SORCERER. A Film Properties International/Universal Pictures/Paramount Pictures Co-Production. U.S., 1977. 2 hour 1 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1, Technicolor, 35mm. Director: William Friedkin. Screenplay: Walon Green, based on the novel Le salarie de la peur by Georges Arnaud. Music: Tangerine Dream. Cinematography: Dick Bush, John M. Stephens. Production Design: John Box. Editing: Robert K. Lambert, Bud S. Smith. Costume Design: Anthony Powell. CAST: Roy Scheider (Jackie Scanlon/Juan Dominguez), Bruno Cremer (Victor Manzon/Serrano), Francisco Rabal (Nilo), Amidou (Kassem/Martinez), Ramon Bieri (Corlette), Karl John (Marquez), Friedrich Ledebur (Carlos), Joe Spinell, Rosario Almontes.
Sorcerer, William Friedkin's follow-up film to The Exorcist, had the misfortune of opening in the year in which Star Wars had essentially re-written the rules of the US movie industry. Costing the upwards of twelve million dollars to make, it was a commercial failure. However, now that the American, nay, global motion picture industry has been thoroughly colonized by big-studio tent-pole special effects extravaganzas, well beyond the rather innocuous charm of the original Star Wars trilogy and teeming with literally dozens of comic book superheroes with their own patches of territory in the franchise gang war, it has come under a welcome wave of reassessment. It is certainly not an easy film to warm up to, with largely unsympathetic main characters, and arguably even more cynical or nihilistic than the notorious "existentialist" thriller, Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, with its much talked-about "downbeat" ending, of which this is ostensibly a remake. Yet, watching it again in a superior Blu Ray presentation by the UK label eOne, it is difficult to deny the hypnotic power the film weaves around the viewer: it is one of those films that can leave some viewers hating its guts, but nonetheless have them completely captivated and riveted to the screen.
I surmise that one of the reasons those who had seen the film during its initial release felt cheated was the abrupt way it "betrays" their expectations after the first reel. The way the main characters are introduced make us anticipate a tightly constructed thriller in the mode of, say, John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday (1977), which shares this film's semi-documentarian, in-there-with-the-actors approach, but today seems rather retrograde (and not just in terms of its Middle Eastern politics). Friedkin's mises-en-scenes are superbly economical and naturalistic, but work well within the established genre conventions.
Francisco Rabal (a Spanish star and a longtime collaborator of Luis Bunuel, having appeared, among other films, in Nazarin  and Belle de Jour ) is an aging, arrogant South American hitman. Amidou (a veteran Moroccan actor then specializing in Arab/North African roles for the Francophone films) plays a member of a terrorist cell responsible for detonating a bomb in Jerusalem, and barely surviving the pursuit by the Israeli police. Bruno Cremer (who had a solid presence in the French commercial cinema throughout '60s and '70s, mostly cast as villains) is a banker whose corrupt financial dealings backfire, ending in his partner's suicide and his escape from a Parisian High Society life, abandoning his book-editor wife. Finally, Roy Scheider is a two-bit gangster who pulls a daring robbery on a mob booking office operating in the basement of a Brooklyn Catholic church, only to have the heist turn sour. The mob bosses have put a price on his head. All these men converge as the last resort of escape to a decrepit village in a (fictional) South American nation, where the only connections to the outside world are bottles of Coca Cola, a juke box in a saloon that plays old dance tunes, and the American oil drilling site supervised by Corlette (Ramon Bieri, one of those familiar faces from TV and old movies you cannot quite put a name to).
Of course, as in The Wages of Fear, a spectacular explosion in the oil well makes it necessary for the company to hire a group of desperados-- excellent drivers with steely nerves and good instincts for survival-- in need of a big wad of pesos to transfer four boxes of dynamite, so soaked with moisture that they have virtually become sticks of raw nitroglycerin, with two beaten-up trucks over the mountain passages hardly fit for a bicycle trek.
Once we accept that we will never have real identification figures among the four leads, all of whom are morally flawed, to say the least (a vicious hitman, a white-collar criminal exploiting his family prestige to escape the law, a terrorist responsible for deaths of innocent citizens, and a petty gangster involved in a shooting of a priest), and that Friedkin is resolutely uninterested in editorializing about their moral or political stances, Sorcerer does entice us to join their perilous journey through its sheer filmmaking brilliance.
The technical accomplishments, including Friedkin's direction of the actors, are difficult to be faulted. The miasma of the consistently wet and muddy jungle is rendered with an almost physical force. The make-up, costume and production design all look totally lived-in. Despite the jaw-dropping, insane complexity of the stunts and set pieces-- especially the justifiably famous sequence of two trucks crossing the river over an ancient wooden-plank bridge--, the action is always legible and clearly presented. Neither does Friedkin waste any time in conveying the essential plot information. The scene in which Ramon Bieri's Corlette and his assistant investigate the sodden boxes of dynamite is a case in point: mostly using only visual language, Friedkin drives into the brains of the viewers just how unstable and dangerous these explosives are. These sequences are classical in conception, but the urgency and tension they embody is very '70s, something that New American Cinema came up with by incorporating editing and photographic techniques from the European cinema into their own immediate, aggressive filmmaking styles.
Again, the actors fully rise to the occasion, despite what must have been culturally disparate acting styles. Scheider never projects a Hollywood leading man-aura but his presence firmly anchors the film, allowing other actors to shine in their moments. It is interesting Cremer's Victor is the only one given a borderline sentimental opportunity to reminisce about the personal life he had left behind: his Parisian identity seems to have something to do with it. You certainly don't see that kind of softness associated with "French culture" in the equally ruthless but very different The Day of the Jackal (1973).
