May the Sorcerer Be with You…

26 Jul

Sure, we all know the hype. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” A long time ago? 40 years this summer (okay, this past May) to be exact. And the galaxy was actually our own. If you lived in Dallas–as I did–you saw George Lucas’s original Star Wars entry at the long gone General Cinema NorthPark I and II. That’s where I saw it. First week, in fact. If you missed it, well, too bad. It played at the one location for over a year. Hard to imagine in this day and age with so much stock invested in the mammoth opening weekend.

Of course, Star Wars was and is the game changer of all game changers as far as moviegoing and moviegoers were/are concerned, an effect which can be aptly described as stratospheric.

But this piece isn’t about Star Wars because, again, we all know the hype.

As crushingly popular as Star Wars was, it did not necessarily steamroll the competition at the box office during the heady days of summer ’77, legend to the contrary. Oh, to be sure, nothing else released that season impacted the public consciousness (and raked in as much coin) as Star Wars and, arguably, only Steven Spielberg’s December offering, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, excited audiences as intensely, but, make no mistake: the summer of ’77 had plenty of films for all tastes, many of which were quite successful in their own rights. For starters, the contenders include Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jackie Gleason, who, along with Jerry Reed and director Hal Needham, had a rollicking good time in the slam-bang chase comedy Smokey and the Bandit. Also, super-hot Nick Nolte, coming off the breakthrough mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man, teamed with super-sexy Jacqueline Bissett in underwater adventure The Deep, capitalizing on the success of 1975’s blockbuster Jaws, like The Deep based on a best-selling novel by Peter Benchley. To underscore the Benchley connection, director Peter Yates even cast Jaws heavy Robert Shaw.

Also, racking up considerable ticket sales during that time were The Spy Who Loved Me, debonair Roger Moore’s third outing as Agent 007 in the James Bond franchise, AND Richard Attenborough’s star laden World War II film, A Bridge Too Far. Star laden meaning the likes of top tier talent, such as (in no particular order) Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, James Caan, Elliott Gould, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, AND Robert Redford, among others. Even George Segal’s thriller Rollercoaster rode the Sensurround express to the profit margin; meanwhile, Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart lent their recognizable voices to Disney’s delightful animated adventure The Rescuers [1].

Then, there’s Sorcerer.

We know the reviews for Sorcerer were generally on the tepid side, but at least marketing personnel were able to glom onto a rather persuasive quote, per Newsweek’s Jack Kroll. Not that it helped. Btw, the film’s title comes from the name splattered across one of the vehicles as a christening of sorts. (IMAGE: https://www.amazon.com/Sorcerer-VHS-Roy-Scheider/dp/6301790170)

Based on the same source material as the French classic known in the U.S. as The Wages of Fear (directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot), Sorcerer looked to be another smash for director William Friedkin, hot, hot, hot at the time thanks to the back-to-back successes of The French Connection, 1971’s Best Picture winner, and The Exorcist, the diabolical pop culture sensation of 1973–and a major Oscar contender as well. Ruggedly handsome Roy Scheider, ripe with all the goodwill from aforementioned box office giant Jaws, and a Friedkin veteran with a Best Supporting Oscar nomination to his credit via The French Connection, led the international cast. So far, so good.

Despite that illustrious pedigree, Sorcerer failed to find much favor either with critics or the general public. Indeed, the movie’s bloated budget—in excess of $20 mill, a lot for 1977—necessitated the involvement of two studios, Universal and Paramount. By all accounts, even with international ticket sales factored, Sorcerer still lost money. The long-repeated post-mortem is that Sorcerer suffered unfortunate timing, released as it was on the heels of Star Wars, but that seems a tad too easy; after all, a number of summer ’77 releases performed very well, so why not Sorcerer?

Let’s back up. The story unfolds as four outlaws, strangers from all backgrounds across the globe (Mexico, Israel, France, and New Jersey, USA) flee their enemies, including law enforcement, for varying reasons, and end up in a hardscrabble village situated within the jungles of Latin America. Conditions are harsh, and the men are miserable, but they have few options if they expect to remain alive and relatively safe. Meanwhile, an agent for an American oil company arrives in the village, looking for drivers to transport six cases of nitroglycerin across extremely hazardous terrain to the site of a horrific accident at a remote drilling site. The men are promised a small fortune for their efforts, but, of course, the success of the mission is far from a sure thing. One false move and the whole thing blows up, literally. End of story. Desperate as they are, the men must not only overcome the inherent obstacles of the dense, jagged, rain-swept jungle, they must learn to trust each other, and these are not the most trusting or trustworthy guys. The suspense just mounts, mounts, and mounts. And, again, there’s nitro.

