Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Friday Forgotten Film: Sorcerer

Whether some things are doomed to failure because of bad timing on their release, or in combination with a lack of understanding by those (few) that initially see it, it is a continual shame when a great film is left on the trash heap of history. Such was the case for the forgotten gem from 1977, director William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. It remains a movie lost to time and notoriety. No doubt, most of which was due of its difficult shoot in a jungle location in the Dominican Republic, and a host of travails in getting it completed. And being the production where its director earned his less-than-affectionate nickname, “Hurricane Billy.”

Big name stars (or soon to be big names) either wanted the lead role or turned it down. Although I was one of those few who actually saw this film in a darkened theater on its short-lived first run, the film has never really left me. It made that much of an impression. Still, I can’t take credit for identifying it for this week’s forgotten post. Writer Josh Olson, one of the very best of the insightful gurus over at director Joe Dante’s Trailers From Hell site, has long been an admirer. He highlighted this film a couple of years ago, and it just doesn’t get much better than his marvelous appraisal in the trailer’s commentary:

I agree wholeheartedly with Josh on how great this little seen film really is. And the Star Wars effect he talks about on its release is a valid one. Still, since it was an American remake (something I’m usually against, especially in the current staid studio environment) of a French classic, Wages of Fear (original title, Le Salaire de la peur) by Henri-Georges Clouzot, I suspect critics were likely already sharpening their knives for the man who dared to attempt it. Since he successfully delivered The French Connection and The Exorcist in succession likely only added to that targeting.

Together with Friedkin’s directorial reputation, the movie was going to get a hard reception no matter, and especially by those who the director rubbed the wrong way. This film definitely deserved better. The Tangerine Dream soundtrack along with its stunning visuals made its stark, desperate story that much more mesmerizing. If, as film history records, Steve McQueen had ended up in the lead as he wanted, I’m sure it would have been great — and the film may not have suffered the apathy that plagued it. Still, he didn’t. That gave the underrated Roy Scheider an opportunity to deliver a truly remarkable performance, which many missed. It still haunts those who’ve seen it.

I do hope more people get a chance to take this little seen film, and appreciate it. The current DVD is a bad barebones release from 1998 by Universal Studios (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!“). Of course, it suffers from all kinds of neglect. Besides no real extras, its chief malady is that its less than first-rate print was also badly cropped to a 4:3 aspect ratio — down from its original widescreen presentation (1.85:1). This is especially criminal since the cinematography and Friedkin’s visual composition is all but destroyed by that negligent decision.

Back in January 2011, I reported on the American Cinematheque Los Angeles’ two-day tribute for director William Friedkin. The clear highlight of the double-feature evening was this neglected gem in a stellar 35mm print. Screenwriter Josh Olson was in attendance and conducted the intro and the discussion with the filmmaker afterwards (most of which I got to record). During this session, Friedkin stated he’d start the Blu-ray Disc remastering process for Sorcerer later that year. In a May 2012 interview with Movie Geeks United, the director explained the problems, and studio practices, that subsequently arose.

sorcerer
Editor’s note: The newly remastered Sorcerer Blu-ray Disc has been released. In fact, in May 2014 I picked up that disc, and had Mr. William Friedkin himself autograph it, along with his softbound memoir at his book signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank.

With William Friedkin now taking Universal and Paramount to court, to decide who ultimately owns the film, fans of the work (like myself) sincerely hope a worthy release remains in the offing and will still come true. That said, as Mr. Olson mentioned in his trailer narration, the theme instrumental has been used many times in other movie trailers (and in another marvelous late-70s film). However, it’s never been more effectively utilized than in its original showcase. This is specifically true when the track comes up for the last time at the Sorcerer‘s memorable gut-punch of a close.

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36 Responses to “Friday Forgotten Film: Sorcerer”

  1. chandlerswainreviews

    Great piece. More than any other, I’ve always championed this film. Superlatives don’t begin to describe it’s impact (and they’re so overused on trivial films anyway, they have little meaning) and I’m so glad to hear you were able to see it on the large screen first-run (as was I) as that’s the only way to view it. I am always amused at studios who legally cling to ownership of a film while refusing to publicly acknowledge it’s existence as if it were made of rancid cheese.

