Although Heaven’s Gate is generally considered to be the unqualified disaster that rang a death knell for New Hollywood, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is perhaps a more historically important economic failure. Neither heralded as an artistic achievement nor a commercial success, Friedkin’s nightmarish vision of embryonic multinational conglomerates, filtered through the set-piece exigencies of genre filmmaking, stood no chance against audiences’ emerging preference for fantasy-based pop spectacle in the summer of 1977, as Star Wars became the emblem for blockbuster, commercial filmmaking.
It’s essential to keep in mind that Sorcerer is a Hollywood film (a joint-production between Paramount and Universal, at that), since what’s on screen could not be any seemingly less so, especially given Friedkin’s bleaker-than-bleak philosophical and distended narrative devices. If The French Connection, as Pauline Kael said, ushered in a Hollywood era of “nightmarish realism,” Sorcerer reverses that logic by commencing with a globe-trotting, multi-language prologue that introduces the film’s primary formal interest: sound design. In Vera Cruz, the single bullet fired from the assassin’s (Francisco Rabal) pistol resounds with a seat-rattling thump. Tellingly, Friedkin omits visualizing the bullet’s destruction, instead cutting on sound to a descending elevator. This is almost directly contrary to the opening of The French Connection, where a slaying is seen in blood-splattering detail.
In Paris, corrupt stockbroker Victor (Bruno Cremer) chitchats with his wife, who edits a manuscript. “Another soldier poet?” Victor inquires. “More philosopher than soldier,” she responds. Her correction is telling, since this makes the author a “philosopher poet,” a title fitting for Friedkin’s sonic sensibilities (poetry is about rhythm and cadence, after all), but “soldier poet” would also encapsulate Friedkin’s seeming obsession with masculine, homosocial interactions. Soon after, Victor’s wife gives him a 10th-anniversary gift: an inscribed watch. Continuing to mull over the discussion while studying himself in the mirror, Victor concludes: “Just another soldier poet.” She finishes: “No one is just anything.” Rather explicitly, the scene functions as a reflexive debate on cinematic ontology, particularly with regard to form and content conceptions of significance. Friedkin uses this exchange to alert perceptive viewers of his interest in mixing and melding seemingly contrary aesthetics. Thus, in less than 10 minutes, the film establishes its primary themes of sound, time, and memory, all of which Friedkin exercises through the confines of a genre film.
Sorcerer is, after all, a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, though credited in the film as an adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel. Clouzot’s film is a vanguard work because of its insistence that rigorous formal and philosophical inquiry can take place within the confines of genre. Friedkin adheres to these underlying principles, but seeks further reconciliation between spectacle and cinematic philosophy. Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), along with Kassem (Amidou), complete the quartet of men eventually exiled to Porvenir, Chile, which is in midst of political upheaval. “UNIDOS HACIA EL FUTURO” (translation: “United Toward the Future”) is the message painted on various walls. Of course, Scanlon and company must be as well if they wish to escape their current fates, which prompts the film’s famous narrative conceit: transporting sensitive explosives across a treacherous terrain. However, Scanlon is haunted by his past mistakes, making him a Janus-faced figure for postmodern discontent; he’s unable to move forward, but also unsuccessful in negotiating his past deeds. Friedkin finds these themes amid radical set pieces; a 10-minute struggle to get a truck over a bridge during an intense thunderstorm constitutes some of the finest sound mixing in Hollywood, perhaps cinematic history, rivaling the battle on the ice in Alexander Nevsky.
Once Scanlon reaches his destination, the mise-en-scène turns a cold, icy blue. Tangerine Dream’s shrill, synth chords shriek for Scanlon’s haunted psyche, which involuntarily flashes to memories of past sins and mistakes. “Where am I going?” Scanlon shakily chants, seeing around him not a physical, tangible reality, but an altered, expressionistic milieu of unnavigable, rocky peaks and valleys. Friedkin and editor Bud Smith superimpose Scanlon’s face over the desolate landscape, suggesting an inextricability of nature and being; Scanlon is meeting the soldier-poet’s fate, a PTSD that’s as rooted to globalization as the horrors of war. Scanlon emerges from darkness and slumbers toward the towering inferno as nothing more than an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill. Scanlon’s reward is having his past sins personified in the form of two hitmen, who’ve also come to collect their debts. Rather than a fleeting image of violence, however, Friedkin’s cyclical, almost Kafkaesque insistence that politics revolves around now globalized, corporate power delegating hired guns to do under-the-table bidding across national boundaries announces itself through the soundscape, with Tangerine Dream’s electronic basslines substituting for bloodshed. No one escapes the suffocating corrosion of Sorcerer’s polysemous diegesis—not even Friedkin himself, as audiences and industry would have it.