By now, you have likely figured out that the film has absolutely nothing to do with sorcerers nor any other aspect of the magical realm.(See sidebar.) Anyone hoping to hop aboard the mysticism bandwagon would surely be disappointed. The title sounds truly fantastic but is terribly misleading. Don’t you think? You know what title wasn’t misleading? Star Wars. You know what else? Smokey and the Bandit (this being the era in which CB radios had already popularize the term “Smokey”); likewise, The Spy Who Loved Me is about, well, spies. Who knows? Sorcerer might have fared better with a more descriptive title. This point is virtually impossible to deny, and I would be surprised if it weren’t the result of studio meddling. No doubt the suits felt that Sorcerer was alluringly ominous enough to attract fans of the director’s previous hit, all about demonic possession don’t forget; after all, look how well Carrie and The Omen had performed in the interim, but did those same suits ever contemplate the backlash that could erupt from a title that promised what it did not deliver?

With all that in mind, the reason for Sorcerer’s failure is not hard to imagine given its complexity, its density, and moral ambiguity. No, the matter can’t be as simple as unfortunate timing in the wake of the Star Wars juggernaut though Sorcerer comes up short as mass entertainment in comparison. In other words, consider how neatly Star Wars distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys. Meanwhile, say, Smokey and the Bandit definitely plays with expectations of good guys and bad guys but does so for laughs, and audiences respond to star Burt Reynolds’ rakish charm. Furthermore, the Bond movie gives us a tried and true hero. The Deep serves eye candy with its good looking leading players and lure of Bermuda. See? On the other hand, Sorcerer asks audiences to identify with a quartet of criminal lowlifes and makes it hard to root for any of them. Scheider, the lone American in the bunch (but by no means a star…yet), weighs in as a robber whose misdeeds spin from bad to worse. Furthermore, not everyone makes it to the final reel, so no happy ending either, which can kill all-important word-of-mouth. Star Wars had word of mouth as did Smokey and the Bandit and some of the others. In the pre-Internet area, word of mouth spread rapidly, directly, and audience members were ready to get back in line for second and third viewings. A fun time at the movies has that effect. Sorcerer, well, not so much.

Likewise, the thing so many of us love about Star Wars is the giant crawl at the beginning that carefully sets up the story for us before plunging us right into the action. Not so, Sorcerer. The movie begins in Vera Cruz and in a matter of seconds shows one man shooting another. We know nothing about either man or why we should even care. No dialogue, no explanation. Friedkin quickly cuts to a busy street in Jerusalem where three terrorists plant a bomb in broad daylight and quickly flee the scene. Why? Friedkin never explains. All we know is that one of the terrorists survives a subsequent raid by the military police. Then, we find ourselves in Paris. And so it goes. Friedkin shows much more than he tells, but some audiences like to be told. They want to be told and maybe even need to be told. Maybe.

Also, what about that jungle, the setting for most of the movie? It’s sticky, dirty, and harsh, treacherous, unrelentingly so. It certainly doesn’t look as sparkling or as The Deep, that’s for sure. Definitely not as glamorous or exciting as the “far, far, away” environs dreamed up by George Lucas and his team of designers.

So, Sorcerer portrays despicable rotters enveloped by greed in the thick of a seething, hellacious jungle with little or no hope. Not a pleasant thought when moviegoers can just as easily choose a space fantasy unlike anything in recent memory: bigger, louder, more visually spectacular, otherworldly. Or maybe those same moviegoers faced sold-out auditoriums—it happens—and looked for a second choice. Almost anything else would prove lighter, more entertaining, more agreeable, than Sorcerer.

But what about the critics? Sure, Sorcerer was a tough sell for the masses, but what about the critics? Did they lavish high praise on Friedkin’s continued genius? Not so much. Maybe they were too enamored with the French original and found Friedkin’s take bloated rather than lean, a genuine concern. On the other hand, the critics weren’t exactly kind to The Deep, either, or even A Bridge Too Far, as I recall, but, again, unlike Sorcerer those movies held more appeal for the general public.