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    • le0pard13

      Great to hear your thoughts on this film, and that you’re a long-time fan, Chandler. And I quite agree that catching this on a big screen is the ultimate way to view it.

      “I am always amused at studios who legally cling to ownership of a film while refusing to publicly acknowledge it’s existence as if it were made of rancid cheese.”

      Truer words were never more well spoken. Many thanks, my friend.

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  2. AndyWatchesMovies

    I just reviewed this one about a week ago – I preferred Wages of Fear (which I also reviewed), but I watched them both in such close proximity that I’m worried I didn’t give Sorcerer a fair shake. Going to have to go back to it eventually.

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    • le0pard13

      I’ll stop by and check them out, Andy. If you screened the ‘Sorcerer’ DVD out at the moment, you’ve missed a good portion of the movie because of the poor cropping. Only a fraction of Friedkin’s framing and visual composition comes over. Hopefully, you’ll get to revisit it once all legal wrangling is over and done with and can see the film as it was meant to be seen. Thanks for the comment and heads-up, Andy.

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      • AndyWatchesMovies

        Yup, I indeed watched the full screen DVD. The sound is pretty bad on it too.
        I’m REALLY hoping that Criterion picks it up once the legal dust has settled. The film has such a great backstory too.

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  3. Ted S.

    It’s a shame that this film failed at the box office, it’s a great remake and I think it might be better than the original. But I haven’t Wages of Fear in a while. I think the title fooled some people, they probably thought it was going to be a horror type of a film; especially with Friedkin’s name attached to it.

    The studio needs to resolve their issues and release a Blu-ray soon.

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    • le0pard13

      You and I are certainly in agreement on that whole score, Ted. Certainly, there’s more I can relate to in ‘Sorcerer’s 70s roots compared with ‘Wages of Fear’ and its distinct French perspective of the 50s (still a great film, though). Glad to meet more fans of William Friedkin’s forgotten gem. Many thanks, Ted.

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  4. ruth

    I’m afraid I haven’t even heard of this Michael, I’ve only seen two films by Friedkin so far. Interesting trivia about the film-ownership lawsuit, I’m sure you’d keep your eyes peeled on how that case is going.

    Have a great weekend, my friend!

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    • le0pard13

      It remains a great, and hopefully not lost, film, Ruth. I hope someday you’ll get to check it out (and in a format you get to appreciate it). Many thanks and hope your weekend goes great (and we have a Labor Day weekend coming!).

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  5. Paula

    I had no idea this even existed, but I found WAGES OF FEAR interesting so I added this to the queue. Cropping a 1.85:1 into a 4:3 is such a shame…I hope the litigation concludes and it gets a proper release.

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    • le0pard13

      That’s the unfortunate aspect about ‘Sorcerer’, Paula. There’s a boatload of movie fans out there, through no fault of their own, who’ve not heard of the film. I think it’s why Josh Olson made the point about what in time, if he could, he’d wish to change. But, with champions like him, and those who’ve come here to express their support for Friedkin’s film, this is a fight we who love cinema will refuse to lose. Many thanks, Paula.

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  6. mummbles

    This one has been on my list of movies to see, I cannot read the blog in case of spoilers but good to know you enjoy this movie as well.

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    • le0pard13

      No real spoilers, but I understand your thoughts on this, mummbles. It is a great film that needs a proper release. Thanks.

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  7. Mark Walker

    Friedkin is indeed getting some love these days Michael. I’ve yet to see this but I’ll certainly try to get around to it. Nice review my friend.

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, he is. I thought it great that some bloggers have been spotlighting his work. I even saw his KILLER JOE (which is rated at NC-17 here in the States) recently. The man can still put out some great, uncompromising work. Thanks, Mark.

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      • Mark Walker

        I’ve yet to see Killer Joe Michael but it’s high on my list. I just found out today that it’s apparently another collaboration with screenwriter/playwright Tracy Letts who done my recently reviewed “bug” with him. I’m even more intrigued to see it now. Thanks Michael

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  8. The Sci-Fi Fanatic

    Hey L13
    I loved your coverage of this because I’ve always loved Friedkin and Scheider.

    I believe the last time I read something of this was over at RH by J.D.. I was thoroughly intrigued then and you have added the icing to the cake.

    I have now moved this to my watch list.

    Now, will it be worthwhile to purchase this DVD despite the shoddy print? I must know.

