• Sorcerer

For the next two Fridays and Saturdays at midnight, the Music Box will screen a new restoration of Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s 1977 remake of Henri-Georges Cluzot’s The Wages of Fear. The director’s first feature after the smash hits The French Connection and The Exorcist, Sorcerer was a critical and commercial disappointment when it was originally released. Audiences were baffled by the film’s structure, which devotes nearly its entire first half to exposition before getting to the central conflict—the fact that none of characters are particularly sympathetic was surely another hurdle. But time has been kind to this grim adventure movie, in which four lost souls converge in the South American jungle and get recruited to drive a load of explosive cargo across a most unstable terrain. The critic Kent Jones, for one, has called it Friedkin’s best film. In a 2005 appreciation of the director (reprinted in his collection Physical Evidence), Jones writes:

It’s fascinating that [Friedkin has] stayed so enmeshed within the Hollywood machinery and kept pursuing his own curious brand of punk action cinema. Sorcerer, To Live and Die in L.A., and Cruising are pretty strong medicine, close to bursting out of their generic pulp forms into a potentially terrifying nihilism. In Sorcerer, for instance, the film proper ends with an overly pat irony, but the images of the trucks getting over the bridge and a pale Roy Scheider wandering through a hollowed-out, lap-dissolved landscape have already left their impact . . .

What’s so unusual about the Friedkin [action] movies [about task-obsessed professionals] is the absence of elaborate gadgetry as well as the leisurely concentration and solitude afforded both [Don] Siegel’s meditative, relaxed Escape From Alcatraz prisoner and [Robert] Bresson’s resistance hero in A Man Escaped. Friedkin puts an extravagant Hollywood frame around a back-to-basics approach to existence, in which man is pitted against himself and/or nature, and the advances of civilization are just so many distractions and oases. In the Sorcerer truck preparation sequence, we get to see the insides of a truck in the most elaborate (and hitherto unseen) detail . . . The pace, set by those Tangerine Dream synthesizers, goes sleek but the detailing stays earthbound throughout.

The image of trucks getting over the bridge comes at the climax of the movie’s most celebrated sequence, which reportedly took three months to shoot. This exacting account of men overcoming the elements anticipates the famous boat-lifting sequence of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982)—much as Friedkin’s portrait of the South American jungle as a verdant hell on earth recalls Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). It’s been a long time since Chicagoans have gotten to see these spectacular images in a quality format. Prints of Sorcerer have been out of circulation for years, and no DVD of the film has presented it in its proper aspect ratio. Along with the Jan Nemec retrospective wrapping up at Facets and the upcoming Pier Paolo Pasolini series at the Gene Siskel Film Center, this ranks with the most important revivals of the season.