Tag Archives: William Friedkin

Rocks In The Attic #866: Tangerine Dream – ‘Sorcerer (O.S.T.)’ (1977)

RITA#866It’s a jungle-adventure film, Wikipedia says. All I know is that it took me a very long time to convince my horror-allergic wife to sit down and watch it.
‘Is it scary?’ she asks, quite reasonably.
‘No, it’s not a horror film,’ I say.
‘So, why’s it called Sorcerer then?’

Yes, William Friedkin, why is it called Sorcerer? If you asked him, you’d probably get any of a half-dozen answers depending on how literary he was feeling that day. The truth is fairly innocuous: one of the trucks has the word ‘sorcier’ (the French for ‘sorcerer’) painted on its bonnet; supposedly a reference to the Miles Davis album Sorcerer. It’s a terrible title for the film; even Friedkin has admitted it’s ‘an intentional but ill-advised reference to The Exorcist,’ made worse by the glimpse of that film’s Pazuzu demon over the opening credits. Friedkin’s earlier film grossed $66 million on its initial U.S. theatrical run, off a $12 million budget, so it ultimately seems to be a cynical attempt at disguising a ‘jungle-adventure’ film as something else.

RITA#866aThe other excuse that is often brought out in defence of the film is that nobody went to see it because it was released so close to Star Wars. There may be some truth in this, but many films bombed on the big screen before finding an audience on home-video, Blade Runner being the best example. Sorcerer didn’t even manage to do that.

The problem is really in the construction of the film. First, we open on an extended prologue; four vignettes to show how each of the four men ended up in Central America. They’re all running away from something: Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a Mexican assassin on the run after a kill, Kassem (Amidou) is an Arab terrorist on the run after a bombing, Serrano (Bruno Cremer) is a French investment banker accused of fraud, and Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is an Irish gangster who accidentally kills the brother of a Mafioso in a bungled robbery.

While there’s no signposting that these vignettes are connected, there’s no signposting that they’re not connected either. If Star Wars appealed to the basest measures of the American cinema-going audience in 1977 – heroism, nostalgia, and popcorn – then Friedkin’s film does the exact opposite. The prologue takes 25 minutes before we land in Central America, that’s 25 minutes that (a) don’t make sense, and (b) occur mostly without dialogue or with subtitles. Is it any wonder that people were put off?

The following 25 minutes are similarly aimless, as the four men slowly ebb away their days in the village of Porvenir, looking for a way out. We finally see the oil-derrick explosion and the introduction of the sticks of dynamite at the 50-minute mark, and all of a sudden the film gears up for its second hour. If it was made today, the prologue would probably be told through flashbacks. It just doesn’t work linearly, although it fares much better upon repeat viewings.

RITA#866bThis is where the magic starts though. From the moment the men start fixing the trucks that will transport the unstable nitro-glycerine – a sequence that seems to have had a major impact on TV series The A-Team – through to the conclusion of their journey, the extended third act of the film might just be the greatest hour of 1970s filmmaking. It’s clearly influenced by Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which also deals with the subject of transporting something bloody annoying through a jungle.

I’m not sure what Friedkin was up to, but one of the elements that stands out even more than the performances of the four principle actors, is the documentary feel of it all. It feels hyper-realistic, like they really did drive those two bastard trucks through a jungle and over the wonkiest bridge every committed to celluloid. The first explosion, from the bomb planted by Kassem at the start of his vignette, is even mixed with footage of the aftermath of a real bombing that occurred close to production. The film’s many explosions – Kassem’s bomb, the oil derrick, the tree trunk, and finally one of the trucks – are just massive in every way. It looks like people actually get injured in that first bombing explosion – in fact, the stuntman who triggered the explosion can be seen far too close to the blast and was injured as a result.

The last piece of the jigsaw is the soundtrack by German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream, the start of a run of film scores they would do through the rest of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. It’s a great score, and while you could say it just doesn’t fit the film, I think it adds to the elemental feel of the picture as a whole. The main theme that kicks in as Scanlon’s friend leads the mafia to Porvenir, and into the end credits, is so confronting and terrifying it’s practically a horror theme in itself, leading us back full-circle, where we started, to The Exorcist.

Hit: Betrayal (Sorcerer Theme)

Hidden Gem: Search

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Rocks In The Attic #752: Various Artists – ‘Cruising (O.S.T.)’ (1980)

Cruising-Gatefold-FINAL-1024What was Exorcist­-director William Friedkin doing in a hardcore gay bar, in the middle of the night, dressed only in a jockstrap, socks and shoes?

Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1977, Friedkin was one of the most successful film directors of the decade. 1971’s The French Connection earned him a Best Director Oscar, and he was nominated for the same award for 1973’s The Exorcist. 1977’s Sorcerer, a remake of 1953’s The Wages Of Fear, firmly established him as an exciting renegade director who didn’t play by the rules, and who switched genres for each film.