That noted, many critics who were mostly underwhelmed by Sorcerer at least gave credit to Friedkin for one spectacularly gut-wrenching sequence. Amid a torrential downpour, Scheider and the rest steer their heavy, over-sized vehicles with their nitro laden cargo across a seriously dilapidated bridge that looks like it could capsize any minute. Everything about the sequence, the effects, the cinematography, the editing, the sound mix, not to mention the incredibly skilled acting, renders this one of the most thrilling edge-of-the seat sequences in all of moviedom, a real nail-biter not easily forgotten. And I’ve only ever seen it on my TV screen. I can only imagine the level of suspense that would build from seeing it on a mammoth screen, Star Wars style. Cinemark Classics series, are you listening?

Of course, part of what sells the moment in Sorcerer is Friedkin and company’s absolute commitment to creating an illusion that’s as realistic as possible. In other words, what unfolds on the screen for a few almost unbearably intense moments in every way looks as though it is happening in real time, unfolding second by treacherous second right in front of viewers’  eyes. How did he do that? By all accounts, his perfectionism turned into something akin to obsession (the likes of which have been compared to Francis Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now) and crafting the scene so that it looked on film the way it did in his head was one of the biggest factors in the runaway budget. Maybe his actors weren’t acting after all and were generally terrified, pushed to the brink of desperation. Whatever. It all reads on camera, spectacularly so.

Now, of course, comes the all-important moment of truth. Per the old saying, “One swallow does not a summer make,” can one truly extraordinary episode make a whole film extraordinary? I say yes. Sorcerer is extraordinary, and well-worth any true cinephile’s time because the oft-praised spine-tingling sequence only has value because of everything that comes before it. Friedkin has to put viewers into the headspace of the characters in order to have the terrific payoff of one gangbuster sequence, and that means watching the trucks teeter and sway across the puny, tenuous bridge, knowing the contents inside, knowing  the weight of the mission, and what it means to all involved. That takes methodical storytelling capability, and that’s what Friedkin possesses in abundance. For example, Scheider’s character doesn’t have the best of luck with getaway drivers, so he’s set for a battle of wills with himself and with nature, looking for retribution in the most extreme conditions. Plus, Friedkin doesn’t stop with the bridge sequence. He has at least one more zinger for audiences, a total Rube Goldbergesque scenario spotlighting the unique talents of the surviving terrorist from the Jerusalem episode (played by the singularly credited Amidou). Again, the payoffs come later rather than sooner, but only because Friedkin begins with such forethought.All that aside, yeah, maybe the film runs out of gas, so to speak, before the credits roll, but that doesn’t negate its staying power.

Come Oscar time, Sorcerer eked a single nod, Best Sound. Of course, it lost to Star Wars. No surprise there, and certainly not unjust.  The Academy recognizes achievements, and Star Wars was that. Sorcerer was not. Of course, Friedkin had set the bar unusually high, what with past triumphs The French Connection and The Exorcist. Sure, Sorcerer scores as a technical marvel with first rate editing (Robert K. Lambert and Bud Smith, the latter nominated for The Exorcist) and cinematography (Dick Bush and John M. Stephens), not to mention Tangerine Dream’s hypnotic score, along with the aforementioned sound team, but the movie could not escape the taint of failure. The Academy may have very well been tempted to lavish honors on such an exciting, ambitious project with a lesser director at the helm even with disappointing box office. And better reviews.

I missed out on Sorcerer back in the day, but not for a lack of trying. The image of that truck teetering on that rickety, rain-swept bridge–per the newspaper ads and the TV spots (in an era in which commercials for movies were much less pervasive than today) excited my imagination, let me tell you. Still, moviegoing was something of a luxury. I saw Star Wars, sure, and Scorsese’s New York, New York (another box-office lightweight in spite of splashy press), but I missed most of the others, including I’m not too proud to say, The Other Side of Midnight. Oh, okay, I actually won tickets to an advance screening of The Deep at the Inwood (when it was still part of the ABC/Plitt Interstate chain) though I couldn’t stay for the whole thing, but I digress. Sorcerer was on my movie bucket list for the longest time, but that changed a few years ago, and Michael and I were both super-charged when we finally saw it.

