It’s a little difficult to convey the disappointment that landed like bricks dropped on the heads of many moviegoers after William Friedkin’s Sorcerer appeared in 1977. The director of The French Connection and The Exorcist had spent something like $20 million and three years on a movie that for its first half an hour didn’t even have any dialogue in English; a film which was (to most of them) a murk of existential dread and grimy Third World naturalism, not cheery escape; and which disappeared from theaters with barely a murmur to make room for Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit.
Thirty years later, Sorcerer has held up so well the date on the film almost seems wrong. Then again, it was a product of a moment in the studio system when films of remarkable grit and cynicism (Exorcist and Connection among them) were routinely greenlit as a way to provide audiences with things they couldn’t get on TV. Its globe-hopping storyline and middle-of-nowhere terrain make it feel that much more timeless: it could have been set in any of the past forty to fifty years without needing to change many details. And it features easily the most nerve-wracking second half of any film ever made, although the hour that comes before it is no slouch either.
Sorcerer’s first half hour is entirely setup. Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a professional assassin in white shoes and sports coat, commits a killing in Vera Cruz and slips away. Kassem (Amidou), an Arab terrorist, narrowly escapes arrest after setting off a bomb in a Jerusalem doorway. Serrano (Bruno Cremer), a French investment banker, flees the country and abandons his wife after losing both his business and his brother-in-law / business partner to suicide. And two-bit criminal Scanlon (Roy Scheider) has to go on the lam after he robs the wrong church and gets his cohorts killed in a traffic accident.
All of them end up in the South American town of Porvenir, a dismal mudhole that serves as a magnet for local poverty and international runaways like themselves. The only work is odd jobs or minimal-wage sweat-and-bleed labor for the local arm of an international oil company. Scanlon unloads what few planes touch down at the town’s ragged little landing strip, while Serrano and Kassem do grease-monkey labor on the oil wells. All three turn their heads when Nilo show up, with his expensive sunglasses and immaculate Hawaiian shirts. He has no reason to be here, unless … well, unless he does have a reason to be here. He has been hired to kill Scanlon, although he soon finds what Scanlon is involved in more interesting than a simple murder-for-hire.
One of the company’s oil wells explodes. Sabotage. Capping the well may be impossible: the dynamite on hand for that job is so old the nitroglycerine has seeped out of it, and even jostling the boxes they’re in could cause them to blow up. But there is no time to replace it — the company needs a whole tanker of oil to fulfill its obligations by the end of the month, and so the company puts out a call for drivers who can chauffeur the stuff across two hundred miles of jungle. The film’s cynicism about the workings of the oil company is multifarious: Paramount, one of the movie’s backers, was a Gulf+Western company at the time, a major oil producer. Friedkin took a jab at them by sticking a photo of their board of directors on the wall of the oil company’s offices. Then-head of Paramount, Charlie Bluhdorn, was reportedly not amused when he spotted his own face there.
Suicide jockey mission or not, many people are called. Four are chosen. Scanlon, Serrano, and Kassem make the cut, along with Márquez, another grizzled local (a German expatriot). They understand quickly why they’re being sent out in two trucks with six times the amount of dynamite needed. One, possibly both of them, will not make it. But the money offered is more than enough to leave the country, and even when one of their drivers is killed — Márquez, by Nilo himself, apparently as a way to keep Scanlon in sight — they still march forward. Nilo is pressed into service to replace the dead man, which works as a nice incarnation of the concept that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Other ironies abound, great and small: by pulling off this mission, they might save themselves, but they’re simply propping up the oil company and perpetuating the same social circumstances that kept them (and many others) trapped in Porvenir.
The tension accrued during the first hour of the film is ratcheted up all the more during the second hour, where the nominal source of suspense is the grueling drive through the jungle. The trucks are wretched, rusty hulks, shaking and grinding with each turn, and lurching horribly right when we most want them not to. Friedkin uses several set-pieces as tighteners of tension — a rickety channel crossing, or a bizarre interlude where a native South American dances mockingly around the truck, appearing and disappearing at will. Most memorable — and the source for the images that went on the film’s ominous poster — is a sequence on a rope bridge where we can clearly see the truck, the bridge, the terrified drivers and the broken planks falling into the water below are all real.