RITA#752aLooking for his next project, Friedkin originally turned down a film adaptation of the novel Cruising by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, first published in 1970. Telling the story of a New York City cop working undercover to find a serial killer in the gay S&M clubs of Greenwich Village, Friedkin found it outdated and difficult to connect to.  He believed the gay scene had changed tenfold since the book’s release, and was now far edgier and more complex.

Friedkin then started to see news reports about a string of unsolved murders around the S&M clubs in the West Side of New York. Over the next two years, plastic bags containing body parts were found floating in the Hudson River.

In 1979, Friedkin read a newspaper headline claiming that the murderer had been caught. Next to the article was a photograph of the suspect, a man he recognised. Paul Bateson, a 39-year old former radiology technician, was ultimately found guilty of murdering journalist Addison Verrill, a regular at the Mineshaft, a popular leather bar. Bateson was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and although he boasted about being responsible for the ‘bag murders’, he was never officially charged for those killings.

RITA#752bFriedkin had recognised Bateson from a scene during the filming of The Exorcist in 1972. In an attempt to explain her daughter’s strange behaviour, Chris MacNeil agrees for Regan to undergo an invasive medical procedure called a cerebral angiography. The scene is extremely disturbing, and just as unsettling as the film’s later horror scenes. The murder suspect, Paul Bateson, had been an extra in this scene, acting in his capacity as a radiology technician. Friedkin remembered him for wearing an earring and a studded bracelet, both of which was rare to see at the time, particulary on a medical professional.

After meeting with Bateson while he was on trial, Friedkin changed his mind about adapting Cruising, thinking that an updated version loosely influenced by the ‘bag murders’ would be an interesting proposition. He originally cast Richard Gere as the undercover cop, but reneged on this – much to his regret – when Al Pacino read the script and asked to play the part.

By that point, Friedkin already had a history of pushing filming to the limits, to attain the ultimate in authenticity. In The French Connection he had filmed the film’s iconic car/train chase for real, without blocking the streets off or notifying the authorities. In The Exorcist, he had fired guns with blanks to unnerve actor Jason Miller, and pushed for special effects to feel as real as possible, leading to Linda Blair and Ellyn Burstyn suffering from back injuries after being yanked around violently in harnesses. For Cruising, Friedkin, still pushing for authenticity, wanted to film the bar scenes in the Mineshaft, the gay S&M club where Bateson met his victim(s).

RITA#752cThe Mineshaft and other gay bars were owned by Matty ‘The Horse’ Ianello, a member of the Genovese crime family. Friedkin approached Ianello, asked permission to film there, and in turn Ianello put him in touch with the bar’s manager, Wally Wallace.

After Friedkin outlined his plan to film inside the bar, and use the bar’s regulars as extras, Wallace smiled. ‘Well, you’ll never get actors to simulate what our members do,’ he replied.

That weekend, Friedkin attended the club to scout the location, accompanied by a retired Police detective. ‘Wally and his enforcers welcomed us at the door,’ Friedkin writes in his liner notes to Waxwork’s new reissue of the soundtrack. ‘But we had to check our clothes, like all the other members, and strip down to jockstraps, shoes and socks.’

‘We were the two ugliest guys in the room and nobody hit on us. Participation in any of the activities was by choice. We hung around for a couple of hours, drifting and watching. Even knowing what to expect, we left in disbelief. Don’t take this as judgemental – I was in my early 40s – but we had never seen anything like this. We went back several times before the start of filming and we got to know the regulars. Few had any problems appearing in the film and the sex scenes were all real. Pacino was there for most of it.’

It definitely makes for a strange film and not the obvious choice for a filmmaker with two mainstream hits under his name. Pacino plays the role relatively understated, exactly at the halfway point between his earlier, softer presence and the later, gruff-voiced Pacino which he would start to perfect in Brian De Palma’s Scarface a few years later in 1983.

RITA#752dIn film class at University, our lecturer played us a very odd clip from the film. Pacino sits in a room being interviewed by the Police, who are unaware that he is working undercover. Out of the blue, a black man wearing only a jockstrap and a cowboy hat walks into the room, slaps Pacino and exits. The short scene serves no narrative purpose and has stuck with me all these years for its utter randomness. I had thought that the film might have another scene, either an earlier scene feeding it, or a later scene explaining it, but no. When I eventually saw the whole film, it’s just as baffling as watching the scene in isolation. How marvellous.

