This was a film that came out and closed before anybody got to see it in theaters. I mean, it was a huge bomb. I got to see this on HBO, and watched it with my Sister and Brother-In-Law. We were all astounded by how great the film was. For years afterwards, I wondered why nobody knew or talked about it.
Obviously it is poorly named, and I have a theory about this. “Sorcerer” is based on the French classic, “Wages of Fear”, by Henri-Georges Clouzot, which is itself a film adaptation of the novel by Georges Arnaud. So why the name change? This from IMDB:
“The film was originally to be titled "The Wages of Fear" from the original French film and novel. Friedkin has stated that the strange title of "Sorcerer" refers to the evil wizard of fate.”
What the fuck? What “evil wizard of fate” is he talking about? This, to me, is total bullshit. The studio had to have talked him into the title. Friedkin was coming off two of the most famous films in recent memory, Best Picture winner “The French Connection”, and even more recently the blockbuster “The Exorcist”. Here was a film opening at Mann’s Chinese in Hollywood, that started with 15 minutes of subtitles. That’s no way to open a blockbuster! Plus, that 15-20 minute opening has zero exposition. You are thrown right into the middle of 3 stories, with no clue as to what their connection might be. No spoon-feeding here. I loved it!
I am guessing that the Studio, which had sunk 21 million (a huge budget for the time) into it, was scared of losing a fortune, and they figured if they named it something that sounded evil and mystical, people would think, “Wow, the guy who made “The Exorcist” with another scary thrill ride. Let’s go!” Then it’s 20 minutes of exposition-less subtitles, and no pea-soup vomit, and they are pissed off.
Well, in my memory, this film was 10 times as tense and scary as “The Exorcist”, and in every way its superior. I have since seen “Wages of Fear”, which is a fine film, but I feel that “Sorcerer” is the better version.
So if it’s that good, then why did “Sorcerer” get ignored at the time? Well, if you went to see a movie named “Sorcerer” directed by a guy famous for a horror film, and you ended up watching what resembled an art-house thriller, your word-of-mouth might be critical. Of course, there was one other factor. Maybe, just maybe, a little movie that opened the same week might have stolen its thunder. A little sci-fi joint named “Star Wars”.
“Listen Pancho, I've been clocking you every second you've been in this town. If you wanna pick your nose in this truck, you better clear it with me first, otherwise I'm taking you and this nitro right into a ditch!”- Scanlon
Four men from different countries all find themselves in a South American backwater, running from the law or organized crime. The place they are in is so miserable, that they jump at the chance to earn enough money to get the hell out of there. The opportunity arrives when an oil well in the jungle gets blown up by terrorists, and the only way to cap it is with a large amount of nitro-glycerin. The explosives, it turns out, are far too volatile to be choppered in to the well, so the company hires a small detail of men to drive the material over rough terrain and deteriorating roads and bridges 200 miles to the well.
Wow. That really doesn’t sound like much of a film, does it? Oh, but it is. It is.
Let me begin at the opening of the film, which I addressed before re-watching. There are no opening credits. Big deal, right? Well it was a big deal in 1977! Shall I remind you of how “Star Wars” starts? “A long time ago, in a galaxy….”
That’s right. Music and a long expository crawl. This is the opposite of what we have here in “Sorcerer”. All we see is a Central American Indian carving, and graffiti-like letters saying the word “Sorcerer”. Then it’s “Vera Cruz”. A man gets shot in his office. Then the graphics say, “Jerusalem”. 4 PLO men posing as Israeli students bomb a bank. Only one, Kassem (Amidou) escapes. Then, the graphics say “Paris”. This story is more developed. We have a wealthy banker (Bruno Cremer) who is in deep poop for fraud, and his partner commits suicide, leaving him even further up the creek. Then it’s “Elizabeth, NJ”. WHOA! Sing along with Elmo everybody, “One of these things is not like the other”. I knew Elizabeth, and Paris is no Elizabeth, sir! I don’t even need to visit Jerusalem or Vera Cruz to know that the same applies there. More on this later. Scanlon, (finally, an actor we recognize, Roy Scheider) is one of 4 men (again!) who rob a Catholic Church, which happens to be presided over by the brother of a mob boss. They shoot the Priest, not killing him. As they get away, the car gets into an accident, and again, only one survives. At this point you are thinking, what the hell do these stories have to do with one another?
It would have been easier on the audience if Friedkin would have started the movie at the beginning of the men’s time in the South American hellhole, and have flashbacks for each character. But I feel that the way he chose was much more effective. Each successive story reveals more of what’s going on, and at the end of Scheider’s time in NJ, you understand that all 4 of these characters need to go into hiding.