    But really, plotwise, it sounds like a fantastic film.

    I remember reading about and watching some of that tribute you attended. I just know this has to receive a proper Blu-Ray release someday based on all of the feedback here, your impressions and general impressions of the film being so strong. What is the damn hold up?! Give the rights back to someone who gives a shite!

    A great post L13…. please give me your opinion on whether to purchase. I think it’s like 11 bucks.

    Cheers
    sff

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    • le0pard13

      Great to have you join in on this, SFF. And you ask a very pertinent question, especially for a film like this one. More than a year ago, I’d have said to wait for a revival screening at a movie theater, or Friedkin’s Blu-ray (as he’s shepherded some extraordinary remastering of some of his films — ‘French Connection’, ‘The Exorcist’, and others). Now, all of that has changed.

      • revival screening – Universal & Paramount have killed the release of 35mm prints for this (as studios now want everything to go through digital distribution), so that’s dead currently.
      • Blu-ray Disc – unless Friedkin can get his hands a good print to remaster from (likely not at this time given the legal wrangling occurring), it’s all on hold.

      So, that leaves you with the crappy DVD out at the moment. The sad fact is that Region 1 disc remains the only one out in the commercial channel! My Catholic Mexican-American upbringing would say: Oy vey!

      Book some time for watching that DVD, SFF (and keep what I’ve said in the back of your head — you’ll only be catching a fraction of its visuals). Thanks, my friend.

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  9. jackdeth72

    Hi, Michael and company:

    Great job!

    I’d been debating whether or not to critique this superb ‘Sweaty Men in a Bad Situation’ film for a few months now. I’ll have to wait some more. Your critique would have put mine to shame!

    Excellent work from Friedkin and Roy Scheider. It’s a personal toss up between this and ‘All That Jazz’ for his top performance.

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks very much, Kevin. And I can see we’re brothers under the skin as we both admire Scheider’s work. Especially in this and the still under appreciated ‘All That Jazz’ — man, I love those films!

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  10. fernandorafael

    Fantastic post. “Betrayal” sounds amazing. I guess it sounds even better and more powerful in the movie, which I’m now interested in watching. That was one hell of a trailer and I loved the commentary. Sorcerer just shot up to the top of my to-watch list.

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  11. Fogs' Movie Reviews

    Well, you’ve peaked my curiousity, I’ll tell you that.

    Doesn’t sound as if there’s any decent way to check it out right now though 😦

    If it DOES make its way to Criterion (saw you mention that above), I’d check it out there for sure!

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  12. Jakub Krawczyński

    Hello, I just dropped by to express admiration of your blog entry, I have seen Sorcerer over 5 months ago for the first time and it still haunts me to this very day, so that I became an afficionado of it. In addition, I managed to get a hold of an international, German version (sadly, dubbed, but it’s a common practice there) that features 16 minutes of deleted/alternate scenes. This movie combines what’s best of Bunuel (yes! I said it! when you think of it conceptually), Sam Peckinpah (the nihilism), and Werner Herzog (fairly obvious what I had in mind). I’m recommending this movie to anyone I can and so far every single person liked it or loved it (some preferred Wages of Fear, though). Personally, even if I’d give them equal score, I prefer Sorcerer to Wages, because of its avantgarde subtlety and strong concept, but ultimately they are very different movies. Sorcerer should have been treated like Apocalypse Now! and Friedkin should be regarded equally with Scorsese, Lumet, Coppola, etc. BTW I loved Bruno Cremer in here, and I’d like to recommend you another great movie with him, La 317eme Section (1965) about the Indochina War, Cremer plays the lead role, it’s by Pierre Schoendoerffer, it has influenced Apocalypse Now! and won Best Screenplay award at Cannes.

    Much respect from Poland!

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    • le0pard13

      Welcome, Jakub! Many thanks for the kind words and enthusiasm for this fine, but forgotten, film. Great info, too (especially for what is offered on that German disc). Tell me please, what it cropped, too?

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  13. The Sci-Fi Fanatic

    My friend. I had read some weeks ago that Sorcerer is slated for Blu-Ray in 2014. I had been watching the DVD now I am going to wait and purchase the Blu-Ray. Have you heard anything yourself?

    Regards,
    Gordon

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