There’s another source of tension: the men themselves. None of them particularly like each other, and despite having a shared goal — they all want to leave — they’re only able to trust each other so much. Every fork in the road, every obstacle in their path, makes them realize all the more that they are alone and vulnerable. This comes despite the fact they all have something to contribute to the mission: Scanlon is a former driver and auto mechanic; Serrano serves as a voice of discipline and reason; Kassem has improvised engineering skills that turn out to be useful (in one of the best scenes in the film); and Nilo speaks Spanish and is handier with his gun and his fists than he lets on. But the movie never falls into the trap of having each character shine on cue: they only do their thing when they’re backed up against the abyss, much as we all do in the real world. Their desperation’s not a pose.
I enjoy films where characterization is given to us through the accruals of little moments, not big gestures. I liked the way Serrano talks longingly about his wife to Kassem, or the way Serrano tries to pawn the watch his wife gave him and realizes even severing that link with his past won’t buy him an escape. Or when Scanlon, the “punk from Queens”, gets behind the wheel of the truck for his road test, the company man eyes his hands and says “Teamster?” Scanlon’s reply: “Greyhound.” Or when Charlie Parker’s “I’ll Remember April” comes on the radio, and Scanlon has a slow dance with the withered crone who scrubs the floors in the local watering hole. (Does this song remind him of something?) He’d rather be with someone like the Coca-Cola girl over the bar — we can see that in his weatherbeaten eyes — but he’ll take what he can get. And then there’s that moment when Scanlon throws himself waist-deep into the jungle muck and begins chopping a new path through the forest, because a fallen tree the size of a dead elephant lies in their way.
Most discussions of Sorcerer either begin or end with a comparison to The Wages of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s original 1953 adaptation of the same source material, the novel of the same name. As excellent as Fear is at generating tension, the parts of it not geared for that have dated less well. Its A-list lead actor, rakishly handsome Yves Montand, and comic-relief Italian character (among other things) work against it. The standout moments of suspense that everyone remembers — the platform on the edge of the cliff, the oil puddle, the near-rear-ending of one truck by the other, etc. — seem to exist apart from the rest of the film. One truly dark part of Wages is, ironically enough, the very last shots — and again, to me, they play more like a tacked-on attempt at being nihilistic but in its time it was more than enough to chill an audience. My mother tells me that when the film played on Turkish television, it ran only with its final 30 seconds sheared off.
Friedkin has said that Sorcerer was one of the few movies he made, perhaps the only movie he made, that achieved what he had intended for it. Nothing about the making of the film hinted at that, as documented in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. The director had carte blanche after his last two films and had wanted to remake Wages of Fear for some time, but was frustrated from the beginning. After his original choice of Steve McQueen for Scanlon fell through, he eventually settled on “second or third banana” Roy Scheider — unintentionally avoiding, to my mind, the way Montand’s star power had made his character in Fear seem like he was levitating over the goings-on, not stuck in them. Scheider had an everyman look to him that worked so well in Jaws, and he uses the same how-the-hell-did-I-get-here? attitude to make us feel like he’s a person, not a star on location, even when that location looks half the time like the very crumbling rim of the world.
The rest of the cast was rounded out with people generally unknown to American audiences, which also kept them from being too glossy, but each had done distinguished work on their own. Bruno Cremer (Serrano) was a regular stage presence in France and had consistently played Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret on TV there; Amidou (Kassem) was another regular from French and Moroccan cinema who had worked with Claude Lelouch and Jules Dassin; Francisco Rabal (Nilo) was a Spanish actor of distinction (Viridina) who had missed out on a role in The French Connection when Friedkin’s casting director sent for Fernando Rey by mistake. The number of non-English names on the one sheet so worried the producers they were tempted to credit everyone with Anglicized pseudonyms — especially since it took two companies, Paramount and Universal, to pony up the $22 million to make the film, and they were increasingly leery of Friedkin’s Folly as they saw it come together. Or fall apart. (Adjusted for inflation the cost would be something like $75 million today, but it’s probably more realistic to say $150+ million given how the costs of moviemaking have inflated disproportionately.)
