‘Sorcerer’ Reappears . . . William Friedkin’s Variation on Clouzot’s Wages of Fear Revived
IN THE EARLY months of 1992, interest in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 French classic Wages of Fear was keen. An uncut version was running at the Castro Theater in San Francisco and Sorcerer, a 1977 American remake of the epic adventure, was about to open at the Roxie Cinema. So it was that the director of Sorcerer, William Friedkin, came to the Bay Area to be interviewed on the Roxie’s stage. But before that, he had time to sit down with me to discuss the film’s re-release.
By this time in his career Friedkin had two major blockbusters under his belt: The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), and he had helmed a major horror film in 1990, The Guardian.
I was instantly startled when Friedkin – Billy to his friends – opened the interview by telling me that Sorcerer, when it opened in ‘77, had been a complete box-office flop. “It has never earned me a penny,” Friedkin told me, “but it remains my personal favorite of all my films.”
I decided to lean back and let him carry me away into the jungle of South America. “I’ve always been struck by the power and suspense of Clouzot’s work, but I never had the idea to do a remake. I didn’t want to repeat the same incidents and characters of the original. I wanted everything in Sorcerer to be unique. I did want to take the themes of Wages of Fear and do my own variations.
“I saw it as a perfect metaphor for the world situation today. Four total strangers, resentful and fearful of each other, must put aside their differences and work together to save their lives. And that’s our world today: It’s full of foreigners who hate each other but they must cooperate or destroy each other.”
Sorcerer and Wages of Fear are both about fugitives from justice who meet up in a run-down South American village and accept jobs driving trucks filled with dangerous explosives over a jungle highway. But Sorcerer creates characters of its own mold and has a structure that is drastically different from Clouzot’s film.
While Wages of Fear opens in the squalid village where the four main characters already have drifted, Sorcerer spends most of its first hour establishing the original milieus of the men. Roy Scheider is an American gangster pulling off a New Jersey heist; Francisco Rabal is an assassin performing a hit in Vera Cruz; Bruno Cremer is a French embezzler trying to cover up his theft in Paris; Amidou is a Palestinian terrorist planting a bomb in a teeming city street. All four must flee for their lives when the heat is turned up.
While Wages of Fear deals with the changing personalities of the men as they make their dangerous jungle trek, establishing an existentialist attitude through dialogue, Sorcerer is less articulate and more visually realistic in showing, in almost microscopic detail, the harrowing experiences of the truckers as they sweat it out against overwhelming odds.
“I’m a fatalist,” Friedkin told me, “and I believe that fate is the controlling factor in our lives. You can plan your life but one day you walk outside and get hit by a truck, or a refrigerator falls on your head. It happens to all of us to one extent or another. Sorcerer is about how fate alters men’s lives.”
And fate, Friedkin insisted, “took a hand in the making of Sorcerer. This picture was not meant to be made. Its production was an ordeal from beginning to end.”
One spectacular sequence has the truck (dubbed Sorcerer, hence the film’s title) crossing a rickety suspension bridge over a rampant river in a blinding rainstorm. This hazardous event runs at least ten minutes and is an exhausting experience for the viewer, with one cliff-hanger heaped on another. It took Friedkin and his crew–including production designer John Box and his assistant Roy Walker–three months to complete this sequence. It also took the efforts of two cinematographers: John M. Stephens and Dick Bush. Friedkin admitted to me that it was the strongest sequence in the film and nothing else in the film could possibly match it.
“The first bridge we built in the Dominican Republic we couldn’t use because the river went dry for the first time in recorded history,” Friedkin recalled. “We found our second river in Oaxaca, Mexico, and even that went down from 12 to three feet while we were shooting. We didn’t use any miniaturizations – everything was shot on an actual suspension bridge with hidden metallic supports that were hydraulically controlled, so we could raise and lower portions of the bridge at will. We had to lash the truck down so it wouldn’t topple off.”
Since a gray background sky was needed, filming could be done only for short periods before sunup and after sundown. To simulate the storm, Friedkin needed huge hoses to shoot water into the air, drawn from the river below.
Disease, accident, illness, flood, drought – all took their toll on the cast and crew. Even Friedkin was felled by malaria. Another problem was Friedkin’s reputation, which had preceded him. Indian natives were needed to help the crew, but when word got out that Friedkin had directed The Exorcist, the natives bolted. “There was a mass exodus from the area. They split by the hundreds.”
Many have speculated over the years as to why the film was a box-office disaster. It was produced by Universal and Paramount (one of the first co-studio productions of its kind) with no expense spared. Friedkin estimated the budget at $15 million (“a lot of money for its time”) and it was given a wide release. Some have suggested that the title was misleading, especially coming from the director of The Exorcist. It appeared to be another supernatural thriller . . . but it wasn’t.
There’s another possibility for the public’s apathy: Because there were no sympathetic characters (unlike Clouzot’s film, which had Yves Montand as a charming rogue), Sorcerer creates a chasm that viewers find difficult or impossible to breach. Friedkin is the first to admit his film “just never caught on, and I’m not sure why. If anyone is to blame, it’s me. The film was my vision, and most of what I’d envisioned is up there on the screen.”
He also acknowledged that Roy Scheider, though a “superb actor,” was not the “big star” that the film needed. Walon Green, the writer whom Friedkin had worked with in shaping the story for Sorcerer, originally had written the gangster role for Steve McQueen.
“At that time, McQueen had just married Ali MacGraw and didn’t want to go off into the jungle unless he could take her with him,” Friedkin recalled. “That meant I’d have had to write a role for her or make her an associate producer. I was arrogant in those days and I said, ‘Who needs Steve McQueen?’ If I was confronted with the decision today, I’d be less arrogant and find a way to work in Ali MacGraw.”
Friedkin told me that Wages of Fear “was a great movie. It never fails to move me with its cynicism and ironic ending. I had the pleasure of meeting Clouzot before his death. He turned out to be a soft, vulnerable man, not the hard ass he’d been painted to be. I’d intended to negotiate the rights for Wagers of Fear so he could have a share of the profits, only to discover that Clouzot didn’t own the rights and had never made any residuals from his movie, even though it was still playing all over the world after more than 20 years.”
According to Friedkin, the rights to the novel were still owned in the 1970s by the writer Georges Arnaud. “Clouzot told me that Arnaud hated him and had never liked the film version of his novel, although why he hated it Clouzot never told me.”
Despite the onetime popularity of The French Connection and The Exorcist, the following for Sorcerer continues to bring Friedkin his greatest recognition on college and university campuses. “Very definitely,” he said, “it’s a cult film.”
I told Friedkin that whatever negative qualities he felt Sorcerer suffered from today, in the final analysis it was worth seeing just for comparative purposes. But one other thing, I had to add: Its more cerebral character development and the inarticulate men made it definitely seem inferior to Clouzot’s version.
At that time Sorcerer was available as a laser disc or videocassette version from MCA, each having been overseen by Friedkin himself. Today there is a DVD version from Universal Home Video as well as a Blu-Ray version. As for The Wages of Fear, it is available in DVD and Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.
Hey, don’t leave yet!
Billy’s going to talk about his true-crime film Rampage, shot in 1987 but not released until 1992. Wait until you hear why!