US | 1977 | Directed by William Friedkin
Logline: Four men from different countries, each escaping deep trouble, agree to risk their lives transporting unstable nitroglycerin through treacherous South American jungle.
With two incredibly successful movies notched firmly on his belt, The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin was determined to go out on a limb with his next film; his magnus opus, his piece-de-resistance. It would prove to be the most difficult movie he’d ever made, and was one of the productions that lead to the end of the Hollywood studio system that allowed directors such free reign. Sorcerer proved to be as ironically fateful as its future status was unpredictable. The giant crest that Friedkin rode out on turned into a terrible tsunami that seemingly destroyed everything in its path, but left a legacy in its wake that has become incredibly rewarding.
Four middle-aged men are caught up in very dangerous and dodgy dealings, in different locations across the globe. Nino (Francisco Rabal) is an assassin. Kassem (Amidou) is a terrorist. Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a fraud. Jackie Scanlon (Roy Schneider) is a gangster. In an extended prologue sequence, made up of vignettes, we see each of these men in their tight situations and the dire consequences of their actions. Eventually their paths cross, deep in the dark heart of Latin America, in a remote village that is reliant on an American oil company.
An oil well explodes, creating a massive fire. The only way to extinguish it is to blow it to kingdom come. The company head arranges for locals to come forward an offer their driving services to transport several cases of volatile explosives - nitroglycerin - from its storage shed two hundred miles away. There’s $US40 grand in it for four drivers, in two beat-up ex-military trucks (one of which is given the name "Lazaro", the other, "Sorcerer"). Our four anti-heroes step up to the plate.
They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and thank Christ for the restoration process. I’d only ever seen very scratchy, heavily butchered versions in repertory cinemas, a 35mm print in Wellington, and the other a 16mm print (under the international title Wages of Fear), both without the half-hour long prologue. Yes, Sorcerer is a remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear (1953), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, although Friedkin is adamant his movie was never intended as a remake, but a re-interpretation of the original novel. That said, he sought approval from Clouzot before he began production, and he dedicated the movie to him.
Whilst The Wages of Fear is an exercise in nail-biting suspense, Sorcerer is more of an existential study of dread and the mystery of fate (read: Murphy’s Law), it’s also one of the best slow-burn thrillers of the 70s. Sorcerer drips with oily sweat, the grime so palpable you can feel it harden on your skin while you watch the edgy drama unfold. It’s a beautifully realised movie, with Friedkin at the top of his game. Stunning cinematography, all deep, rich colours, and a sparse, but evocative electronic score from Tangerine Dream.
Infamously, Friedkin wanted Steve McQueen in the lead role, and he’s gone on record saying he damaged the movie’s credibility by casting Scheider, who didn’t have that rugged face that cameras adore. He wanted a cast of A-listers, including Marcello Mastroianni and Robert Mitchum. They all turned him down. But, it’s the cast of lesser known actors that gives the movie much of its chops. You become more invested with them as characters, and are not studying them as big name actors. In the humid depths of the jungle, it’s not about the McQueen hard stare, it’s about the Dominguez lost gaze of despair.
Where Friedkin really excels is his set-pieces, sans dialogue. The notorious river bridge-crossing is the stand-out. It really is a brilliant sequence, especially knowing it was done for real (well, almost, as the special effects team had the bridge rigged with hydraulics), the tension and suspense as taut as the rope bridge is loose. Two other highlights are the sequence dealing with a massive fallen tree that blocks the paths of the trucks, and the scene driving through a desolate, surreal rocky stretch of badlands, that was filmed in New Mexico, where Scanlon (aka Dominguez) begins to hallucinate.
Sorcerer is, indeed, a tough movie, uncompromising, downbeat, soaked in sweat, smothered in dirt, clenched in uncertainty, gripped with desperation, reaching out for an elusive sanctuary for the mind, body, and soul … But it is also one of the very best movies of the 1970s.