Great Films You Need To See – Sorcerer (1977)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about William Friedkin’s criminally underseen 1977 existentialist thriller Sorcerer was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Unwittingly foreshadowing the fate of its four displaced protagonists, William Friedkin’s existential follow-up to The Exorcist was doomed the moment a certain lightsaber-rattling space opera arrived in cinemas from a galaxy far, far away.

Still Friedkin's most enigmatic and idiosyncratic film, Sorcerer's bewitching spell deserves to be cast far more widely

Still Friedkin’s most enigmatic and idiosyncratic film, Sorcerer’s bewitching spell deserves to be cast far more widely

Sorcerer (1977) has been cited by some as the beginning of the end for the New Hollywood movement. However, a giant nail had been hammered into its coffin several weeks earlier with the release of George Lucas’ Star Wars.

In light of this new paradigm of droids, Death Stars and Darth Vader, it’s no great surprise the film bombed on its release and disappeared without trace. That said, Sorcerer was (and still is) one of the most unashamedly offbeat big budget films ever released and was always going to be a tough sell.

Mexican assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal), Palestinian terrorist Kassem (Amidou), fraudulent French businessman Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) and New Jersey gangster Jackie Scanlon (Roy Schneider) weigh up their options in Sorcerer

Mexican assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal), Palestinian terrorist Kassem (Amidou), fraudulent French businessman Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) and New Jersey gangster Jackie Scanlon (Roy Schneider) weigh up their options in Sorcerer

Although Friedkin insisted it wasn’t a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic The Wages Of Fear, financiers Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures didn’t share the same opinion, changing its name to Wages Of Fear and re-editing the picture for international release.

The plot is certainly familiar. Four criminals – a Mexican assassin (Francisco Rabal), a Palestinian terrorist (Amidou), a fraudulent French businessman (Bruno Cremer) and a New Jersey gangster (Roy Schneider) – flee the scenes of their respective crimes and end up in a squalid Dominican Republic backwater working for a dodgy oil conglomerate. When one of the firm’s wells is blown up by ‘terrorists’, the desperate quartet sign-up to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerin across more than 200 miles of unforgiving jungle to put out the resulting blaze and pocket a big payday. The only problem is the dynamite is highly unstable and one false move could lead to an abruptly explosive end.

Getting ready for a dangerous trip in Sorcerer

Getting ready for a dangerous trip in Sorcerer

Friedkin has never been one to do things by half and employed the same guerilla style of filmmaking that won him an Oscar for The French Connection (1971) to down and dirty effect for what the director declares is the most important film of his career.

In his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection, he regales how scenes filmed in Jerusalem for the film’s globe-trotting first reel were given added authenticity by a real-life terrorist bombing that took place near to the shoot. In true Friedkin fashion, he made sure to train the cameras on the chaos that was ensuing rather than getting the hell out of there.

Crossing the most dilapidated bridge in the world in Sorcerer

Crossing the most dilapidated bridge in the world in Sorcerer

This is nothing, however, compared to what comes later in the film. Five years before Werner Herzog dragged a steam ship over a hillside in Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the name of art, Friedkin risked life and limb by having the trucks cross possibly the most dilapidated bridge in the world. The panic-inducing drama as the trucks swing violently back and forth over a raging torrent through almost Biblical levels of rain is almost unbearable to watch and is given extra power by Tangerine Dream’s nightmarish score.

Death and violence seep out of every frame and Friedkin takes an unholy pleasure in stripping hope away from his damned characters at every turn. The look of madness that creeps into Schneider’s eyes as their journey descends further into hell is startling and the hallucinogenic final reel is genuinely unsettling.

Still Friedkin’s most enigmatic and idiosyncratic film, Sorcerer‘s bewitching spell deserves to be cast far more widely.

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22 comments

  1. Fabulous, unfairly forgotten film!

    >

  2. Stu · June 4, 2014

    Nice review! I remember reading about this in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, but haven’t seen it myself. Sounds excellent. I’ll try and get hold of a copy.

    • Three Rows Back · June 4, 2014

      Thanks! I’d forgotten it was in Easy Riders… Man I need to read that book again! Make sure to give this a watch; it’s great.

  3. le0pard13 · June 4, 2014

    As Roy said, “Fabulous, unfairly forgotten film!” I’m one of the few who saw it first-run in theaters. Met William Friedkin last month at his book signing (The Friedkin Connection – A Memoir), where I picked and had him autograph this Blu-ray, too. Awesome. I second your review and recommendation, my friend.

    • Three Rows Back · June 4, 2014

      Strong work! I’d love to meet Friedkin; I’ve seen interviews with him and he’s never less than fascinating to listen to. Thanks for the very kind words 🙂

  4. Consumed by Film · June 5, 2014

    You’ve convinced me! I feel bad for having not seen it. Excellent write-up!

    Adam.

  5. Monkeyboy · June 5, 2014

    Funnily enough, I saw this for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Couldn’t agree more, an excellent film. That bridge scene definitely had me on the edge of my seat.

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      Sorry for the late response. Glad you agree; that bridge sequence really is something else. Thanks for the feedback 🙂

  6. Dan · June 6, 2014

    Terrific read. Thankfully, with the new blu-ray more people will be able to see and finally fully appreciate this “lost” classic.

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      Cheers Dan! Oooh, I’d love to see this on blu-ray. Sorry for the late response.

  7. Victor De Leon · June 12, 2014

    LOVE this movie. What an insightful review! I am eagerly awaiting my blu ray of this film. Really love Scheider in this one. Also, the making of and the release issues are so profound and interesting regarding this movie. So many stunning stories and details that are downright fascinating. I need to seek out that auto-bio from Friedkin. It sounds like a great read. Nice work on this post!

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      Thank you Vic! I definitely want to check out the blu-ray and its extra stuff. Make sure you read Friedkin’s autobiography; it’s a fantastic read. Sorry for the late reply.

      • Victor De Leon · June 26, 2014

        Oh wow! Thanks for the reminder for that book! I am heading over to my library this weekend and I think they have a copy. I need to reserve it. I’ll let you know once I get the blu-ray, too.

      • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

        Good man 🙂

  8. Tom · June 15, 2014

    Stellar review Mark, wow. The things I learn through your reviews are really amazing. That bridge-crossing scene sounds terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. I shamefully got this guy confused with Wes Craven, thinking Friedkin also directed A Nightmare on Elm Street. But Friedkin is solid, too. The Exorcist still brings me nightmares.

    On an entirely different note, would you mind passing along your email? I have an idea for my Bite Sized Reviews and was wanting to know if you would like to participate in it. 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      I’m sure I had responded to this but it’s not showing up! God damn it! I don’t want you thinking I hadn’t responded. Well, I’m here to teach! If you get the chance make sure to check this out, even if it’s directed by Friendkin and not Wes Craven ha ha! My email address is threerowsback@gmail.com – sorry again Tom; I replied with my phone but it obviously didn’t bloody work!

      • Tom · June 28, 2014

        Hahah not a problem at all man. As good as WordPress is, I’m finding it definitely has some flaws. The Notification menu at the top right ought to be considerate of the last 100 comments, notifications, what-have-you. I think it just includes your most recent ten. So anything past that is easy to overlook.

        Thanks for the help! I’ll let you know shortly what’s up!

  9. ruth · January 5

    Great writeup Mark. “Death and violence seep out of every frame and Friedkin takes an unholy pleasure in stripping hope away from his damned characters at every turn.” Boy aren’t you the wordsmith!

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