Monday, February 11, 2008

RIP Roy Scheider

Sad news that Roy Scheider passed away last night. He will probably be best remembered for his portrayal of Chief Martin Brody in Jaws, as well as his Oscar nominated roles in The French Connection and All that Jazz. He also starred in two of my favorite underrated movies of the 70s: Sorcerer and Last Embrace.

Sorcerer is William Friedkin's remake of the French film The Wages of Fear, about a group of four men who must transport cases of unstable nitroglycerin by truck, through the jungle and over washed out mountain roads, to put out an oil fire on a remote South American mountain. Sorcerer should be studied by anyone who wants to understand how to slowly and painstakingly build tension in a movie. The film is unrelenting in its tension, and every time I watch it I feel exhausted by the end.

Sorcerer should have served as the crowning achievement in Friedkin's 70s trifecta of great movies, along with The French Connection and The Exorcist. Instead, it was a career-damaging disaster. Because of the success of The Exorcist, Friedkin got final cut and nearly unlimited control to make this movie, and there is certainly a lot of excess evident on the screen. For example, each of the four characters is given a backstory, and each was filmed in a separate country, including France and Israel (Scheider's backstory was filmed in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which is also the city where I was born and gives me some added affection for this movie). The budget ultimately exceeded $22 million--a huge budget at the time--after an original budget was set at $2.5 million. However, all that excess went into making an outstanding film--one of the few occasions where such unlimited creative control resulted in an artistically successful movie.

The film's shoot was almost as interesting as the film itself. Friedkin had originally attracted Steve McQueen to star, but McQueen, who was always notoriously difficult, wouldn't film outside the U.S., and Friedkin insisted on the authenticity of the locations (primary shooting would be done in the Dominican Republic). Friedkin actually began shooting without a main star, though Scheider decided to join the film as his follow-up to Jaws. Despite the success of Jaws, however, the studio did not see Scheider as a bankable star, and this further increased their worries about the troubled production.

To make things even worse, the studio released the film just a few weeks after Star Wars in the summer of 1977, a decision that pretty much doomed the movie to obscurity. Perhaps if the movie had been released a year earlier, it would be better known today, but who knows if popular audiences would have gotten the movie anyway.

Peter Biskind details the excesses and troubles of this shoot in the great Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, but whatever went into the production resulted in an amazing film. Here's the trailer, which uses the film's excessive production as a selling point. The great, trippy score is by Tangerine Dream.

Last Embrace came out a couple of years later. It's an early Jonathan Demme film, and it stands as one of the more successful Hitchcock homages. The film also features Christopher Walken in a great supporting role. Here's the great opening scene of the movie--I love the use of slow motion and dissolves to create this dream sequence.

I'm going to be watching Last Embrace again this afternoon, and I'm going to try watching The Seven-Ups over the weekend (featuring an awesome car chase!).

I always liked Roy Scheider's performances. He got his start during a time when Hollywood was really in transition, and leading men like him, Richard Dreyfuss, Al Pacino, and Gene Hackman all had unconventional qualities that broke from the classic Hollywood model. Put up his six best roles--Jaws, The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, Sorcerer, All that Jazz, and Marathon Man--up against any other actor's career, and he holds up well. He also proves to be pretty essential to what made the 70s such a great decade for American films.

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