I’m not sure we have the definitive DVD of Sorcerer…yet. There might have been a Criterion version once upon a time, but that no longer appears to be the case. I’d like to learn more background on the making of the film, including commentary by Friedkin. The years after Sorcerer were not exactly kind.  His account of the famed Brink’s Job, starring no less than Peter Falk, didn’t bring much favor, and he spun a whirlwind of controversy with 1980’s seedy crime thriller Cruising, starring Al Pacino. Interestingly, the latter, which gay activists slammed without mercy due to its lurid, one sided depiction of homosexuality in New York City as a bastion of soulless sadomasochism, is now seen by many as a metaphor for the killer known as AIDS that would damn near obliterate a whole generation of young men. Much of Friedkin’s output since then has been undistinguished though regained some footing with 1985’s To Live and Die in LA, and he directed an acclaimed TV remake of 12 Angry Men, good enough to warrant a passel of Golden Globe, Emmy, and SAG nods and/or actual awards for the likes of Hume Cronyn, Jack Lemmon, Edward James Olmos, George C. Scott, Courtney B. Vance, and Friedkin himself. His last noteworthy big screen effort was 2000’s Rules of Engagement, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson but also featuring Amidou (among many others). Scheider, sadly, has passed, so no DVD extras with him, but he left some stunning performances, including his dazzling Oscar nominated turn as Bob Fossee’s alter ego in All that Jazz, and after seeing Sorcerer, we have to wonder more than ever that Fossee ever considered Scheider for the role in the first place.

So, where and how does this Sorcerer‘s tale end? Director William Friedkin struck gold with such hits as The French Connection and The Exorcist, virtually ensuring carte blanche for his next project. When Sorcerer‘s costs ballooned, expectations for another blockbuster grew as well. But so did concerns. Alas, the movie tanked, and tongues wagged accordingly.  Friedkin’s supporters lamented that his project couldn’t compete against Star Wars, which Fox released shortly prior to Sorcerer‘s premiere. Sounds plausible, right? After all, we all know how much the public loved Star Wars, and we know how that enthusiasm translated to record breaking ticket sales. But. The “but” being that the summer of ’77 produced several big grossing films, all of them more than worthy of holding  their own against George Lucas’s space epic. That noted, Friedkin’s cinematic genius aside, Sorcerer  failed to resonate with moviegoers because it didn’t offer the easy hook and marketable elements that those other films offered. Case closed? Not so much. Critical favor seems to have swung the other way, and the film is finding an all new, appreciative audience thanks to advances in media platforms.  Now, moviegoers can find and view Sorcerer without a lot of fuss and can further appreciate it on its own merit, an explosive thriller marked by genius.  May the Sorcerer be with you.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Per the website, The Numbers, here is how these specific movies, save Rollercoaster, stacked up at year’s end: Star Wars (1), Smokey and the Bandit (4), A Bridge too Far (8), The Deep (9), The Rescuers (10), and The Spy Who Loved Me; all of the above were securely in the top 10, with Smokey and the Bandit holding the #2 spot, during the summer months with a few  late year entries, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind(2) and Saturday Night Fever (3) shaking things up a bit.

http://www.the-numbers.com/box-office-records/domestic/all-movies/cumulative/released-in-1977

 

Friedkin, Sorcerer in the New York Times:

 

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2 Responses to “May the Sorcerer Be with You…”

  1. Dale 28 July 2017 at 7:16 pm #

    Very Pleased with this Tribute. So Accurate on so many counts. I saw it on big screen 1st run, at time was somewhat confused, but the movie has always stuck with me. The bridge sequence is one of the most remarkable in film history. I’ve seen Wages of Fear and it is quite good, but Friedkin’s sequence does top it. Yay Melanie !!

    • listen2uraunt 29 July 2017 at 9:48 pm #

      Wow, Dale! I’m truly impressed that you saw Sorcerer in its original run, and I can only imagine the effect of seeing the bridge sequence the way Friedkin intended. Once again, thanks for reading. (FYI: I saw The Exorcist in one of its frequent rereleases, say, 78 or 79, and I actually hated it. I found it laughable in all the wrong ways.)

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