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The Essence of Film Storytelling
After _The French Connection_ and _The Exorcist_, William Friedkin made it three masterpieces in a row with this remake of the French classic _Wages of Fear_. As an exercise in pure cinematic storytelling, _Sorcerer_ may be the best film of the three Friedkin greats.
Structurally similar to the other two of his films, and working from a tough, bare-bones Walon Green script, Friedkin gives us all the back story we need in the first reel. Once the characters are brought together in the South American jungle, the film grabs you and doesn't let go until the final frame. The viewing experience is supremely visceral. You literally feel the tension as the four major characters and their two trucks loaded with nitro encounter and attempt to overcome the elements and some very rough terrain. Each scene is its own brilliant set piece. The film would work well as a silent movie, but the sound design and Tangerine Dream's musical score in themselves are among the film's towering achievements right along with the direction, cinematography and production design.
I'm perhaps the only one not put off by the film's allegedly inappropriate title. On the contrary, I think the title adds an element of mystery to the story -- as if trouble is being concocted by an unseen force acting upon the film's morally dubious main characters. It gives a demonic personality to the confluence of fate and dumb luck. The title also serves to give the film some added distance from the very fine Clouzot original.
The performances are all first-rate, if economic, and Roy Scheider stands out with some real tough-guy charisma. He also gets to wear the coolest hat this side of Gene Hackman's porkpie derby in _The French Connection_.
Bite the Bullet (1975)
A New Old-Fashioned Western
For whatever reason, critics in the 70s were quick to pronounce dead the western genre whenever a new western opened, but that didn't stop the decade from producing some of my favorites in the category. _Bite the Bullet_ is a fine example. Where other westerns of the decade seemed to pursue the avenue of re-invention, Richard Brooks' gritty movie about a turn-of-the-century horse race/endurance test opts for sweet revival. The cast of characters are the usual suspects: company men vs. real cowboys, kid-looking-for-a-reputation, ballsy hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, tough-and-noble-oppressed Mexican, and old-hand-on-his-last-hurrah. They all combine to tell a supremely entertaining and satisfying story. As a bonus, we get the chance to consider seriously what impact America's win-win mentality has on the moral character of its people.
At the heart of the picture are the splendid performances by Gene Hackman and James Coburn as old buddies from Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders days. The friendship between their characters is the movie's moral glue, and it is portrayed without smearing or stickiness. In these two characters we not only get all of the integrity of upright and rugged individualism inherent in the Western Code, but we get a nice dash of Butch and Sundance to boot.
And I think Candice Bergen makes for a great tomboy. It actually makes her sexier.
The Parallax View (1974)
A Triumph in Cinematography as Seeing
The term, parallax, has everything to do with seeing, and as such it is particularly fitting for a film that is about seeing on many levels. Gordon Willis' distinctive cinematography is a perfect match for just such an enterprise. His commanding use of light, shapes, and (most of all) darkness creates a sense of uncertainty that flavors this so-called paranoid thriller. Along with under-sung director Alan J. Pakula, Willis is working here with pretty much the same production team that would next give us _All the President's Men_, but they do as well in this earlier film with apparently a lot less. Contrast the newsroom as shown here with the detailed recreation of The Washington Post in ATPM. It seems like Hume Cronyn and Warren Beatty are the whole newspaper in _The Parallax View_. That's fine. It's supposed to be two-bit paper.
We are shown eyewitnesses who don't know what they thought they saw during an assassination attempt. We don't know what we thought we saw either. We are shown conspirators who are constantly seeing around the next corner. We are kept guessing as well. We follow Warren Beatty nervously as he tries to keep ahead of this game. Kenneth Mars even gives Beatty a second false identity just in case the first one is checked. Finally, we take a slide-show psychological exam right along with Beatty, and perhaps we wonder what our own responses to it show us to be. It's a very special film that allows us to trust the filmmakers even though we know they may be giving us unreliable information. That blind trust seems to be the soul of this truly great movie.
Finally, I'd like to cast a vote for Mr. Beatty as one of our true American acting treasures. Where would the great films of the 70s be without his hip, wise-cracking presence? Did we expect Elliott Gould to do all the work?