Maybe I should go back and give William Friedkin another chance. Sometimes you have to warm up to a filmmaker. I came to Friedkin in what I assume is the usual way, through his hits. But I've never been a big fan of either THE EXORCIST or THE FRENCH CONNECTION. It's not that I especially dislike either film, it's just that they didn't leave much of a mark on me.
A few years ago Friedkin's KILLER JOE did leave a mark on me. It damn near scarred me--which, I gather, was the intention of such a wickedly funny and disturbing piece of work. (Quick side note, KILLER JOE is the movie that should have won Matthew McConaughey his award).
Now that I've finally caught up to Friedkin's little seen 1977 jungle epic SORCERER, I can happily report that it is a masterpiece. It's every bit a Friedkin film--gritty, physical, dark. If you haven't seen it, be on the lookout for it in theaters. Friedkin has recently restored it and brought it back to the big screen with a Blu-Ray release on the way. You don't want to miss it. It's the director at his best.
It is an adaptation of the novel LA SALAIRE DE LA PEUR by Georges Arnaud, which was previously made into the film THE WAGES OF FEAR by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Friedkin's film is fully his own, though, departing in many ways from the Clouzot film. He begins his story by following three disparate men as their lives fall apart. There's Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a French businessman whose life goes into a tailspin when his business goes bankrupt and his partner/brother-in-law commits suicide. There's Kassem (played by Moroccan actor Amidou), an Arab terrorist who is on the run from the Israeli military for his part in a bombing. And there is Jackie Scanlon (a never-better Roy Scheider), a hood from New Jersey who makes the mistake of trying to rob a church bingo game run by a gangster's brother.
These men all make their way to Porvenir, a nowhere village in the jungles of South America, where they work for an oil company. When a well explodes 200 miles away, the company decides to hire drivers to transport some highly-explosive nitroglycerin across the jungle to put out the resulting well fire.
There is not a boring moment in SORCERER, though the film is deliberate in setting up each of the these plotlines. While most films would have begun in the jungle, Friedkin doesn't even get to the jungle until well into the film. This kind of pace-setting has crucial payoffs because we get to know the men. They don't have "back stories"--they just have stories, each of them, for why he has found himself in this terrible place.
Of course, the big payoff is the epic journey across the jungle and Friedkin doesn't disappoint. In the film's most famous scene, the men attempt to drive their giant sputtering trucks across a crumbling wooden bridge. This scene is picture making of the highest order--visceral and nerve-racking.
The whole film is a triumph, really. It actually deserves the overused term "existential" because it is a film about survival in its raw state. It's something else, too. From the lush, sweaty cinematography to the weird, off-kilter score, to the note-perfect performances of all of the cast SORCERER achieves the goal of being Pure Cinema. It's the best time I've had at the movies this year. Hell, it's one of the best times I've ever had at a movie.
So, yeah, I guess Hurricane Billy Friedkin is pretty damn great.
PS. Check out this site dedicated to the film. A lot of good stuff here.