Last night I attended the 9:15 pm TCM Classic Film Festival screening of William Friedkin‘s digitally remastered Sorcerer (Warner Home Video, 4.22). I’ve seen this film six or seven times now, and I was just as absorbed as ever. It’s a near-great movie. But during the finale I was remembering why Sorcerer choked at the box-office when it opened on 6.24.77. It went down because it didn’t deliver a fair and just ending.
I’ve never bought Friedkin’s theory that Sorcerer died because the hugely popular Star Wars, which opened on 5.25.77, had ushered in a sudden sea-change in mainstream cinematic appetites — i.e., a new comic-book, popcorn-high attitude plus a corresponding diminished interest in gritty, low-key, character-driven adult dramas. Sorcerer, of course, was never going to be a hugely commercial film. It’s a fairly downbeat, men-against-the-elements adventure flick made for guys. Women don’t go for sweaty, atmospheric, end-of-the-road Latin American fatalism. But I suspect that Sorcerer would have been at least a modest success if it had delivered a sense of justice in the case of Roy Scheider‘s character, a wise guy on the run from the New Jersey mob.
Sorcerer is about four desperate guys hired to deliver nitroglycerin in trucks to a burning oil well in the middle of the South American jungle. Scheider is the only one who makes it in the end. He’s gone through hell, and despite his previously criminal inclinations, the audience has been told to respect him for getting through this terrible ordeal. They may not love him, but he’s done a really tough thing and earned, in movie-story terms, a kind of redemption. A little peace and gratification. But then Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green turn around and stab Scheider with an icepick. Mob assassins (accompanied by a friend who had helped him escape the country and who has now obviously betrayed him) arrive at the very end to rub him out, and there’s no escape. He’s toast and it’s not right. Cruel, in fact.
Yeah, yeah, I know — that’s what “noir” is. Life is hard and mean and then you die. But that’s not how audiences see it.
I felt this way when I first saw Sorcerer, and I felt it again last night. Scheider doesn’t deserve death — he’s earned a chance to live again and maybe do things right for the first time in his life. But Sorcerer rejects this notion, and that’s why audiences rejected it. It left a sour taste by (a) making it clear that Scheider’s scummy, low-life character is possessed by fierce determination and concentration and courage, and then (b) zotzing him anyway. That’s a kind of “fuck you” to the audience, a kind of a burn.
This, trust me, is a major reason why Sorcerer screwed the pooch. A movie does’t have to end happily or sadly, but it does have to end on a note of justice.
Also: I’m sorry to say this, but the Sorcerer shown last night at the TCL Chinese didn’t look like film. The images were super-duper crisp, but they looked “pushed”– like a Bluray on my 60″ Samsung with the sharpness levels cranked up to 75 or 80. And the colors were way over-saturated. The greens (especially the trees in the Paris section) were LSD-level, and the reds were blotchy cherry popsicles. Maybe this was some kind of digital projection issue at the TCL Chinese…or not. I only know that last May I saw a much more natural-looking 35mm print of this 1977 film at BAM, and that last night’s version was a big departure from that.
We were watching a DCP, of course. I’m presuming that last night’s presentation will not be reflected in the Bluray. The reviews so far don’t indicate that.