' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Sorcerer (1977)

Friday, April 22, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: Sorcerer (1977)

When Scanlon (Roy Scheider), an American crook on the run, wakes up in a flop house in a remote Latin American village, he climbs out from beneath the mosquito set adorning his cot and takes a walk to the filthy water basin. The look on Scheider’s face here, it resembles the one he gets while pouring the wine in “Jaws” except siphoned of any wry comicality. This expression – it’s nothing. And that’s what he is, or what he has come to be, this walk is a funeral march of the living. Not for nothing does the movie open with Nilo (Francisco Rabal) entering the residence of a nameless man in Veracruz and shooting him dead. It doesn’t matter who he is or even why he’s being killed because Death, see, comes for us all. A pat point, perhaps, at least in theory, though director William Friedkin’s unrelenting existential epic makes that observation count for more than ever. In a way, “Sorcerer’s” fatalism is remarkable given the movie’s backstory, released in the summer of 1977 and subsequently buried by “Star Wars,” the public turning from the dourness of so much 70s cinema to the popcorn tentpoles we have now. The film was so forgotten that at one point Friedkin did not even know which studio owned it, jumping through myriad hoops to reclaim the rights, allowing for a rerelease last decade clearing the way for a reappraisal, a fatalistic movie resurrected.

Based on Georges Arnaud’s 1950 French novel “The Wages of Fear,” “Sorcerer” opens with a prologue cutting between the backstories of its four main characters – Scanlon, Nilo, investment banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), and Palestinian terrorist Kassem (Amidou) – and how each one of them for his own reasons winds up hiding out off the grid in an unnamed Latin American country with nebulous hopes of escape. Friedkin infuses these introductory passages with an indelible sense of docudrama realism. The bombing carried out by Kassem is recounted in fragments sans subtitles that unnerve more than they explain while the walls of financial fraud closing in on Manzon are rendered with an excruciating sense of verisimilitude. 

Whereas Friedkin’s famed “The French Connection” was all grim forward momentum, in “Sorcerer” he lingers over the living purgatory of his crooks and killers. The despondent quartet’s skin color might differ from the locals but the plights are roughly the same, evoked in Scanlon’s obviously phony alias Juan Dominguez, which feels like both the film and the film’s universe mocking him. The town might be propped up by an American petroleum company, but none of the wealth has trickled down, posters of the nation’s dictator like taunts. When Scanlon drinks a beer at the village watering hole, a Marilyn Monroe neon Coke sign teases him in the same way it has doubtlessly teased the backwater’s residents for years, America bottling up its amber waves of luxury living and selling it as something you can never hope to buy.

The oil company can, however, buy the services of these people. When one of their wells 200 miles away catches on fire, a scheme is concocted to cap the fire by blowing up the well. That, however, means six boxes of nitroglycerin need to be hauled 200 miles through and over jungle and mountain roads to the site of the blaze, necessitating a substantial reward. Seeing the money as their ticket out, Scanlon, Nilo, Manzon, and Kassem take the job. Now we here at Cinema Romantico have discussed The Nitroglycerin Factor before, named for the 2000 mountaineering opus “The Vertical Limit,” a way to infuse your action-adventure with just that much more crucial high-stakes lunacy. But the nitroglycerin in “Sorcerer” functions as something else entirely, not so much a MacGuffin as the Sisyphian boulder reimagined as a powerful explosive.

When this nitroglycerin train is thwarted by a fallen limb, it’s as much eternity’s cruel joke as it is a convenient excuse for the bombmaking Kassem to devise a bomb and blow the tree trunk apart. That sequence, though, has nothing on the one mid-movie when the massive trucks are forced to cross a swaying wooden bridge in a blinding rainstorm. This bridge, it’s like the one in “Romancing the Stone,” the one so rickety Kathleen Turner couldn’t even cross it. As one man guides and the other drives, Friedkin implements every tool in the auteurist toolbox, the practical effects of an actual truck crossing an actual bridge, sound effects of wind and rain and grinding wheels and planks snapping mixed with the throbs of Tangerine Dream’s eerie synth score, raising the tension to almost unbearable levels, a manifestation of nothing less than a cry into the void. The immensity of the moment is juxtaposed against Manzon’s end, coming almost immediately after smiling at a memory of his wife, that flash of serenity giving way to one bump in the road blowing him to kingdom come. The abruptness is as jarring as it is revealing, underlining how “Sorcerer” conjures up that most durable of idioms: life’s a bitch and then you die.

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