to leave out.
Terrorism, for instance, plays a more prominent role in the story, not only underpinning the new fly-over exposition (and thus replacing all of the pulp Canby objected to so much), but becoming a constant threat that is just as prevalent as Porvenir’s searing poverty, the country’s military dictatorship, the town’s corrupt officials and COREPET’s corporate ruthlessness.
When the well explodes in the international version, a few of the saboteurs dispassionately watch the carnage from a nearby cliff ledge. Shortly thereafter, their detonation device is found by the army/security squad as it sweeps the area.
The CIC cut also has a scene when Corlette and Del Rios go looking for the good nitroglycerin the company has on hand, only to find that it has been stolen – presumably by the terrorists to use in the attack.
As an aside, there are some who have suggested that when the tire of the first truck blows out (the one named Sorcerer**** that is being driven by “Serrano” and “Martinez”), it has been shot. With its added emphasis on terrorism, this scenario makes more sense in Wages of Fear than it does in the original Friedkin film, where it is difficult to ascertain exactly what does cause the tire to blow.
Also in the international print is a peculiar and somewhat comical nod to one of the Clouzot film’s most devastating moments – that being when Mario (Yves Montand) is forced to run over the leg of Jo (Charles Vanel) after the latter gets caught in an oil slick while testing its depth.
In a scene which looks as if it’s being played for laughs, “Dominguez” gets Nilo to check the depth of a small pond they come across on the road. “But I can’t swim,” the Mexican assassin complains. After he rolls up his trousers and starts wading out into the water, “Dominguez” says “You got great legs, Pancho” before telling him that he “look(s) like an old lady”. Like Jo, Nilo stumbles; unlike Jo he doesn’t get run over – instead “Dominguez” watches him incredulously.
Then there’s the washboard crossing, which was an important moment in both the Clouzot film and Wages of Fear, but somehow didn’t make it into Sorcerer.
In it, Jo/Nilo are too cowardly to keep the speed of the truck up to 40 miles per hour on a corrugated piece of track in order to avoid what Alex Kierstein in his essay on the Hooniverse website succinctly calls a “potentially explosive suspension oscillation”. In the French version it is Jo’s first act of cowardice before he scurries from a perilous incident later in the movie when Mario maneuvers a dangerous corner in the road on the side of a hill. Meanwhile, in the CIC cut, its Nilo’s reluctance to keep up the speed that makes “Dominguez” take over the driving duties, relegating “Pancho” to sidekick status until the Mexican redeems himself towards the end of the journey by shooting the terrorists who attempt to hijack their truck.
It’s an odd omission by the director – and certainly a scene which should have been included in Sorcerer, given it not only better defined the relationship between the hoodlum and the assassin but, for a brief moment, also appeared in the original movie’s Scanlon-goes-nuts montage just before his vehicle breaks down in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin wilderness (shot in New Mexico).
Friedkin maintains in his book that he didn’t set out to remake the Clouzot film. Rather he was more interested in using the same premise (“four men, strangers in a foreign country, fugitives, broke and desperate, who sign on to drive two trucks carrying crates of nitroglycerin to extinguish an oil well fire 200 miles away, across unforgiving landscapes’) to make something that was “grittier” than the French movie “with the ‘documentary feel’ for which I had become known”.
In this regard he totally succeeded, for that’s exactly what the audience got with Sorcerer. Porvenir is way, way more squalid than Las Piedras; the jungle of the Dominican Republic is far more repressive than the open spaces of the Clouzot movie; the existential desperation running through the film is much more palpable than it is in Le Salaire de la peur; while there are moments throughout the film where it’s obvious a cinema verite mentality is at work. The fact neither the washboard nor the pond crossing scenes made Friedkin’s original cut suggests he really did want to put some distance between himself and the French director.
The fact he also makes a number of references to John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (aside from the seedy locale at the start of the movie and the desperate circumstances of its protagonists, “Dominguez” is practically a carbon copy of Humphrey Bogart’s Frank C Dobbs – from his wardrobe, build and mannerisms to a scene where one of the jungle terrorists who holds up his and Nilo’s truck removes his hat at gunpoint and puts it on his own head) is further proof that the Francophile Friedkin was looking to make a truly American work, presumably with a reasonable dose of European sensibility.*****
Nevertheless, all this wasn’t enough to placate the irate Canby, who – in his second piece on Sorcerer – continued to criticise the film’s budget by saying the director was “not the god that the grosses of The Exorcist would indicate to financial types”.