RITA#752eI recently tracked down Interior. Leather Bar., James Franco and Travis Matthew’s 2013 documentary in which they attempt to film the 40 minutes of gay sex scenes that were cut, and eventually lost, from Cruising. In the hands of a comic actor like Franco, the project is quite difficult to take seriously, and while they are successful in enlisting actors and filming such scenes, the resulting scenes don’t match the sleazy aesthetic of Friedkin’s 1980 film.

The original Cruising soundtrack released in 1980 featured ten songs that appear in the film by Willy DeVille, The Cripples, The Germs, John Hiatt, Madelynn Von Ritz and Rough Trade. Waxwork’s recent 3 x LP reissue expands the soundtrack significantly, featuring a further eighteen songs. The label worked closely with William Friedkin, Sony, and Universal Pictures to locate and unearth the original masters that include the original Jack Nitzsche score sessions, the full recording sessions by the Germs, and all music recorded for the film.

There’s lots to like on this collection – the rock and roll sleaze of Willy DeVille, the post-disco new wave of Rough Trade and the hypnotic bass jazz of Barre Phillips and Ralph Towner. Probably most important, given their lack of available material, is the unearthing of five Germs songs recorded (but not used) for the film.

Hit: It’s So Easy – Willy DeVille

Hidden Gem: Shakedown – Rough Trade

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Rocks In The Attic #735: Various Artists – ‘A Clockwork Orange (O.S.T.)’ (1972)

rita#735I often wonder what Mary Whitehouse, the UK’s self-imposed guardian of decency, would think if you sat her down and played her an episode of The Walking Dead. Perhaps that episode where the bad guys made someone eat his own leg. Or maybe that one where Rick and crew were captured, kneeling at a trough, and waiting to be picked off one by one. Or that episode where Glenn and Abraham both got a baseball bat in the back of the head.

Maybe she’d prefer Game Of Thrones. She might like the episode where half of the principal cast were killed off at the red wedding, and the show took great joy at showing a pregnant woman being stabbed repeatedly in the belly.

It’s fair to say that we’ve gone a long, long way from the dark days of overbearing censorship; but have we gone too far?

I was reminded the other day of the United Kingdom’s video nasties list, something I hadn’t thought about for twenty years. Reading up on it, it feels like some kind of whacky parallel universe.

rita#735aIt all started with a legal loophole in the early 1980s. It’s hard to believe a market as big as home-video being unregulated, but as the popularity of home video wasn’t foreseen, videos were originally released without being reviewed for classification. Bonkers!

The subsequent list of films – 39 titles which could lead to prosecution following the Video Recordings Act 1984, a further 33 titles deemed less obscene (but which could be still seized by the police), and a final 82 films deemed even less obscene (but again could still be seized) – make for some interesting reading.

Of the first list, I’ve only seen two – The Driller Killer and The Last House On The Left – and if the quality of these films is anything to go by, I won’t be seeking out the rest. I’ve seen two on the second list – The Evil Dead and The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue – but I have the most success with the third list, which seems to be a catch-all of pretty much every other horror film of the time, having seen eight titles: Dawn Of The Dead, Friday The 13th, Friday The 13th Part 2, Night Of The Living Dead, Scanners, Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Thing.

One film commonly associated with the video nasties list was A Clockwork Orange. However, this was withdrawn from cinemas by Stanley Kubrick himself, after reports of copycat crimes. Subsequently, it was never released on home-video. Only after the director’s death was the film re-released in cinemas in 2000, and made available on VHS and DVD.

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While A Clockwork Orange is a fantastic film, it will never be one of my favourite of Kubrick’s. It’s just so damn depressing, with Michael McDowell’s Alex impossible to empathise with. Of course this is just as much to do with McDowell’s performance as it is with the character written by Anthony Burgess. I can’t ever remember McDowell playing a sympathetic character – he oozes repulsion both in the people he plays, and from the audience watching him.

Even though the age of censorship that bred the video nasties list feels like a lifetime ago, one of today’s top directors was affected early in his career. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was originally denied a home-video release in the UK, despite being classified for a cinematic release in 1992. Herein lies the real headache – video classification was originally considered completely separate from cinematic classification. Another example was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which didn’t see a home-release until 1999, despite regularly playing at midnight screenings across the country (including my local Roxy cinema in Failsworth) since its 1973 release.

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What this all boils down to is a lack of trust in the consumer. The government would (begrudgingly) allow a film to be viewed at the cinema, but wouldn’t allow it to be viewed at home because they had no control over who would see it on the family television. In theory, it sort of makes sense, but it fails in practice. A huge home audience was initially refused the opportunity to see Reservoir Dogs, once declared ‘the greatest independent film of all time’, which despite featuring a lot of blood, doesn’t actually have much on-screen violence.

Hit: Title Music From A Clockwork Orange – Wendy Carlos

Hidden Gem: I Want To Marry A Lighthouse Keeper – Erika Eigen