Vintage Pulp Jun 24 2021
DARK MAGIC
This Sorcerer performs some scary tricks.


The dark action drama Sorcerer, for which you see a promo poster above, is one of those movies that didn't do well when it was released, but has been reevaluated a bit in recent years. We watched it last night and came away impressed. One of the main criticisms of this movie was that it was too long and too focused on backstory, but in this new era of streamed entertainment, considerations such as running times have gone out the window. You've noticed that, right? How much longer movies have gotten now that they're consumed in the home? Netflix and the other streaming services apparently figure you aren't going to watch the film without stopping it several times anyway, so why fret about their length. And certainly this is one of the enticements for modern directors working with streaming services. No butchery by studios obsessed with running time. Less interference. In such a milieu, Sorcerer isn't overly long, or overly detailed. Some of its weaknesses have become strengths.

The story is actually pretty simple, despite all the hand-wringing over its length and structure. Four shady crooks in a Latin American town called La Piedra are chosen to drive two trucks of nitroglycerine days through treacherous jungle so the explosives can be used to extinguish a raging oil well fire. The oil company is desperate, and so are the men. Though the explosives are cushioned in beds of sawdust, one serious bump and these guys will be raining down in pieces. They're four hard luck men stuck in a hellhole, and even though the trip has low survivability, they'll do anything for a chance at a new start in life. But the characters' Conradian journey from La Piedra into pure madness comes later. The movie first tells how each man came to be in circumstances where getting out of town is worth risking their lives. Each of their stories is bizarre and violent. We suspect this bothered viewers. It makes the teaming up of the group seem unrealistically coincidental, but it's a simple structural artifice. There's no coincidence. Any four men chosen to drive the trucks would have crazy histories.

Sorcerer also tells in detail how that oil well became an inferno, again throwing viewers. They probably asked why such details were needed. But they are needed. The movie is based on Georges Arnaud's novel Le salaire de la peur, aka The Wages of Fear, a capitalist critique about how the impoverished will take deadly chances for a little cash, and how corporations take advantage of that desperation without concern or empathy, particularly when the balance sheet slips into the red. The backstory of the oil company is important to the narrative.

Yet another reason the movie was poorly received is the title. Director William Friedkin had previously scored a global hit with The Exorcist. A title like Sorcerer sounds supernatural, but it's actually the name of one of the trucks the characters drive. Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures, which both backed the film, didn't do much to counter mistaken impressions. They thought they had a dud on their hands so they promoted the movie in a way that made it seem eerie to take advantage of Friedkin's reputation. Many filmgoers walked away feeling cheated, and many reviewers too, we suspect. If the internet had existed back then maybe filmgoers would have known Sorcerer was based on a novel, as well as on a French adaptation from 1953.

But setting all that aside, this much is true of Sorcerer: it's visceral in a way few 2021 films could hope to be. In the past, quantum leaps in filmmaking always came about as ways of making a more realistic product. Sound, color, camera advances, stunts, and more, all worked toward that end. Then came computerized effects. Those were different. They were designed to make the unrealistic possible, to help portray realms and worlds that didn't exist. But the same CGI that helped to portray the fantastic flowed backward into more prosaic areas of filmmaking, not because it looked better, but because it was cheaper. Smoke and fire are CGI now, even in simple dramas, and blood splatters are computerized. Nearly all explosions all fake today. None of these mundane uses of CGI are improvements over practical effects. They're just cheaper, and they look it. So while CGI is fine for sci-fi and superhero movies, using it in crime dramas when a gangster gets shot or a car explodes is a step backward for cinematic art. As far as we know, over the course of more than a century of filmmaking, CGI is the first technical advance that makes movies look less realistic.

Sorcerer is specifically a reminder of what practical effects can do. There's real jungle, real fire, and real explosions. Blasts shake the ground, and not through digital cam effects, but through physical concussion. Virtually every frame of Sorcerer makes a mockery of modern filmcraft, both in terms of technical values and actorly commitment. Headliner Roy Scheider and his co-stars went through real discomfort to spin this tale. They're covered in real sweat, real dirt. That terrible town of La Piedra they're stuck in is a master class in gritty set design. It looks a lot like some actual purgatories we ventured through the years we were living in Guatemala, where Arnaud's novel is set. It reminds us particularly of a town we wandered into just as a crowd had finished beating a man to death. But that's another story. If you watch Sorcerer for no other reason, watch it to see what films looked like when reality was the utmost goal, rather than slick economy. But us? We'll watch it again because it's great. Sorcerer premiered in the U.S. today in 1977.

That is not a smile of happiness. That's a smile of insanity.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
July 22
1992—Cocaine Baron Escapes Prison
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, imprisoned leader of the Medellin drug cartel, escapes from a posh Colombian jail known as La Catedral after he learns authorities intend to move him to a real prison. His taste of freedom doesn't last—he's killed in a shootout a year-and-a-half later.
July 21
1925—Jury Decides the Teaching of Evolution Is a Crime
In the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, American schoolteacher John Scopes is found guilty of violating the Butler Act, which forbids the teaching of evolution in schools. The sensational trial pits two great legal minds—William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow—against each other. Ultimately, Scopes and Darrow are destined to lose because the case rests on whether Scopes had violated the Act, not whether evolution is fact.
1969—First Humans Reach the Moon
Neil Armstrong and Eugene 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr. become the first humans to walk on the moon. The third member of the mission, command module Pilot Michael Collins, remains in orbit in Apollo 11.
1972—Chaos in the Big Apple
In New York City, within a span of twenty-four hours, fifty-seven murders are committed.
July 20
1944—Hitler Survives Third Assassination Attempt
Adolf Hitler escapes death after a bomb explodes at his headquarters in Rastenberg, East Prussia. A senior officer, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, is blamed for planting the device at a meeting between Hitler and other senior staff members. Hitler sustains minor burns and a concussion but manages to keep an appointment later in the day with Italian leader Benito Mussolini.
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