Sorcerer ★★★★½

Last night I watched this epic feat of practical movie magic followed by a talkback with William Friedkin at USC. Friedkin's personality is so big and entertaining it overshadowed one of the most epic productions ever. He walked out on stage, where two leather seats were waiting for him and the moderator. "We won't need those," Friedkin said, and proceeded to do what was more or less a two-hour standup routine about his life and career and the many instances of breaking the rules due to, as he put it, "Ego. Ego and hubris." 

Audience Member: "There are so many urban legends about the filming of The Exorcist. For instance, I heard that on the Exorcist you fired a gun on set during a scene to get a reaction from the cast. Could you separate fact and fiction there?"
Friedkin: "That story is completely false. I didn't fire a gun during a scene of The Exorcist, I fired guns many times a day for the entire shoot. I had a shotgun, a rifle, and a police-issue .38, you know, for different timbers." 

(on casting Roy Scheider in the French Connection): "So Scheider comes in to my office, and he looks perfect for the part. He'd never acted in a studio film before. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was on an off-broadway show. 
I said, "Who do you play?" 
He said, "I play a cigar-smoking nun." 
F: "That's funny. You're hired." 
S: "What? What do you mean, 'I'm hired.' Don't you want me to read? Is there a script?"
F: "Script, what script? You're a cop. 'Stop. Police. Hands up.' Why do you need a script?" 

He went on to explain how Gene Hackman was his last choice for Popeye Doyle, after trying Jackie Gleason (studio wouldn't back after his last movie bombed) and Peter Boyle (Boyle declined, saying after the movie "Joe" he just wanted to do romantic comedies [Friedkin: "I don't know, I guess when he looked in the mirror he saw Carey Grant"]), then described how they ended up with Fernando Rey as the criminal mastermind. 
Friedkin: "My casting director wasn't a real casting director, he was a critic for Variety and The Village Voice. The real-life character was very rugged, rough-looking. I said to my casting director, "I want that French actor for Belle de Jour"
Casting: "You mean Fernando Rey?"
Friedkin: "Yeah, Fernando Rey." 
So again, no reading, no phone call. He wants him, he gets him. 
Friedkin: "So I go to pick him up from the airport, and here's this short, dignified man with a goatee. 
Friedkin: "What's your name?"
Rey: "Fernando Rey."
Friedkin: "You weren't in Belle de Jour, were you?"
Rey: "No, no, no. But I've worked with Luis many times."
They'd confused the names, and cast the wrong actor!
Friedkin: "The real character had stubble. You'll have to shave your goatee and grow some stubble." 
Rey: "No, no, I can't shave this. I have scars. You don't want that."
Friedkin: "Do you even speak French?"
Rey: "No, no, but it will be fine. I will learn." 
Friedkin finished the story: "So I was furious with my casting director. That's not the guy! But it was the guy because I'd asked for Fernando Rey. We were going to fire him, but we called over to the actor I had wanted, and he was unavailable, also didn't speak French, and at the time didn't speak English, so we really would have been screwed. So that's how I ended up stuck with Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey. And I tell you this story as evidence of my genius." 

Other tidbits: He bribed a transit official $40,000 to shoot the train sequence on French Connection, and then the man went to retire in Jamaica (this is maybe the biggest of his tall tales). They shot much of the car-portion of that chase with three cameras in a single take without a permit. For Sorcerer, he hired an arsonist friend, a beauty productions salesman by day, who flew into Latin America with "beauty supplies" to blow up a tree that none of his effects men could explode. He went with an armed friend to steal a bootleg print of The Exorcist from a porno theater in Long Beach, and was then questioned by police who sat on the very couch under which he'd hidden the print (Friedkin: "The real sin wasn't that the porno theater guys had copied the movie and were making money, it was that they were playing it out of sync!")

Sorcerer is a huge, sweaty, cynical, suspenseful, eye-popping, darkly comic, stripped-down, hallucinogenic, 70's action drama. They didn't make them like this before, and they don't make them like this now. Imagine what we could have on screens today if studios applied their insane $200 million budgets to shooting practical effects pictures in the jungle. 

What's amazing is that Friedkin actually made a LESS cynical film than the 1953 masterpiece by Clouzot. Friedkin's film about a terrorist, a hitman, a mob guy, and an embezzler is downright humanist compared to the original. 

And unlike the original, it is also falls just short of greatness, in my opinion. While the set pieces are bigger, and definitely suspenseful, The Wages of Fear succeeds at making us cringe at every bump in the road with its incredible restraint. This hands-off style makes it more timeless (still feels groundbreaking) and reflects the existential meaning in the film, so the film's form and thesis fuse together. Whereas Friedkin has a truck wobbling on a wooden suspension bridge (twice!), potentially the most jaw-dropping full-scale practical effects sequence ever filmed, Clouzot has the closeup of tobacco blowing off an unrolled cigarette. This image, at first enigmatic, is a metaphor for how life can be extinguished without us ever knowing the cause, a moment that is the very definition of the cinematic art form. I appreciated the specificity Friedkin used in his version of this scene, but Clouzot wins with his universal metaphor.

But if I were going to hear an oral history, I'd want to hear it from Friedkin!

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