Film: Sorcerer (1977)

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou.

In 1976, director William Friedkin was at the height of his powers. Coming off the back of the enormous global success of The French Connection and The Exorcist, his next picture would be his most ambitious project yet. Based on the novel by Georges Arnaud and originally made by the great H.G. Clouzot as the 1953 classic, The Wages Of Fear, Friedkin was setting the bar incredibly high. He was convinced that his ambition would pay off.

Sorcerer is the story of four desperate men from different parts of the globe who converge in an unnamed South American hellhole. The four are reluctantly teamed up for a deadly job: to transport cases of highly volatile nitroglycerine in two boneshaker trucks, along a dangerously crumbling road, in order to extinguish a nightmarish fire at an isolated oil refinery.

The film begins with an introduction to the four individual characters and their background. Nilo (Franscisco Rabal) enters an apartment and shoots a man in the face with a silenced pistol. This scene is reminiscent of the opening killing in The French Connection, when the French hitman shoots a man then nonchalantly takes a piece of the dead man’s bread. Kassem (Amidou) is first introduced in Jerusalem, taking a bus with his other Jewish friends. When a bomb explodes shortly after the men enter the bus, we discover that Kassem and his friends are Palestinian bombers. Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a Parisian banker, who has just made a huge error of judgement. When his lavish world is thrown into upheaval, he too has to abscond.

Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is a getaway driver. He has just been involved in a job that went horribly wrong and needs to lay low.
The contrasting backgrounds of the four lead characters is fascinating. They could easily have their own separate film, such is the impact of their individual predicaments. The opening twenty minutes provides the viewer with a deep insight into four very different, yet equally desperate men. Each of them bring their contrasting life skills to the compelling task at hand. They are each fuelled by a desire to escape the confines of their hellish existence; working for an exploitative oil company that seems to care little for the human cost of its endeavours.

The fire which rages in the remote oil refinery was caused by a terrorist bombing. Many of the native workers are killed as a result and unceremoniously wrapped in plastic and loaded up unto the back of a truck. As the bodies are dispensed to the baying mob, the sense of revolution is palpable. The furious natives attack the oil workers with machetes, laying waste to anything related to the company. This scenario unfolds as the sub-contractors are forced to find men willing to undertake the task of transporting the nitro as the situation becomes ever more volatile.

There is a sense of authenticity about Sorcerer that grabs one from the get go. The jungle locations are tropically exotic, yet they exude a sense of impending doom. You sense the uncomfortable humidity in the grit and sweat soaked clothing of the cast. The dead-end town they have ended up in, is a type of hell and their only ticket out of there is a suicide mission.

Sorcerer is a gloomy, dark picture, yet it is also a gripping thriller that forces you to root for these damaged men, driven by their own ambitions to escape the predicament they have created for themselves. Once the men get on the road with their volatile cargo, the picture truly gets going. Sorcerer segues from one thrilling set piece to the next, examining the unbreakable motivation of these men who will do whatever they can to succeed.

Friedkin adds numerous changes to the original film, most notably updating it to the mid-seventies setting and adding character flourishes synonymous with his cynical world view. The film was plagued with production difficulties and the budget ballooned in accordance. All of the money can be seen on the screen, especially in the unrelentingly tense action sequences. It is a shame that Friedkin’s career spiralled into mediocrity in the years following his earlier success. Orson Welles once said that ‘all you need to maintain a career in cinema, is one great film’. Friedkin has three, including Sorcerer.

It is a great film. Yet, most people have never heard of it or know very little about it. It is never shown on television, at least not in my lifetime. The film opened in 1977 on the very same week as Star Wars. The picture sank without a trace. Had the picture been released at a different time, it may have succeeded.

Interestingly, the film was made in the Dominican Republic. At that time, much of the country was controlled by billionaire industrialist Charlie Bluhdorn, who also happened to be the Chairman of the Gulf and Western conglomerate. Gulf and Western also owned Paramount pictures, which financed Sorcerer. When Bluhdorn watched the finished picture, a colleague is alleged to have reported that Bluhdorn had a ‘Shit haemorrhage’. As the American oil company featured in the film effectively plays the villain, it can be seen why the picture may have been unceremoniously buried. Friedkin himself had a somewhat combustible relationship with film executives and made many enemies along the way. This may also explain his wilderness years and inconsistent output since.

Friedkin regards Sorcerer as his best film. I would be inclined to agree with him. There is so much to explore and evaluate in this terrific picture. It may not be as sparse or streamlined as the 1953 original, yet it is different and thought provoking on a number of levels. It is a worthwhile remake and a fitting tribute to H.G. Clouzot, whom the film is dedicated to. Irish viewers may also be amused by Roy Scheider’s violent accomplice with the thick Navan accent.

The film suffers from having a misleading title. Sorcerer implies that this is a fantasy picture and alienated a huge swathe of its potential audience with that title. The film was billed as Wages Of Fear in some territories. Regardless of its poor title I encourage anyone with a taste for intelligent, gripping thrillers that have something interesting to say about what it means to do what one has to do, to seek out this gem.