Director William Friedkin proved yet again he was fast becoming one of the decade’s new breed of celebrated auteurs with Sorcerer (1977); an existential thriller, ambitious in both its narrative structure and globe-trotting scope of execution. Of all the movies in Friedkin’s superlative catalog, Sorcerer is probably the one he would most like to forget; its spectacular implosion at the box office all but wrecking his reputation, yet somewhat understood; coming as it did on the heels of Friedkin’s own The Exorcist (1973); its title – ‘Sorcerer’ suggesting another otherworldly horror classic in the works. Instead, audiences were treated to a loose remake of Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953), a perilous yarn about four irreprehensible soldiers of fortune caught in a deadly juggernaut of hopeless strife.
Friedkin’s vision for Sorcerer was expertly grounded in stellar performances by Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, and Amidou; a taut screenplay from Walon Green (all about four truck drivers assigned the hazardous duty to transport crates of volatile nitroglycerin across very rough terrain); a breakout electronic score by Tangerine Dream, and, finally, some thoroughly mesmerizing cinematography from John M. Stephens. Regrettably, it all came to not as audiences stayed away in droves; the dower tale of these societal outcasts and their spiraling desperation too bleak for the average film goer to stomach. Sorcerer’s failure seems all too easily blamable on its misguided title; also, its ill-advised debut opposite George Lucas’ mega-blockbuster, Star Wars. Friedkin had initially conceived Sorcerer as a modest $2.5 million art house flick; more of a prelude to his next big feature, The Devil’s Triangle. However, Friedkin was to have second thoughts about Sorcerer during pre-production – eventually costing $22 million, necessitating the participation of two major studios, Paramount and Universal, to foot the bill.
Much of Sorcerer was shot in the Dominican Republic; that country’s inhospitable working conditions, inclement weather and Friedkin’s frequent rows with the foreign crew, repeatedly delaying the shoot and escalating costs as Friedkin pushed onward to finish his movie. Sorcerer is, in many ways, a masterpiece; severely underrated and/or dismissed outright by the critics. The 1970’s were a particularly fallow period for movie art, you see, and, at least in retrospect, critics from this generation seemed ravenously preoccupied with finding faults rather than extolling a movie’s virtues. Barely earning back $5.9 million domestically (and another $9 million worldwide), Sorcerer’s calamitous debut earmarked the beginning of the end for this era of director-driven movies (the final death knell dealt by Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate three years later). The biggest complaint heaped upon Sorcerer – given its title - is that it wasn’t another Star Wars or even another Exorcist.
To clarify: the title Sorcerer came to Friedkin after he observed that in Ecuador cargo trucks have names painted across their hoods. Friedkin had originally anticipated calling the film Lazaro – after Lazarus – then, Ballbreaker, and finally, Sorcerer. One can argue the silliness in this exercise, but the French derivative, ‘Sorcier’ is actually painted across one of trucks making the perilous journey through the dense jungle terrain. Moreover, Friedkin always insisted the name ‘Sorcerer’ perfectly fit the movie’s cynical theme; fate as the evil wizard, exacting its revenge on our motley foursome before they are even aware of its impact, and thus, powerless to save themselves from its maniacal clutches. Indeed, fate is a cruel task master in Sorcerer – driving men of diverging faiths and backgrounds (their one common denominator, using aliases to hide from the world, having already escaped their respective countries for crimes committed against humanity elsewhere) to their premature deaths.
Friedkin’s appointment of Walon Green to adapt the screenplay was well suited. Both men shared a love for Clouzot’s Wages of Fear. Moreover, Green’s screenplay for The Wild Bunch had impressed Friedkin immensely, as did Green’s suggestion that Friedkin read Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude as inspiration for Sorcerer. Over the next four months, Friedkin and Green ironed out the kinks in their adaptation; Friedkin’s final bit of verisimilitude was cribbed from a lurid story told by actor, Gerard Murphy (Donnelly in Sorcerer), who had been a career criminal prior to turning to acting for a paycheck. In fact, the Elizabeth, New Jersey heist sequence very closely mirrors a robbery Murphy partook in, his cohorts played by real life ex-cons and an IRA nationalist. Look closely and you’ll notice a cameo by Friedkin in this prologue too.
