‘Sorcerer’ May Very Well Be William Friedkin’s Masterpiece

Sorcerer movie poster

This is the movie that almost completely destroyed filmmaker William Friedkin. “Sorcerer” came into theaters with a high level of anticipation, which was understandable as it was made by the same man who gave us “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection.” Lines were wrapped around the block when it opened at Mann’s Chinese back in 1977, but by the second week the theater was practically empty. “Sorcerer” was considered to be a critical and commercial failure, and Friedkin’s career has never been the same since. Of course, it opened around the same time as a small independent feature which blew away the competition. You may have heard of it, “Star Wars?”

Well, they say time heals all wounds, and “Sorcerer” has been critically re-evaluated to where it has received the critical acclaim it long deserved. The film is quite an accomplishment and a fascinating study in madness and redemption, and you will never look at truck driving the same way again after watching it. Depending on who you ask, it t is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (Friedkin denies it is). The Oscar-winning director put his heart and soul into “Sorcerer,” and it pins you back into your seat and thoroughly exhausts you long before it ends. Like many great movies, it is one you experience more than watch.

“Sorcerer” takes its time getting started as we watch the back stories for its four main characters and of how they ended up at where they are. We meet hitman Nilo (Francisco Rabal) who takes down a target with a simple bullet, Kassem (Amidou) as he bombs a local church with the help of his friends, investment banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) who is about to be jailed for fraud, and then there’s Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) who is marked for execution after his gang robs a church and accidentally kills a priest.

After this protracted prologue, the action moves to an unnamed location in a Latin American country which these four people have escaped to and seek refuge in. The utter squalor these men are forced to live in is so vivid to where it feels like the flies and stench of the environment doesn’t stop at the silver screen. You know how some people look at a movie and say it really made them want to take a cold shower? One shower is not enough to get past the filth these characters are forced to live in from day to endless day. This place is hell on earth for anyone, but these men obviously prefer it to death. They managed to avoid prison, but they came to a different kind of prison they are now ever so desperate to escape.

The chance for escape comes when an oil refinery suddenly explodes into a fireball, and the firefighters are unable to put the fire out without the help of explosives. Company executives manage to find a surplus of nitroglycerin sticks which can do the job, but the only catch is these sticks have not been turned and, as a result, have become highly sensitive and to where the slightest vibration could make them explode. So when an offer comes to drive this unstable set of explosives to the burning oil field for a high reward, these four jump at the chance to do the job. The rest of the movie follows their treacherous journey in trucks to deliver the explosives and hopefully not lose their lives in the process.

One thing I really admired about “Sorcerer” is how Friedkin dared to give us characters who were not altogether sympathetic. They are criminals of one kind or another, and yet we follow them every step of the way through their treacherous trip. Friedkin saw their incredibly dangerous journey as their chance not to just escape the filthy poverty they were stuck in, but also as an opportunity to redeem themselves for whatever bad deeds they committed. But their entire journey is a lot like sailing down the river Styx as they have to travel to through hell in order to escape it.

Friedkin does a great job of sustaining the tension as these men drive the trucks over terrain which looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing, and who encounter unwanted guests that have no idea of the cargo they are carrying. But the movie’s big action centerpiece is when they are force to drive the trucks over a suspended bridge which looks more than ready to completely fall apart. Add to that some furious rainstorms, and you have yourself one hell of a sequence which leaves you wrung out by the end.

Of all the actors in the cast, the most recognizable is Scheider. As a man on the run from the mob, he gives a performance which is never less than compelling, and you can only imagine the hell Friedkin put him through to play this role. The journey these men go on is not just dangerous physically, but also psychologically. Scheider does great work here as he is constantly on the verge of losing his mind, and this is especially in the movie’s second half.

Francisco Rabal, Amidou and Bruno Cremer are equally as good as they show the exhaustion and determination their characters have to complete this mission, and they too are put through the wringer to where they never seem to be acting their roles, but instead living them. You feel every bead of sweat which drips from their faces, and it makes “Sorcerer” even more of a visceral cinematic experience.

The imagery Friedkin captures is incredible as he shows us the squalor and unhealthy environment these characters live in so well, you can’t help but feel as trapped in it as they are. Friedkin has gone on record to say this film was the toughest for him to make, and I don’t doubt that for a second.

One of the other big pluses of “Sorcerer” is the brilliant score composed and performed by Tangerine Dream. Interestingly enough, they never saw a frame of the movie’s footage while working on the music, and yet they capture the events and psychology of the characters ever so perfectly. Like many of Tangerine Dream’s movie scores from “Thief” to “Risky Business,” this one is highly original and hard to compare to others. The soundtrack is still available on compact disc if you look hard enough for it.

After all these years, “Sorcerer” can no longer be mistaken as one of Friedkin’s misfires as it is now seen as one of his greatest cinematic achievements. It has since gained a strong cult following and is truly one of the most underrated movies of the 1970’s. It is unlikely we will ever get to see a movie made the way this one was ever again, and this makes it a must see for every and any film buff out there.

* * * * out of * * * *

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