The best way to appreciate Sorcerer, at least for me, is to approach it as a horror film, an inverse of The Exorcist, in that, instead of a demonic presence invading a Washington D. C. home, the four protagonists are pitted against Nature-- or, more precisely, the jungle-- as a malevolent presence, maybe not quite "evil" but certainly hostile to the humanity. The startling manner in which tree branches, drifting through the river rapids, suddenly appear from the outside of the frame to "attack" Victor and Kassem on the bridge, for one, might as well be a deliberate, sentient act of aggression. Elsewhere, the awesome column of orange flame from the burning oil well is intercut with the montage of the men preparing their vehicles-- the trucks themselves look like huge totemic masks of some prehistoric beasts-- suggesting that the latter are observed by an unfriendly being.
Glenn Erickson (DVD Savant) once talked about one of the running themes in South American films including La muralla verde (1969) as well as the non-local films made in location there, such as Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), that shows "civilized" (white) men attempting to conquer or tame Nature and essentially being consumed or annihilated by it in return. I feel that Sorcerer also partakes of this theme, all the while refusing to comment on the evils of American capitalism or follies of the Western civilization pretending to have successfully conquered Nature. Overall, Sorcerer is not interested in dealing with the neo-colonial relationship between denizens of el norte and the native population, not even as much as Clouzot chose to explore in The Wages of Fear. The film does include a powerful scene in which the bodies of the local workers killed by the explosion-- a few of them burnt beyond recognition-- are shipped to the village and almost causes a riot among the population. As it stands, however, it is a rather isolated, curious moment in the film otherwise rigorously apolitical.
Sorcerer may not be a film that can be loved by everyone (William Friedkin seems to be one obviously talented '70s American auteur who is still capable of deeply dividing opinions of the scholars, critics and film historians, even more so than Brian De Palma) but I think its power is undeniable. In some ways, this difficult motion picture is more authentically "existentialist" than Clouzot's film-- which I still prefer, despite my aversion to its ending (apparently shared by Friedkin), which I have always found like a dream episode for the protagonist left over at the end by a mistake. It is stripped of the kind of intellectualism that inevitably leads to celebration of the "heroic" stance of the film's existentialist (always male and European, of course) protagonist. Here, the four guys are just trying to survive, and Friedkin suggests that we are no different from them, facing the indifferent or hostile God/Nature.
Blu Ray Presentation:
Entertainment One UK. Region B. Video: Widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, Stereo 2.0. Subtitles: English SDH. Supplements: Insert note by William Friedkin, a Conversation with William Friedkin and Nicolas Wending Refn. Release date: November 6, 2017. Amazon.co.uk price: £8.99
Sorcerer has been a difficult title to locate on home video until recently. I remember seeing it on a VHS, but having the film actually financed by two major studios seems to have done its distribution history no favors. It should be noted that Friedkin himself thanks Jeff Baker and Tom Lucas of Warner Home Video for practically resurrecting the film. The full background of this restoration process and the subsequent reevaluation of the motion picture would make an interesting piece of film history.
Entertainment One's transfer seems to be a carry-over from Warner Brothers Blu Ray, released in 2014. The colors are vibrant but suitably naturalistic, with stable grain structures and fine details. They are also warmer than the usual tone of the contemporary American films, which I surmise is as it should be: only tropical greeneries in certain scenes aggressively "pop." The Blu Ray does make it possible for the viewers to discern the subtle but effective "dirt" makeup on the actors and other details previously missed.
Even more impressive is the DTS 5.1 soundscape, which allows one to notice the different recording strategies employed in Paris- and New York-set sequences. Yet, I must say I remain frustrated that Tangerine Dream's evocative score was not more extensively used. Friedkin has a very unusual ear for music among American filmmakers-- his use of rock bands-artists like Wang Chung and Mike Oldfield is quite unique and effective--, but like so many of them, seems not to trust it completely. David Cronenberg and Stephen Spielberg share a surprisingly common trait in that they totally trust their composers to add extra layers to their films, rather than seeing scores as a "sonic element" to be cut and pasted as the director pleases, but they are hardly the norm.
The Warner Blu Ray was essentially bare bones, but eOne UK managed to include a substantial talking-heads docu filmed in 2015 (shot in black and white, with color inserts of relevant photo data), "Sorcerers: A Conversation between William Friedkin and Nicolas Winding Refn," which extensively covers production history of Sorcerer and clocks at 1 hour 12 minutes. It is mostly Friedkin talking, and Refn does an adequate job of prompting information and insights out of the older filmmaker, although his repetitive refrain that "I am the younger version of you"-- although the Dutch filmmaker might have been entirely honest about this self-assessment-- becomes tiresome. We find out that Friedkin still (at least in 2015) considers Sorcerer his best film, advancing the notion that he had intended it as a commentary on the troubled international conflicts of mid-'70s (not too convincing, I am afraid). But he is refreshingly candid about the disappointment from bad reviews and box office failures (Refn annoyingly attempts to paint the whole filmmaking process and its aftermath as some kind of a heroic artist's odyssey for Friedkin: thankfully the latter resists such intellectualization, while clearly pleased by the former's adulation).
The best part of the interview include Friedkin's recounting of casting choices (how Steve McQueen loved Walon Green's screenplay but had to drop out, due to his demand that Ali McGraw be included in the production in some capacity, and so on), of location shooting in the Domincan Republic, and of working with Tangerine Dream, whom he had already in mind as his composers as early as 1974. Many of the stories and interpretations Friedkin tell are informative and add to the appreciation of the film, even though for some of them I would have loved to hear Roy Scheider's version, too.