When it premiered, Sorcerer was likened to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972); also, to John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Friedkin’s lengthy prologue to Sorcerer is an international affair; spanning from Vera Cruz to Jerusalem, and Paris to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Friedkin encountered a minor snafu in securing the rights to ‘remake’ Wages of Fear; chiefly because its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot did not own the intellectual rights, while author, George Arnaud detested Clouzot’s filmic adaptation of his novel. Ultimately, Friedkin worked his charm on Arnaud, who gave his blessing to proceed.
If the rights to remake Wages of Fear seemed fairly easy to secure, then the services of Steve McQueen, Marcello Mastroianni and Lino Ventura to co-star proved anything but. Friedkin had aggressively pursued McQueen for the part of small-time hood, Jackie Scanlon (the role eventually played by Roy Scheider). Very keen on the script, McQueen’s demands to remain near his wife, Ali MacGraw, and, in fact, have her appointed to the production as an associate producer, were vetoed by Friedkin, who thereafter lost the actor’s interests and ultimately, his commitment on the project. As a result, Friedkin also lost Lino Ventura in this trade-off; Ventura only accepting the role of Victor Manzon with the understanding he would be playing opposite McQueen. Meanwhile, co-star Marcello Mastroianni, initially assigned the part of Nilo, had to back away, citing his involvement in a bitter custody battle after his separation from Catherine Deneuve.
Desperate to attach a ‘big name’ to the role of Scanlon, Friedkin next pursued Robert Mitchum, who rather bluntly told the director, “Why would I want to go to Ecuador for two or three months to fall out of a truck? I can do that outside my house.” Friedkin then considered Warren Oates for the lead; a decision quashed by Paramount. With an initial outlay of $10 million, they could not see clearly the movie’s success with Oates’ name above the title on a marquee. After both Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson turned Friedkin down, Universal’s Sidney Sheinberg suggested Roy Scheider, who had proven reliable box office on The French Connection (1971) and had since experienced a flourish of considerable success in Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).
Learning of Scheider’s involvement on the project, Lino Ventura officially bowed out, leaving room for Friedkin to hire Bruno Cremer in his stead. Friedkin also cast his first and only choice for the role of Palestinian terrorist, Kassem with French-Moroccan actor, Amidou, whom he had admired ever since Amidou’s standout performance in Claude Lelouch's La Vie, l'amour, la mort (1968). In retrospect, Friedkin blamed part of Sorcerer’s failure on his decision to populate the movie with actors way down on his list of ‘must haves’; also marginally regretting his difficult working relationship with Roy Scheider throughout the shoot. Scheider had toiled in the trenches for Friedkin on The French Connection without question. But on Sorcerer he frequently clashed with Friedkin on matters of artistic merit; becoming indifferent and absolutely refusing to take direction – doing his scenes his way.
A tenet in Friedkin’s body of work maintains skepticism for either ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’. Indeed, Sorcerer takes Friedkin’s general mistrust of mankind to its extreme and nihilistic conclusion. Void of all melodrama, the characters are disreputable, yet strangely compelling; severely flawed but nevertheless able to exact a modicum of empathy from the audience as ‘real’ people who react to situations, always with less than altruistic motives, but only when they absolutely must, for the good of their own self-preservation. Friedkin also chose to tell most of his story without the benefit of dialogue, wherever possible cutting and/or paring down verbal exchanges to concentrate instead on a lush visual style to tell his story. Finally, Friedkin insisted on a documentarian verisimilitude to give Sorcerer its gritty look of realism.
