Disc Jockey: William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ finally gets a decent release

The centerpiece of William Friedkin's 1977 film "Sorcerer" is a scene where a nitroglycerine-packed truck tries to cross a rickety jungle bridge in the rain. Credit: Warner Home Video
The centerpiece of William Friedkin’s 1977 film “Sorcerer” is a scene where a nitroglycerine-packed truck tries to cross a rickety jungle bridge in the rain.
Credit: Warner Home Video

‘Sorcerer’
$27.98
Warner Home Video

William Friedkin could do whatever he wanted. It was the mid-’70s and he was hot off the one-two mega-punch of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” Those in such positions are bound for failure. Friedkin would embody this like few others. He chose as his would-be threepeat “Sorcerer,” a loose remake of one of the greatest ever thrillers: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “The Wages of Fear.” In it, four desperate men agree to a suicide mission: drive highly combustible nitroglycerin over unsettled terrain, their stock ready to blow at the slightest bump.

The desperation seeped offscreen. “Sorcerer”s downfall was the stuff of legend. A small production ballooned into a costly, turbulent monstrosity. Hoping for an all-star cast — Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, Marcello Mastroianni and Lino Ventura were all courted — Friedkin “settled” for his “French Connection” co-star (and recent “Jaws” human) Roy Scheider and three semi-obscure actors. The shoot itself was cursed; many contracted illnesses. The title — partly inspired by the Miles Davis record — was confusing, especially for those expecting another “The Exorcist.” And then this dirty, grimy downer with no likable characters opened a month after the cheery “Star Wars.”

To be honest, it wasn’t just George Lucas who killed “Sorcerer.” Even for a bleak ’70s American film, “Sorcerer” is impressively dark.  Seen today, it’s the high/low point of pessimistic 1970s American cinema, that brief period when studios threw millions at pictures about life’s losers. In fact, it’s been so unlucky — if not as unlucky as its protagonists — that even “Heaven’s Gate” has gotten rediscovered before it. “Sorcerer” has only been available in the wrong aspect ratio; its new, bare-bones but beautiful Blu-ray edition is the first time it’s been sold properly. 

While the era boasts no shortage of anti-heroes, none of “Sorcerer”’s four leads are even semi-heroic. They’re crooks, assassins, terrorists. They’re not even the good ones; they’re bad at being bad, and all have wound up in a grungy, never-identified South American town (actually somewhere in the Dominican Republic) to hide out from those they’ve crossed. This lint-filled pocket of the world seems to only attract the biggest failures; when an oil company asks for people to sign up for a job that’s almost certain fiery death, there’s a cattle call, followed by the saddest audition montage in movies.

Roy Scheider plays a low-level criminal trying to eke out a bare living in "Sorcerer." Credit: Warner Home Video
Roy Scheider plays a low-level criminal trying to eke out a bare living in “Sorcerer.”
Credit: Warner Home Video

Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear” was set in an arid wasteland, the trucks battling rocks in the life-sapping light of day. Friedkin goes with the sweaty jungle. This isn’t a straight remake, and he doesn’t even repeat the original’s big, nail-biting set pieces. (He does keep the finest out-of-nowhere death ever, though it’s not quite as out-of-nowhere, while a bit involving blowing up a barrier has been repurposed.) The film’s biggest invention — the crossing of a rickety bridge in torrential downpour — is as maddening and jaw-dropping as anything in the original.

But “Sorcerer” isn’t really about tension, despite a few stretches that will have you tearing our your hair. It’s about a descent into purgatory that may be hell. If anyone gains sympathy for the lead quartet, it’s not due to anything they’ve done. It’s because whatever sins they’ve committed, however many lives they’ve destroyed, no one deserves the gutter gauntlet they’re forced to endure. Only an hour is devoted to the actual journey — almost a full half hour shorter than in the first — but the filmmaking is so heavy and tactile, the actors so exhausted, that one feels completely drained anyway. One of the definite improvements over the original is the final stretch. The journey’s last leg turns phantasmagoric and dreamy, while the cynical ending, as opposed to the one Clouzot designed, feels fully and tragically earned. As with a Cormac McCarthy novel, eventually all you can do is laugh at the misery heaped upon them in back-breaking piles.

