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Listen Up Philip

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Ballad of Narayama

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The unloved, Part 6: "Sorcerer"

Editor's note: Scout Tafoya's latest edition of "The Unloved" makes the case for William Friedkin's "Sorcerer." Based on Henri Georges Clouzot's "The Wages of Fear," a taut suspense picture about a group of men driving a truckload of nitroglycerine through winding jungle roads to extinguish an oil well fire, this 1977 box office bomb destroyed the box office momentum Friedkin had developed after directing  "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist." 

I'e been on the fence about "Sorcerer" since I saw it on home video over 20 years ago. Friedkin's brutal, grubby sensibility is perfectly suited to the story of four down-at-their-heels tough guys (led by a characteristically understated Roy Scheider, who gives great closeup), and the film has many virtues, including its overwhelmingly tactile imagery and Tangerine Dream's trance-inducing synthesized score, which was "dated" within a few years of its composition but now sounds pleasingly of-the-era. But I don't think the decision to give the mercenaries detailed backstories, much less elucidate them in a series of self-contained featurettes leading into the main adventure, truly deepens the movie; in fact it makes as a good a case as any for the idea that in action films—as in most films—less is nearly always more. Clouzot's Gallic Hemingway approach to psychology invested "The Wages of Fear" with a Spartan toughness and a sense of mystery, and turned the characters into blank slates on which we could project our own fantasies and issues. Friedkin fills in the blank slate with carefully worked out reasons for the men's existential malaise. As intriguing as that sometimes is, it's ultimately not as exciting as Clouzot's approach. 

Scout feels otherwise, and makes his case in the video below. He also puts "Sorcerer" in context of the 1970s, an era that saw a near-total systemic changeover in Hollywood, from arty, personal, in some ways off-puttingly individualistic "statements" (typified by "Sorcerer") to more audience-friendly big budget genre pictures such as "Jaws," "Rocky" and "Star Wars" (which came out around the same time as Friedkin's picture and utterly overshadowed it). 

To watch the rest of Scout's "The Unloved," click here. -- Matt Zoller Seitz

The Unloved - Sorcerer from RogerEbert.com on Vimeo.

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