For the Jerusalem shoot, Friedkin actually staged the detonation of a terrorist bomb twice. In New York, he had stuntmen wreck seven cars over ten days to capture the carnage from various angles. Sorcerer’s four prologues were, in fact, shot in the locations as depicted in the movie; Friedkin’s desire to achieve ‘reality’ on the screen meeting with considerable opposition from Universal’s Lew Wasserman, who killed Friedkin’s plans to photograph the rest of his story in Ecuador. Friedkin then settled on the Dominican Republic, but forever regretted this decision when the weather frequently delayed his shoot.
If Sorcerer is remembered for one particular sequence, it remains the moment when both trucks loaded with nitroglycerin must separately cross a rickety suspension bridge during a violent thunderstorm. The bridge, originally designed by John Box, and built in the Dominican, was later disassembled and shipped to Mexico after water levels severely dropped. Friedkin employed sewage pumps to funnel drain water through an elaborate sprinkler system, adding wind turbines to stir the rain. For these twelve minutes, Friedkin spent approximately $3 million and almost four months on location; losing one of the trucks twice in the turbulent undertow. Both Roy Scheider and Amidou (who did their own stunt work) would later regard this sequence as the most heart-palpitating and perilous of their respective careers.
Sorcerer opens in Vera Cruz with Nilo (Francisco Rabal), an immaculately dressed assassin in dark sunglasses, entering a hotel suite unannounced and executing its unassuming guest with a silenced pistol. From here the action shifts to Jerusalem where a trio of Arab terrorists disguised as Jews are in the process of planting a knapsack containing a pipe bomb at the steps of a government building before casually boarding a bus back to their apartment. The detonation rocks the city center. The military descend on the group’s hideout, sabotaging their escape. Only Kassem (Amidou) eludes police.
Meanwhile, in Paris, affluent businessman, Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is given a gold watch by his wife, Blanche (Anne-Marie Deschodt) for their wedding anniversary. Not long afterward, the president of the Paris Stock Exchange accuses Victor of fraud. Admitting to the charge, Victor promises to remedy the situation with an influx of capital supplied by his father-in-law. He orders his business partner, Pascal (Jean-Luc Bideau) to ask for the money. They quarrel and Pascal reluctantly agrees to pursue the matter on Victor’s behalf; returning during a dinner engagement at a fashionable restaurant to explain how his father has rejected the offer to preserve the integrity of their family’s name. Shamed, Pascal commits suicide, shooting himself in the head in his sports car and Victor flees the restaurant without ever explaining to Blanche what has transpired. He will never see her again.
Friedkin now shifts our attentions to a heist gone horribly awry in Elizabeth, New Jersey; an Irish mob stick-up of a profitable church with rival connections. The goons, fronted by Donnelly, shoot a priest and make off with the church’s bankroll. Jackie Scanlon is their getaway driver. But only a few blocks from the robbery, Scanlon suddenly loses control, colliding with a jackknifed semi. Everyone is killed in the rollover, except for Scanlon, who escapes with serious injuries. Unfortunately, the wounded priest just happens to be the brother of mafia chieftain, Carlo Ricci (Friedrich von Ledebur) who puts a hit on Jackie. Jackie friend, Vinnie (Randy Jurgensen) arranges for his extradition to an undisclosed location. With a price on his head, Jackie has no alternative.
Friedkin now moves into the movie’s second and third acts, taking place in Porvenir; a South American hovel of stifling poverty, overseen by its Castro-esque dictator and a secret police who, of course, mismanage the law, accepting bribes and favoring only rich gringos who can pay for their ‘protection’. We are reunited with Kassem, Victor and Jackie; all of whom have assumed fake identities, procuring work with a local American oil company – the town’s only real source of sustainable income. Kassem befriends Marquez (Karl John), an ex-Nazi hiding from his own former sins. Survival is one thing. But all of the aforementioned have had quite enough of their squalid living conditions, in stark contrast to the lives they once knew. Each is pinching his pennies to save up for an emigration visa.
After Nilo arrives in town, still immaculately groomed, he raises suspicions. Some 200 miles away, the American oil company experiences at cataclysmic setback after one of their wells accidentally blows up; expelling a hellish fireball into the sky and incinerating virtually all the workers who were preparing its rig for the drilling. The only way to extinguish the blaze is with nitroglycerin. Regrettably, the nitro at the nearby depot has been improperly stored with the dynamite; its chemical compound highly unstable. Electing to transport this volatile liquid miles over rough terrain, the company holds open auditions for competent truck drivers. Kassem, Victor, Jackie and Marquez are hired on to assemble their trucks from rusted out hulls and spare parts in the junk yard. However, on the eve of their departure, Nilo sneaks into Marquez’ slum hut and slits his throat, replacing him on the journey. Kassem and Victor drive the first truck; Jackie and Nilo the second. Despite their obvious contempt for one another, each man is forced to set aside his prejudices and co-operate in order to survive.
At one point, Jackie and Nilo reach a fork in the dirt road, obscured by a missing sign post. Jackie elects to drive the lower elevation, reaching a rickety suspension bridge in a blinding rainstorm. Nilo gets out and guides the truck across the unbelievably unstable expanse. A short while later, Kassem does the same for Victor, the pair narrowly making it across before the flimsy towers give out and collapse. Stifling heat persists. The foursome comes to a break in the muddy road, this time blocked by a toppled kaoba tree. Using a box from their unstable cargo to rig a bomb, the tree is successfully obliterated; the path cleared for the last league in their journey.
Kassem and Victor hurry to their destination atop the mountains, the cliff giving way beneath their tires, plunging the truck over the side and into a steep ravine. The nitroglycerin detonates killing both men in an instant. A short while later, Nilo and Jackie discover their smoldering wreckage. They are held up by some revolutionaries along the roadside and engage in a gunfight that ends with Nilo fatally wounded. As Jackie races through a barren landscape of stone pillars he begins to hallucinate how all of their lives have been destroyed by fate.
He is spared his descend into total madness after Nilo dies; dragging the body a few feet away and leaving it to rot amidst the apocalyptic stone pylons (actually shot in Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, near New Mexico). Jackie then carries the nitroglycerin in his arms after his engine dies, staggering toward the oil field on foot where he is welcomed by the workers with open arms. For his bravery, Scanlon is offered legal citizenship and money, as well as another better job with the company. He declines all of these offers, however, opting for a dance with one of the local barmaids. Carlo Ricci's henchmen, who have been pursuing Jackie half way around the world, along with Jackie’s old friend, Vinnie emerge from a taxi. Sorcerer concludes on a decidedly ambiguous note; a high angle overhead shot of the intersection, as Vinnie and the boys enter the bar.
Sorcerer is unapologetically negativistic. And yet, in many ways, it is a film of exquisitely stark loveliness. Much of the credit for its’ exotic look must go to cinematographers Dick Bush and John M. Stephens. Initially, the project was Bush’s show. While Friedkin was pleased with Bush’s contributions on the various prologues, he was exceedingly unimpressed by the dark, underexposed visuals Bush had captured after only two weeks of shooting in the Dominican. Bush balked at Friedkin’s insistence on a reshoot and shortly thereafter lost all confidence on the project. Ultimately, he was replaced by Stephens, who fell into line with Friedkin’s wishes; the visuals photographed in the jungle exemplifying the danger and mystery of an exotic tropical locale, while the forgotten hovel of La Altagracia, where the bulk of the movie’s last act takes place, was later described by Friedkin as ‘a prison without walls’ and with a ‘sense of timeless poverty and persecution’ lingering about its squalid byways and alleys.
Sorcerer’s behind the scenes crew went through multiple changes as the production progressed; Friedkin firing managers at will, and reluctantly accepting the resignation of his line producer, David Salven, who was facing personal problems back in the U.S. In Tuxtepec, Mexico, Friedkin was informed by federal authorities that several of his crew, including grip, stuntmen and a makeup artist, were in the possession of illegal drugs and urged to leave the country or face prison sentences. Friedkin would later recall he additionally lost some fifty crew members either to injury, gangrene, food poisoning or malaria. In the end, it might have all been worth it had Sorcerer performed at the box office.
Instead, the critics excoriated Sorcerer with vitriol and relish. Leslie Halliwell led this charge, calling Sorcerer ‘truly insulting’, adding, ‘Why anyone would want to spend $20 million on a remake of The Wages of Fear, do it badly, and give it a misleading title is anybody's guess. The result is dire.’ Andrew Sarris bettered this assault, summarizing Sorcerer as ‘a visual and aural textbook on everything that is wrong with current movies’. Dissected as everything from ‘self-consciously arty and pretentious’, Sorcerer seemed destined to quietly disappear as one of Hollywood’s unmitigated turkeys. Time, however, has had other plans for this movie. While Sorcerer fails to live up to Friedkin’s contributions on either The Exorcist or The French Connection, it nevertheless remains a compelling piece of movie fiction, capable of holding one’s attention for most of its run time, particularly once all prejudices against its title have been set aside.
Fair enough, the film lacks protagonists we can root for. Roy Scheider is the most recognizable name above the title. But even his Jackie Scanlon is little more than an impenitent slob unable to relate to his fellow man in any way that might endear him to the audience. Lest we forget, William Friedkin did not set out to make a movie about either heroes or villains. Sorcerer has a lot of reprobates milling about its impoverished landscape. But even the most repugnant among them – arguably, Nilo (who has no compunction about taking a man’s life simply to better his own) – is given a brief reprieve near the end of this narrative; standing up to rebels who attempt to rob his truck and dying alone in the remote stone desert with a queer smile frozen across his face.
Far from being one or even two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, the characters who populate Sorcerer are remorseless but genuine; alive - if relentlessly blemished by life; in short – they are human, even if their actions dictate inhumane behavior. Friedkin gives us real human tragedy without the groundswell of emotions too easily manipulated into deeper contemplation through tears. This isn’t a story about people we embrace, and yet we discover something very sad and disturbing in their seemingly soulless makeup. Arguably, apathy was never Friedkin’s strong suit, or even the desired result herein. But as the camera pulls back from La Altagracia and we await the inevitable sound of gunfire that will put an end to Jackie’s brief reprieve, Sorcerer achieves its end goal; to illustrate the abject pointlessness and disposability of these lives in particular, and perhaps even life in general.
Paramount’s hi-def Blu-ray, under its distribution arrangement with Warner Home Video has brought forth a spectacular reference quality 1080p transfer. The image has both clarity and depth and detail abounds; everything from the careworn metal to the lush density of the tropical undergrowth has been given a ground-up clean up and restoration; the color palette full of eye-popping hues that startle and impress, yet always seem indigenous to the original theatrical presentation. Best of all, the image retains the organic look of film. My one complaint herein is that Warner continues to utilize a lower than expected bit rate. Compression artifacts are not an issue, though I suspect in projection the results might not be quite so perfect. Why this Blu-ray’s bit rate was not maxed out is anybody’s guess and, frankly, beyond me.
This new Blu-ray contains a ‘reimagined’ (Friedkin's terminology) 5.1 DTS sound mix by Aaron Levy of Todd-Soundelux. In a word, it is ‘impressive’. Rear channels are used sparingly but effectively; the sequence on the bridge given to a deafening array of rain and wind effects. Explosions register with deep bass. Dialogue is clear and the electronic score, while dated, never overwhelms our aural experience. This is a magnificent disc with one caveat: no extra features – not even an audio commentary. For shame! Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)