“Sorcerer” was compared, not always favorably, to Werner Herzog’s “Aquirre: The Wrath of God,” though the real comparison is to his 1982 jungle saga “Fitzcarraldo,” where the impossible feats in the film — including dragging a boat over a mountain — actually happened on-set too. You feel the same real-life suffering in “Sorcerer.” The sweat is real; the frustration is real. No one onscreen looks happy, because the actors probably weren’t. It’s as much a portrait of anguish as it is a documentary of same.

Friedkin escaped from his own hell, but barely. Like Peter Bogdanovich, Friedkin was a 1970s casualty, albeit one who’s periodically been able to get back his game. One of his follow-ups was “Cruising,” which was in its way a bigger disaster (and one that too has been reevaluated, despite its myriad issues). But for every Friedkin failure (or every couple anyway), there’s a “To Live and Die in L.A.” or his two ace Tracy Letts adaptations (“Bug” and “Killer Joe”). If “Sorcerer” is about the cruel indifference of fate, real life has proven much brighter, even if it’s taken nearly four decades for its day to come.

Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep star in the Holocaust survivor drama "Sophie's Choice." Credit: Shout! Factory
Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep star in the Holocaust survivor drama “Sophie’s Choice.”
Credit: Shout! Factory

Also out

‘Sophie’s Choice’ Meryl Streep is big now, but once upon a time, around 1982, she was so big she could turn a long, heavy drama about a concentration camp survivor weighed down by her past into a rather sizable hit. And believe it or not, some of us have never plowed through it.

‘Labor Day’ A punchline when it came out this awards season, Jason Reitman’s critical and commercial dud does feature a strong performance by Josh Brolin, even though he’s tasked with playing a sweet criminal who gives a mother and son (Kate Winslet and Gattlin Griffith) an amusingly suggestive lesson in pie-making.

‘Gimme Shelter’ Add Vanessa Hudgens to the long list of actors you didn’t know could act trying really hard to act in a “gritty” drama. Here, she boasts scissor-cut hair and face piercings as a wayward teen saved by nice religious folk.

‘The Legend of Hercules’ Once-powerful trash artist Renny Harlin (“Cliffhanger,” “Deep Blue Sea”) is now making simply garbage now, as witness (or not) this cheapie Hercules pic that tried to scoop the big Dwayne Johnson one that hits this summer.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

By Piya Sinha-RoyLOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Marvel Entertainment's chief emeritus Stan Lee may be in his ninth decade, but it hasn't stopped him from adding…

National

Islamic State says beheads U.S. journalist, holds another

Islamic State insurgents released a video purportedly showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, who had gone missing in Syria nearly two years ago.

Local

VIDEO: NYPD seeks shooter in East New York…

Cops are on the lookout for an unknown shooter who aimed and missed hitting a man on a bicycle, instead nearly striking a nearby officer in East New York.

Local

NYS state forces thrift shops comply with ban…

Nine New York City thrift shops were reprimanded by the state attorney general for selling children's clothes with drawstrings around the neck and waist.

Television

'Pretty Little Liars' recap: Season 5, Episode 11,…

Caleb's not a ghost. Spencer might still be an attempted murderer. And Hanna's going to die next week. In other words, we actually got some…

Movies

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

Marvel Entertainment's Stan Lee is adding outposts to his creative empire to interest a new generation of children in super heroes of all shapes and sizes.

Television

Mira Sorvino explores immortality on 'Intruders'

Mira Sorvino's new show "Intruders" centers around a secret society that achieves immortality by taking over the bodies of other people.

Television

5 things you need to know about new…

"Doctor Who" returns Saturday with a new star, Peter Capaldi. Here's some things to know about him (mainly his turn as sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker).

MLB

Shane Greene travels unlikely road to Yankees stardom

Shane Greene was throwing a bullpen session on a quiet field at Daytona Beach Community College one day when the ball started moving.

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL tight ends (TE)

MLB

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

NFL

David Wilson returns to triple jump, sets sights…

Giants fans know David Wilson can jump. They are just more used to seeing him go for backflips, not distance.

Style

11 timeless gifts for registries or just because

Gifts to prove you're a style maven once and for all.

Parenting

How everyday moments can inspire kids' creativity

"The Artist's Way for Parents" author Julia Cameron gives advice on how parents and children can be creative together.

Tech

How to stay safe online

Stop worrying about keeping your online passwords safe, and start worrying about keeping your username a secret. Actually, worry about both. According to Shaun Murphy…

Tech

OpenTable now lets you pay your bill via…

The restaurant app OpenTable added the ability to pay your bill (and tip) with your phone, thus cutting back on a few dining annoyances.