Sorcerer [1977]

6/10 | 30.Aug.12

DIRECTOR: William Friedkin | WRITER: Walon Green | CAST: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou | USA

Watching William Friedkin’s 1977 Sorcerer on DVD is an incredibly frustrating experience. First and most obvious was the disastrous decision to take Friedkin’s original wide screen 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio and mutilate it to fit a 4 : 3 full frame so that the panner-scanner effect could be utilized to do its worst. It’s clear that Friedkin was using the full width of the screen, but the morons who transferred the film to disk decided that the central action of the wide screen image was the only part of the image worth seeing so there are bizarre sequences where we go from medium shot in perfect focus to grainy enlarged shot as if Friedkin had decided to capture the same image by crummy telephoto lens instead of what he obviously was doing in the opposite direction, going from a medium shot to a long shot. Even worse, when we’re stuck in the “telephoto lens” shots, objects will suddenly appear in the frame seemingly from out of nowhere and, because we can’t quite see what they are, we have no way of making sense of the action. In any other kind of movie this would be bad enough, but in a suspense thriller such as this not to be able to see what’s going on or what dangers might lay in store is intolerable.

But what about the movie? Friedkin obviously adores Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur and Sorcerer is part homage to it and part loving and mostly faithful remake. But just as the Clouzot has structural problems — the first hour, featuring the dread Véra Clouzot in a role that serves no dramatic purpose, is way too long for what it needs to do but is followed by 75 truly extraordinary minutes — Friedkin’s film also has structural problems. Unlike Clouzot, Friedkin shows us exactly what each of the four lead characters has done that made them seek out this hellhole as a refuge, but in doing so he didn’t leave time to explore in any kind of detail what these men’s lives there have been like nor what their relationships with each other have been. (Virtually all of the homoerotic subtext has been removed, although there’s an isolated line that sticks out like a sore thumb; perhaps it refers to a scene or scenes that were left on the cutting room floor.) I found myself having to plug the gaps with background from the Clouzot film just to make sense of what Friedkin’s characters were doing throughout the film. I have no idea how people who haven’t seen the Clouzot make sense of Sorcerer. (Mrs. Clouzot’s part has been almost completely eliminated from Friedkin’s film.)

Clouzot managed to sustain unbelievable tension both within the cramped truck cabs but also in his straight-ahead filming of the various set piece obstacles on the men’s journey over the mountains. Friedkin’s men, however, just seem sort of uncomfortable inside the trucks but you never get the sense that these trucks are rickety and about to fall apart; the set pieces have been ruined in the DVD release, but there’s enough left to give the impression that the final hour was probably extraordinary in the original theatrical release. The acting in Sorcerer is little better than it needs to be and Roy Scheider is not even in the same game as Yves Montand, let alone the same ballpark. And I can’t forget to mention Tangerine Dream’s insistent score. There, I mentioned it.

I’m at a loss on how to rate this movie. The version I saw was 121 minutes long which was apparently the American theatrical release’s length. IMDb says that in Sweden and Japan it was cut to 93 and 92 minutes respectively; I can’t imagine how you could make sense of anything in the movie at that length. It was apparently 126 minutes in the UK. There are obvious signs throughout the movie that scenes have been cut, including whatever may have existed to explain the title aside from two inexplicable shots of what appears to be an ooga-booga tribal tiki god carved into a rock on a hillside. I think I’ll be generous and rate this 6/10, partially for how extremely well Friedkin handled the four background vignettes for the lead characters, and partly for the major set piece of the two trucks crossing a rotting rope bridge during a hurricane over a raging river — even the pan-n-scan couldn’t completely destroy it.



  1. I’ve been informed that Sorcercer was originally released as 1.85 : 1 possibly with a 1.33 image meant to be cropped to 1.85, but I can’t believe that the image on the DVD is what Friedkin intended or wanted so I kind of doubt this. And there’s this unsubstantiated comment in the Trivia section of the IMDb entry for the movie: “Friedkin insisted that the DVD be released fullframe because he dislikes letterboxing. Because the film was originally presented in 1.66:1, he has said that the black bars on either side would look just as bad on a widescreen TV as those on the top and bottom would on a fullscreen one.”

  2. Friedkin talks about his suit against Paramount and Universal to gain ownership of the movie in an interview in Fandor.


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