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
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.
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