Dir: Willam Friedkin, 1977. Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal. Action.

Back in ’77 the film Sorcerer was considered a mega-bomb, both artistically and financially. Coming off the mammoth success of both The French Connection and The Exorcist, it would mark the beginning of an enormous career decline for director William Friedkin. However in retrospect, Sorcerer is one badass action thriller and one of the most underrated films of the '70s.

By the end of the decade many of Friedkin’s peers, that great class of '70s film directors who set a new benchmark with their important and revolutionary films earlier in the decade, seemed to get bitten with the overindulgent bug. After years of hitting it out of the park, a number of these "geniuses" created what were considered duds with would-be epics. Spielberg had the loud 1941, Scorsese made the boring musical New York, New York, Coppola put forth the unwatchable One From The Heart, and Bogdanovich had a string of disasters. And of course Michael Cimino, after the success of The Deer Hunter, would help to sink a whole studio with his artsy Western Heaven’s Gate (which was derided for years, but more recently has found a new wave of critical support). Then it was Friedkin's turn to swing for his home run. For his epic he would do a remake of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's adventure movie, Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages Of Fear). Clouzot had of course also done the greatest French mystery thriller of all time, the more Hitchcockian than Hitchcock Les Diaboliques (Diabolique). Friedkin developed the remake for superstar Steve McQueen to head the international cast. Sorcerer was green-lighted with a budget that in its day made it a big, big event movie. But unfortunately McQueen got sick and then died and the film never made back its bucks. But what ended up on the screen is wildly spectacular filmmaking.

Roy Scheider ended up in that leading role, after years of playing cops (The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, Jaws) and just before his Oscar nomination for channeling Bob Fosse in All That Jazz. He plays Scanlon, a tough guy on the run from the mob for stealing their cash. Now laying low - way low - in the jungles of South America, survival is tough. Like the Palestinian bomber and the Italian embezzler, all in hiding, all hoping never to be found. Unfortunately they all end up in the most depressing, dangerous, sleazy little barrio imaginable. Life for them is now grim, grim, grim. Like a number of American films from this time, including The Deer Hunter and Midnight Express, Sorcerer is petrified of foreigners (the darker, poorer kind) and is a plea to just stay home.

A giant chemical fire miles and miles away at a petroleum plant deep through the jungle comes as a ray of hope for the rag tag group of survivors. They each are offered a large sum of money to deliver highly explosive nitroglycerin across the outrageously mangled and tangled jungle roads, in the most run down trucks imaginable, one spilt drop of this stuff can send you…kaboom! Blown up. It’s a perfect set up for a heart pounding, edge of your seat adventure. The road is so horrible and the stakes laid out are so high that by the end, the intensity of the journey leaves any driver who survives it on the brink of full-on madness.

This is William Friedkin at his best, or at least on a par with his earlier two classics. The opening international sequences showing why each criminal would end up in such an awful place rival the high level of action and suspense in The French Connection. With the amazing, now classic ambient, haunting electronic score by Tangerine Dream (Risky Business, Legend, Thief) the jungle scenes of the trucks driving across the most downtrodden broken wooden bridge, while a horrific storm rages above, are as horrifying as anything in The Exorcist. Like its timeline and scope peer, Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Sorcerer works on all cylinders. Pre-CGI, this stuff had to almost happen to be filmed - the filmmaking looks as dangerous for the people involved making the film as it is for the characters on the screen.

This would prove to be the peak for Friedkin. He would follow Sorcerer up with the justifiably hated Cruising and for the rest of his career trifle with mostly unsuccessful and unmemorable works (he would have some occasional bright spots with To Live And Die In LA, a number of cable films and more recently with the Ashley Judd ick-fest Bug). Like the second look Heaven's Gate has gotten from a lot of hoity-toity film writers (and even Cruising is finding some new love with a double disc DVD imploring the viewer to over look its ugliness), Sorcerer could use a second coming. In some ways it’s a lost gem. A big, big, big gem. Where is the Criterion Collection when you need it? Sorcerer could use that big, bold triple disc treatment.


Sorcerer was nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 14, 2010 1:48pm
Steve Earle and the Dukes
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