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
Local

Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.

International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

National

OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…

Local

MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.

Movies

Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."

Movies

'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.

Television

'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."

Television

TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.

MLB

Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

NFL

Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

Travel

Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.

Education

Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…

Education

NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.

Tech

The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.