Sorcerer's keynote is epitomized early on when introducing Bruno Cremer's wealthy character, living an ivory tower existence, with no reason yet to feel insecure about much. His wife reads to him a war article. He comments, "Just another soldier." She replies, "No one is just anything." Indeed, in William Friedkin's merciless adventures, heroic characters tend to be defined by any and everything contemptible, villains are unknowable, the lines between them are exceedingly vague
and arbitrary. The French Connection, man-versus-man. The Exorcist, man-versus-unexplained. With Sorcerer, man-versus-chance, an indefinable, undetected competitor. The realm of Friedkin's visualization is a perilous, brutal, ethically insolvent one where there bluntly is no God, just randomness, meaninglessness, pure survival.
Unlike Clouzot's incredible original film, Friedkin doesn't allow for easy identification with any of the central figures, and despite Roy Scheider's impressively physical central performance, it remains emotionally aloof. But that doesn't matter. Seeing each man's prior exploits tells so much, voyeuristically, about their behavior when they happen upon each other in the thirsty alien setting where they're all out of their elements. We also see how regular joes can be monsters.
Also, throughout their respective prefaces, Friedkin foretells the boiling dangers awaiting our scandalous foursome, with sardonic counterpoint. Francisco Rabal abandons the hotel in a wrought-iron elevator decorated green, as are the hotel walls. As Amidou and his co-conspirators plan their getaway, they hurriedly study a map. When he chooses "the long way," the suggestion's far more poignant than he realizes. It's also in the early New Jersey fast-sketch that Friedkin's murky jesting emerges: In a church cellar, various priests calculate thousands of dollars, wearing visors, more like bookies than Christ's followes. Armed robbers break in. At the wedding upstairs, the ceremony's priest declares, "Christ abundantly blesses this love." Back to the basement as dollars gush from canvas bags, robbers jam their pouches. Upstairs, "You've strengthened your consent before the Church." Friedkin pushes into bride and groom. The bride has a black eye.
In a Paris café comprising close-ups of enticing culinary delights, Cremer, his wife and their friend babble about substandard lobster in humid South American waters, while Cremer merely half-listens. The truck Scheider runs into has a Meridian Freight insignia. Friedkin's pessimistic joking could be doubled here: Scheider zigzags off a "meridian" in a manufacturing district, a massive water tower dwarfing everything else. He'll eventually find himself in a manufacturing gutter of the world. During his getaway, he passes big color signs promoting things he won't see, have or enjoy again.
A handful of exiles and fugitives from starkly different backgrounds, cultures, nationalities are driven by desperation to go into hiding, working in an obscure oil drilling operation in South America. When fire breaks out of control, they each seize a chance to earn enough money to escape their hellholes, earn citizenship, feel as if they might restore honor, by transporting crates of unstable dynamite through miles of perilous jungle in rusty, rickety old trucks. But this dynamite, negligently stored, literally oozes nitro. Any shock, any vibration, they detonate. Somehow, driving in pairs, these men must carry their cargo past a crumbling rope-suspension bridge, swinging ferociously in a savage storm over a flood-heaving river, a colossal tree blocking the road, and a flock of forlorn, vicious bandits.
The cash sum being rewarded to the drivers is erratic all through the film. The oil company first says they will pay 8,000 pesos to each driver. Later the demand doubles. Later one boasts that he and another one will get double shares of 20,000 each. By the end, a check reads 40,000 pesos which would be just 10,000 each. This seems like one of Friedkin's sadistic impositions of his thematic intentions. We're drawn into circumstances so desperate, so reckless, any amount sounds beautiful, any amount will do, then eventually, returning to any semblance of relatable civilization is all that matters.
Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green strip the source story's existential themes to the core. Driven by a series of striking images, it ultimately goes one step further than Clouzot by suggesting that humankind is subject not only to the vagaries of fate and nature but to its own vengeful, venal essence. What's so enrapturing about Sorcerer is that the needs and situations that occur, one after another, are so primal, these characters are hairpin turns between murderously divided and collaborating with implicit trust. Friedkin exemplifies the seduction of voyeurism in the very close, detailed but utterly omniscient way we follow each unrelated character to this godforsaken place, where they know absolutely nothing of each other, but we've seen them all in their respective realms of normalcy, the shameful predicaments that got them here. But just as well, we're ever so subtly implicated in the vengeful, venal, not in what we see but what we find ourselves expecting. Take for example the riot that erupts in the street after the oil explosion. The townspeople are violent, frenzied, relentless, but Friedkin leaves out the authorities' retaliation. And we expect it
indeed, we begin to want it, relate to it. It's a disturbing feeling.
Friedkin loves to show mechanisms, the down and dirty way things work, as in the montage with minor-key synth music showing the rag-tag bunch preparing trucks. It makes us that much more conscious of the threadbare fragility of the utterly extraordinary ensuing action sequences, most notably the hazardous rainstorm crossing of the fragile rope-bridge. No matter how much these men exert themselves to cover every corner, suspect everyone, spot every detail, do whatever they can to ensure their survival, they never have any control over their own fates, not how they got into this mess or how or if they get out of it. They don't all speak the same language, none of them trust or even understand one another, or even use their real names. Even if they do succeed, or some, or none, they have about as much control over their deaths as they do their births.
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