Truthfully, they are all pretty bad people. The Mexican hit man, the PLO terrorist, the French spoiled white collar criminal, the petty Jersey thief. It is hard to root for them, but this is exactly what you end up doing. There’s no real character development like you have in “Dog Day Afternoon”, for instance. You solely root for these guys because of the tension and film technique. You might think, “really? I’ve seen tense movies before. Why would that be enough for me to root for the ‘70’s version of Al Qaeda to survive?” Answer; this is a level of tension unlike anything I have seen in the movies before or since. It’s a special skill to make the audience squirm this much. The last 20 minutes of “The Birds” does it. “Alien” can also get to that point. But even while re-watching, fully knowing what’s going to happen, I white-knuckled the sequences where the trucks cross those bridges.
FYI- "Sorcerer" is the name of one of the two trucks. Why trucks need names, you know like WWII bombers, I have no idea.
Friedkin obviously wanted to give this film the realistic treatment that he used so successfully in “The French Connection”. Extras and small parts were cast using native Dominicans from the location. All of the other location shoots are viscerally real. The sequence in Jerusalem in particular has a contemporary feel, and you can see the influence Friedkin's original style has had on the genre of International Intrigue thrillers. The hell-hole where they are in hiding is pretty miserable, and he makes it as awful as possible, with trash everywhere, and lots of rooster close-ups, corrupt police, trash strewn everywhere, flophouses and dive bars, etc. So, how does this differ with Elizabeth, exactly? Scanlon should feel right at home!
The heart and soul of this film are the two spectacular bridge crossing scenes. Our anti-heroes manage to take these explosive-filled jalopies across two of the most decrepit looking crossings you can imagine. The use of angles and zoom settings, the stellar editing and acting make the tension and suspense nearly unbearable. The result is anxiety akin to the bottom of the 9th of a tied World Series Game 7, with some unforgettable images; the truck tipping on the rope bridge, the tire getting stuck in the rotted wood plank, the deadfall rushing down the flooding river, the winch buckling under pressure.
One of my favorite sequences is when they encounter a huge tree that blocks their only path. Faced with a lose/ lose situation, they are about to give up, but the terrorist figures out that with just the right amount of nitro, they can blow up the tree. How he rigs the thing up (with an improvised timer) makes you alternately really respectful of his ingenuity, and really afraid of how easy it is for these guys to figure out a path to destruction and mayhem.
The use of music is really strange and a bit wonderful, too. The score was by Electronic Music nut-jobs "Tangerine Dream", and really sounds dated. But you must remember how very modern it sounded at the time. It predates Giorgio Moroder's score for "Midnight Express" by a full year, and Vangelis' score for "Chariots of Fire" by 4. The droning of synths and the repetitive nature of the sequenced lines are very much in line with the tension of the film. Apparently they wrote and recorded the score without seeing a single second of footage!
Then, in total antithesis to this machine music, we hear a clip of some imitation of "So What" by Miles Davis as incidental music in one scene, and in the denouement there is a moment when one of our anti-heroes dances with an old Latina barmaid to the strains of "I'll Remember April" from the Charlie Parker and Strings recordings. In the credits, there is a huge mention of Bird, which, as a Jazz musician, I really appreciated, but I found somewhat head-scratching.
Re-watching "Sorcerer" did make me notice some other pretty strange goings on, and some pretty weak moments that I did not recall. Primarily, Nilo, the Mexican hit man, is a man of mystery, with zero backstory and very little personality. When the truck he and Scanlon are in gets stopped by Guerillas, he saves the day, getting shot in the process. Suddenly he goes from self-serving murderer to courageous savior, and develops a personality of sorts. So I'm supposed to feel for this guy?
Another weak moment is at the climax, when Scheider is in the truck and negotiating some moonscape which would have no business in the jungle. You can't figure out if he is imagining this terrain , or he's just lost. There's a lot of voice-over flashback noise, and double exposure shots. Is Scanlon going nuts from the pressure? Is the truck breaking down or lost? It's just not worthy of the rest of the trip.
This is not a film that acting will make or break. It's good that our cast did most of their own stunts, because the dialogue is not exactly Billy Wilder. IMDB says that Friedkin intended the role for Steve McQueen, probably the top action star of that era. Steve insisted that a part be written for his then wife, Ali MacGraw, and Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green refused. Scheider was kind of a last option, after Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood also passed. Interestingly, the DVD I watched stated that there was never any question about Scheider's being cast as Scanlon. Hmmm.
Friedkin's other top choices for the 4 men were Marcello Mastroianni, Lino Ventura and Amidou. Only Amidou took his part, the other two stating that they didn't want second billing to anyone but McQueen. Bruno Cremer was quite good, I thought. His part was probably the meatiest, and I wonder how Mastroianni would have fared in it.
ON SECOND LOOK
Maybe "Sorcerer" is a bit more flawed than I recalled. I had kind of put it up on a pedestal thanks to its almost invisible status in the annals of film. Yes, it's still quite a good film, and stylistically a trendsetter for sure. But the film has its problems, and is not something that you will cherish, watching again and again. It's damn good, though, and I recommend it, if you can find it somewhere. Make sure you have your Xanax handy!