He added: “To make a good suspense adventure film, one doesn’t stretch the material. One compresses it so that it becomes a dangerously explosive element. Someone must have been aware of this, but Friedkin, riding on the crest of The Exorcist wave, was out of reach.”
It’s difficult to understand where Canby was coming from with this observation, given Sorcerer’s direction was very tight and its mise-en-scene packed with detail. Had David Lean or John Sturges made it the critic might have had a case, but Friedkin didn’t unnecessarily drag anything out – he merely crammed more into a variation on the original story and brought the whole thing in at just a whisker over two hours.
While Canby was a great critic who was usually more spot-on than not, he was way off the mark with Sorcerer. Unfortunately, his skewed judgment – which was somehow jaundiced by his dislike for big budgets, the director and the fact the movie was not a faithful remake of the Clouzot film – not only helped bring it down, but ultimately ensured that audiences outside of the US would never get the chance to see one of the most fascinating Hollywood works of the 1970s up on the big screen.
Interestingly, the journalist later denied that major critics did have an influence on the commercial fate of movies. In a comprehensive interview with Cineaste’s Gary Crowdus and Dan Geogakas in early 1980 – and in response to an attack on the New York film press by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci after his 1979 movie Luna was panned in the Big Apple -The NYT first stringer retorted by saying his newspaper was not responsible for “Luna being a dog”.
“The kind of criticism I’m trying to write – and I don’t do it as well as I’d like – is, I suppose, a mixture of all things that good criticism should be,” Canby explained.
“That is, it’s principally one man’s response to a work, and that response is on several levels – it’s analytic, it’s expository, descriptive and personal.
“The function of a critic is to write something that will approximate what the experience of watching a film was like, and all the various responses he had.
“Invariably, you sort of build up a readership and the readers know how to bounce off you.”
In the case of Sorcerer, Canby not only convinced his readership to bounce its collective attention the other way, but he also managed to sway the thinking of the studio heads, who took his multi-faceted response far too literally and cut the film the way he suggested. Ironically, it’s unlikely the critic ever saw CIC’s version of Wages of Fear or even knew of its existence.
One final and quite interesting aspect of the Sorcerer story is Friedkin’s admission that his arrogance back in the mid 1970s was so great he refused to cast Steve McQueen as Scanlon/”Dominguez” in the film because the actor insisted his then new squeeze (Ali McGraw) be given some sort of role in the movie.
“I didn’t know then what I’ve come to realise: a close up of Steve McQueen was worth more than the most beautiful landscape in the world,” he wrote in his memoir.
McQueen in a jungle movie – now where have we seen that before? Of course … Franklin J Schaffner’ssmash hit Papillion (1973), a virtually critic-proof, sweeping biopic that came out at the same time as The Exorcist in which the late superstar played a French convict who ends up on – and escaping from – Devil’s Island when he is an old man.
Although Friedkin has been pushing the line for years that McQueen might have made Sorcerer more audience friendly and thus helped save its hide at the box office, it’s a problematic proposition in some ways, despite the fact both movies are about criminals trying to escape from the jungle.
For a start Papillion had two, not one, big stars in it (the other being Dustin Hoffman). Secondly, it was based on a popular best-selling book that was purportedly a true story. Thirdly, it was made by a director who had a solid track record of coming out with well received movies. Combined, this made the whole thing very marketable.
Sorcerer, on the other hand, was in a different league; it was at the other end of the jungle movie spectrum. Unlike Schaffner, Friedkin didn’t just want to entertain – he wanted to bombard the senses. His and Green’s story wasn’t about the quest for freedom; rather, it was about the inevitability of failing to achieve it. Even with McQueen in it, one can’t help feel Sorcerer still wouldn’t have clicked with a film watching culture that at some point decided it would rather embrace the Force than sit through two hours of unrelenting existential gloom.
Another thing to take into account when it comes to explaining the film’s poor box office performance is the fact it was released shortly after two other strangely similar movies – John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976) and John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday (1977).
Like Sorcerer, both had disorientating openings involving criminal activities which crossed continents. Furthermore, while the former contained scenes that were set in Paris and a South American jungle, the latter involved Palestinian terrorists. As thrillers, they all crossed similar turf. The problem for Friedkin was (and these numbers are lifted from Wikipedia and IMDd respectively) Marathon Man had already done some US$28 million worth of business, while Black Sunday’s box office racked in US$15.8 million during its first run. It could well have been that by mid-1977 US audiences had seen enough of this sort of stuff to bother with Sorcerer, particularly when the initial reviews were so stinky.
**Update: Sorcerer is now available on Blu-ray in the US (it is REGION FREE).
Not having seen the restored version of the film it’s hard to guess if Friedkin repeated what he did with the reissue of The Exorcist back in 2000 and inserted some of the additional scenes. Judging from his recent comments, it seems unlikely. However, when he gets around to releasing Sorcerer on Blu-ray, he should seriously consider including the complete Wages of Fear cut in the extras package, no matter how much it makes him grind his teeth. Although it is the result of some vicious and inexplicable studio tampering and possibly represents one of the worst treatments of any Hollywood film ever, it remains an interesting curio for a number of reasons.
For a start it still contains signs of Friedkin’s brilliance and economy. Secondly, it reveals some of the thought processes that were no doubt behind his shooting schedule circa 1975/76 when he filmed so much unused footage that it gave the CIC editors a chance to re-cut the whole thing and still come out with a tight, coherent 90 minute movie. Thirdly, it shows what can happen when the opinions of film critics are given too much credence. In the case of Sorcerer, they helped throw a valuable work into a parallel universe. One can only hope its re-release post Venice will bring it the wider audience it truly deserved back in 1977.
Written by Mark Fraser.
*The director does, however, mention the fact Sorcerer did receive a bad review in The New York Times when it was first released.
**Despite repeated viewings of the film and a reasonable amount of research, I have not been able to identify the actor. I suspect it’s either Desmond Crofton (Boyle) or Henry Diamond (Murray).
***Perhaps one of the director’s funniest touches in the film is at the end, when he has the old woman Agrippa (Rosario Almontes) – who may or may not be “Carlos’” wife or mistress – on all fours scrubbing the floor of the El Corsario in the background as Corlette pays off “Dominguez”. It is, of course, a nod to the sexy Vera Clouzot’s provocative, cleavage-revealing flirting with Montand in Le Salaire de la peur (the sex appeal between the two women couldn’t be starker). And while on the subject of Agrippa, the close up of her sadly staring through a chicken wire frame in the opening Porvenir montage was deleted from Wages of Fear.
****In his memoir, Friedkin suggests it’s Sorcier that is painted on the side of the truck; I seem to recall it being Sorcerer. Either way, the name was somehow morphed out in the Wages of Fear print.
*****Or a Japanese one – there is a strong visual similarity to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) in the scene when “Dominguez” tries to machete his way through a swamp after he and Nilo come across the giant koaba tree which has fallen across the road … it all looks very much like the closing moments of Toshiro Mifune’s last battle in the rain before he dies.
INFORMAL BIBLIOGRAPHY (SOURCES QUOTED IN ORDER)
Vincent Canby: Review for The Exorcist – The New York Times, December 27, 1973
Tom Ryan: Gods and Monsters – The Age, December 6, 2002
David Stratton: Interview with William Friedkin – The Movie Show, SBS Television, circa November, 2002
William Friedkin: The Friedkin Connection (A Memoir) – HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2013 (pages in order of appearance: 228, 347, *Spoiler*, 328, 330, 320, 325, with the footnotes from 349 and 345)
Peter Biskind: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, 1999 (page 337)
Author Unknown: Big Bucks Vs Rentals – Variety, January 13, 1982 (sourced from Wikipedia)
Andrew Sarris: A Devil of a Bad Movie, But Not Diabolical – The Village Voice, July 18, 1977
Vincent Canby: Review for Sorcerer – The New York Times, July 10, 1977
Vincent Canby: Review for Sorcerer – The New York Times, June 25, 1977
Alex Kierstein: Handle With Caution “The Wages of Fear” – Hooniverse (webpage), March 9, 2011
Vincent Canby: Review for Sorcerer – The New York Times, July 10, 1977
Gary Crowdus and Dan Geogakas: Interview with Vincent Canby in Art, Politics, Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews – Lake View Press, Chicago, 1984 (pages 284, 290-91)