The shoot was meant to be half a year at most. It ballooned to two and a half years. Friedkin clashed with everyone from the cinematographer to the production manager, either firing them or inspiring them to walk off in a huff depending on which story you hear. In Jersualem, the explosives for the terrorist bomb sequence blew out the windows in the mayor’s office on the other side of the street. In New Jersey, Friedkin ran a dozen re-takes of the car crash that Scanlon staggers away from. The oil-refinery set that they built in the Dominican Republic, and then torched, burned so fiercely that the crew couldn’t come within fifty feet of it. The crew had to build their own roads through the jungle. Sets were obliterated by hurricanes. Fifty crewmembers were infected with gangrene and had to be stretchered out. The river chosen for the rope bridge ran dry for the first time in recorded history; the bridge had to be rebuilt at a cost of a million dollars at another river. When that river, too, fell to a depth of a mere foot and a half, Friedkin had hose towers and helicopters positioned just off camera to slather the set with wind-blown spray — which had the unwanted side effect of making it that much easier for the truck to blow off the side of the bridge and end up in the drink. That sequence’s mere ten minutes of film took three months to put into the can.
Even more dismal than the film’s making was its public response, exacerbated by bad timing: Star Wars had come out, and one theater where that film was playing swapped in Sorcerer only to have it play to mostly empty audiences for a week. Critics lambasted the movie, although Roger Ebert included the movie on his ten-best of the year list. Newspaper ads for the film sometimes ran with notes saying things like THIS IS NOT A FILM OF THE SUPERNATURAL to offset expectations that this was Friedkin’s follow-up to The Exorcist. But it returned to life on cable TV and home video, as many movies do when their audience has yet to arrive, and Friedkin went on to make many more films, among them To Live And Die In L.A., a spectacular distillation of the Eighties Miami Vice-style attitude. (His most recent movie was the adaptation of the stage play Bug, as claustrophobic and psychically smothering as Sorcerer is at its best.)
The realism of the film gets under your skin in a way that today’s aseptic CGI and process shots simply can’t. When a bomb explodes in the doorway of a bank, it has a messy, anarchic quality to it which cannot be put there after the fact with a computer. Werner Herzog calls it “the voodoo of location”: when he wanted to shoot conquistadores with native guides in the South American jungle, he went into the South American jungle, used real natives (although not real conquistadores), and came out with Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Sorcerer was only marginally more controlled than that film, with the actors taking risks (they did their own stunts, and stunt driving) that would be unthinkable today. “I looked at one scene in the rushes [the rope bridge sequence],” said Scheider later, “and all I could think was, ‘Did someone really talk me into doing that?’” Friedkin admits today that CGI might well have been his choice if it were available back then, if only because at the age of seventy-plus he sees many less reasons to wrap himself in a mattress and take the camera into the stunt car with him (as he did on the set of The French Connection).
Sorcerer also earns a footnote in the book of any movie-music fan. The mesmerizing electronic score was by Tangerine Dream, created by the group with nothing more than a copy of the film’s screenplay. They improvised several selections based on various scenes in the script, and to Friedkin’s delight they worked perfectly. It wasn’t their first film soundtrack (they did a few things for German TV before), but it was the one that brought them to the attention of filmmakers. Soon they were working on many film scores throughout the Eighties — including, as it turned out, a replacement score for the butchered U.S. cut of Ridley Scott’s Legend. But a good deal of the film’s music is not theirs; it’s the Third Movement from Keith Jarrett’s Spheres. Played entirely on a single pipe organ, it sounds every bit as alien and even electronic as Tangerine Dream’s music, and veers from agony to ecstasy to serenity within the space of a few measures.
The film's bleak power and gritty characters didn't connect with audiences at the time,
but time has been kinder to it than many other movies in that moment.
The number of things Sorcerer gets right have been amplified by time, which is usually not the case for a film. It’s a remake that does justice to and expands on its source material; it’s got more moments of pure movie than most movies ever do; and it’s hard to dig your nails out of the armrest of your chair while it’s on screen.
The only current DVD version of the film is the U.S. Region 1, from Universal, which is full-frame and not the best transfer. Word has been circulating on and off that a remaster was in the works, although it appears Universal might be saving that for a combo Blu-ray/DVD release. For now, the movie is worth seeing in whatever form you can find it.