Discovering Sorcerer

My history with Sorcerer goes back a couple years. I caught Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 adaptation of The Wages of Fear on Netflix and immediately fell in love with it. For an old black and white French film, it turned out to be one of the most suspenseful movies I’d ever seen. It was in researching the film afterwards that I discovered William Friedkin had loosely remade the film in 1977 as Sorcerer, but there wasn’t a lot of information on it, save for a few TV spots and old reviews. My initial reaction was that the film hadn’t done so well upon its initial release and must not have been that good, especially in comparison to the Clouzot version.

So when reports started circulating around about a restoration and rerelease this year, I became genuinely interested, to the point I considered finding a copy of the crappy DVD or maybe just waiting for the Blu-Ray to find out what all the excitement was about. But then after hearing that the Cinefamily here in Los Angeles was going to be showing the film, I thought what better way to experience a movie like this for the first time then by seeing it on the big screen.

And boy, am I glad I did.

Sorcerer is an underrated masterpiece of suspense, a riveting cinematic experience that is equal to, or perhaps even better than, the Clouzot film. Two days after watching it and my body is still tensed up from the experience. That should come as little surprise though to cinephiles since the movie was directed by William Friedkin, whose films, including The French Connection and The Exorcist, continue to shock and excite filmgoers to this day.

The film is about a group of desperate, dispossessed men trapped in South America and hiding out from the law. But when an oil well two hundred miles away catches fire, they’re offered a chance at redemption by transporting two truckloads of unstable nitroglycerine across some of the roughest terrain imaginable. It’s an adventure film in the classic sense, having more in common with Treasure of the Sierra Madre than say Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Sorcerer is basically split into two halves, with the first half focusing primarily on the characters. The film opens with a series of lengthy prologues establishing the four men who will become our leads, men of different criminal professions from around the world. The first is an assassin in Vera Cruz. The second an Arab terrorist who just blew up a bank in Jerusalem. The third is a French banker engaged in fraud. And the fourth is Roy Scheider, a small-time hood and getaway driver whose latest robbery has gone horribly wrong. By the time all four of them wind up in South America, working various labor jobs in a remote jungle village, we’re already thirty minutes into the film, with another thirty to go before the trucks even get rolling.

While all this setup may seem tedious at first, Friedkin wisely uses this section of the film to layout the different characters, their attitudes and motivations, because he knows that once the second half gets going, it won’t let up. Each scene is just one perfectly executed sequence of suspense after another, with set pieces rivaling those in most other adventure films. For example, the trucks find themselves on the wrong side of a river and must cross using an old, weathered rope bridge that looks like it’s going to snap at any moment. The scene goes on for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, with Friedkin shooting close-ups of the tires slipping and the rotting bridge planks breaking away. It’s one of the most harrowing sequences I’ve ever seen, and it’s mostly just shots of trucks slowly inching forward.

But it’s because of that first half that we’re invested in these drivers and their trucks as they’re put in these dangerous situations. Earlier in the film, Friedkin establishes the power of explosions, first in the Jerusalem bombing and the second at the burning oil well, appearing out of nowhere and killing tens if not hundreds of people. This is a movie where life can end in an instant. That’s the dread these characters perform their job under, knowing full well that their lives could literary blow up at any second.

So if Sorcerer is so good then, why then did it take nearly forty years for it to finally get its due?

You see, Sorcerer had the unfortunate luck of opening up a few weeks after a little sci-fi film calledStar Wars. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.If ever a pair of films could represent the seismic shift happening in Hollywood at the end of the 1970’s, it would be Sorcerer and Star Wars. Back in the day, Sorcerer would be considered a guaranteed box office success, while Star Wars would be delegated to a cult classic at best. The fact that the two films seemingly switched places is very much in line with Sorcerer’s grim philosophy: we are not the masters of our own fate.

I’m sure there were other factors as well, from the confusing title (named after one of the trucks and not a magical wizard) to a poor marketing campaign put out by the studios, but I think the changing times made the film seem passé before it was even released. Sorcerer is a tough and smart watch, expertly crafted and thrillingly shot, a far cry from the feel-good matinee theatrics ofStar Wars.

Star Wars heralded the end of the Golden Age that Hollywood was experiencing in the 1970s, andSorcerer was one of the last movies of that wave to make it through. But by the time it was released the entire cinematic landscaped had changed. After dealing with rough-edged movies about difficult men and existential crisis for the better part of a decade, America decided it had had enough, and thus Sorcerer was doomed to a life of shoddy VHS and DVD transfers until Friedkin finally managed to convince the studios to let him restore it.

It’s a shame, really. Sorcerer is so good and yet for almost forty years it’s been pretty much unwatchable. Watching it today it’s hard to recognize it as anything less than a brilliant piece of filmmaking. But at the time, it just had the misfortune of slipping through the cracks. But thanks to a devoted following and Mr. Friedkin himself, the film now has been given a second chance, allowing a new generation of filmgoers, as well as entire generation that missed it the first time around, to experience it the way it was meant to be.

As for me, Sorcerer is the best film I’ve seen so far this year and it wasn’t even released in 2014. If you enjoy this type of cinema, I cannot recommend it enough. And should you ever get the chance to see it on the big screen or in its new restoration on Blu-Ray, do yourself a favor and watch it.

In the meantime, enjoy Tangerine Dream’s electronic soundtrack to the film: