By the mid-seventies William Friedkin had become regarded as one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, with an Oscar already under his belt for the French Connection, and The Exorcist more than proving to be a monumental box office hit for Warner Brothers. Friedkin had also developed an ego, convinced he was invincible and that all the major studios would willingly bankroll any project of his choice. Itching to make his next film, but reluctant to revisit the cop thriller or horror genres that made his name, Friedkin was drawn to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece Wages of Fear (1953), based on Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel Le salaire de la peur.
It tells the story of several flawed men from different backgrounds suddenly, out of necessity, thrust together to complete a perilous mission. Despite being written in the fifties, Friedkin considered Arnaud’s story still relevant and as “a metaphor for the warring nations of the world, who had to find a way to cooperate or blow up in a nuclear disaster”. It is of course always a dangerous game attempting to redo a bonafide classic, risking that inevitable scorn from fans of the original and critics alike. Anxious Friedkin was aware of such pitfalls and had already sought the blessing of Clouzot, insistent that his new version would not be just a literal remake but a “transformation”, taking the original’s premise but incorporating new characters and key scenes. Universal gave Sorcerer the green light, nervously partnering with Paramount to share some potentially hefty production costs. This was a wise move on their part, since the making of Friedkin’s film proved to be plagued with problems, namely an arduous shoot on location in the Dominion Republic that caused the budget to spiral. Like Werner Herzog’s epic Fitzcarraldo or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Sorcerer is perhaps also worthy of a documentary chronicling its troubled production.
The opening shot in Sorcerer is that of a horrifying face carved in stone, as if to conjure up a feeling of dread from the outset. It shows up again later in the film and reminded me of that unsettling image of the demon Pazuzu that appears throughout The Exorcist. Friedkin may be playfully making a reference to his previous smash, combined with giving it a title that misleadingly suggests the supernatural – though the strange name choice is explained later in the film.
Sorcerer begins with a lengthy prologue introducing us to the principal characters in four separate vignettes. First up is the back story of Nilo (played with menace by Francisco Rabal). He’s a mysterious hitman who despatches a stranger in Veracruz, for reasons unknown, before disappearing into the crowd. The action rapidly switches to Jerusalem as young terrorist Kassem (Amidou) blows up an Israeli bank. There is panic and confusion on the streets as Kassem attempts to escape with his cohorts, but Israeli commandos are soon on the scene. The chilling documentary feel employed here, complete with shaky cam, is reminiscent of the style later used by director Paul Greengrass.
From the chaos in Jerusalem we switch to Paris, as banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is found guilty of fraud, bringing disgrace to an otherwise respectable family business and prompting his business partner brother-in-law to commit suicide. The fourth segment takes place in New Jersey as we follow wheelman Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) as his gang attempt to rob a church of its takings. The robbery goes disastrously wrong and Scanlon shoots a priest in the melee, who happens to be the brother of a local mob boss. Big mistake - Scanlon instantly becomes a marked man and must get the hell out of dodge before he’s whacked.
The rest of the narrative will be familiar to those who’ve seen the original Wages of Fear. The four men, now fugitives of the law, eventually cross paths as they hide out in a squalid South American village which is surrounded by mountains on all sides. It’s a real hellhole, full of ramshackle buildings and decay – vividly brought to life here by John Box’s impressive production design. As the near penniless men mull over their fate, some distance away a massive explosion tears through the Poza Rica oil refinery– soon revealed as an act of sabotage.
Company foreman Corlette (Ramon Bieri) is under pressure to put out the blaze, but discovers that a supply of dynamite intended to extinguish the flames has become highly unstable. He’s advised that it’s too dangerous to fly helicopters overhead, so the only way to transport the explosive is by road. This will entail driving 218 miles over mountainous terrain to reach the remote site, where the slightest bump could cause the nitroglycerin to explode. Corlette appeals to the local townspeople for four experienced truck drivers with guts, offering 8,000 pesos each for what appears to be a suicidal mission. These are desperate times, so no prizes for guessing who steps up to the challenge. Stretching credibility somewhat, our protagonists are then conveniently shown to be highly proficient mechanics, able to rapidly assemble two serviceable vehicles from little more than piles of scrap. It's a montage that might look more at home in an episode of The A-Team.
Nilo and Scanlon are soon heading off into the dense jungle in their ancient old wagon nicknamed “Lazaro”, followed by Manzon and Kassem in an ex-military truck labelled “Sorcerer”, both laden with the deadly cargo. There is patent mistrust among the group – treacherous Nilo in particular looks as though he could dispatch any of them in a heartbeat. As depicted in Walon Green’s stark screenplay, differing from Arnaud’s novel, all these men have quite reprehensible backgrounds and are not remotely likeable. Similar to the original they are being forced to get along though, as there will inevitably be tough obstacles to overcome. We are encouraged to root for them too as they try to achieve their near impossible task and halt a disaster.
The second half of the film largely dispenses with the need for lengthy dialogue, with only cursory exchanges, as it becomes much more of a visual passage – showcasing some breathtaking photography by John M. Stephens. The movie makes superb use of locations, lush jungle foliage later making way for the barren landscape of the Bisti Badlands, accompanied by some sublime use of colour – blue and magenta hues, for an unnerving flashback sequence. An eerie electronic soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream is used sparingly but effectively throughout.
Sorcerer was Friedkin’s first feature after The Exorcist and, despite not being a horror film per se, it certainly has some nightmarish sequences. A standout piece of suspense occurs when Lazaro and Sorcerer have to be driven across a gorge as a storm rages. The only means possible is a rickety suspension bridge that extends over the fast flowing river beneath, but it has rotting wooden boards held up by fraying rope. It looks like the bridge can barely support the weight of a man, let alone the heavy trucks with their hazardous load. As the vehicles lurch forward, the structure sways dangerously and the planks creak. It’s a terrific nerve-racking scene that’s perfectly executed in every respect, including some magnificent (Oscar nominated) sound design that mixes a multitude of ominous noises to dramatic effect.
The filmmakers had wanted Steve McQueen to play Scanlon, but the actor flatly turned them down - along with all the other Hollywood big hitters of that era - not wanting to spend months away filming in a remote location. Although Friedkin had considerable misgivings about casting Scheider, it certainly wasn’t justified. Here’s an actor who in three previous roles had played second fiddle to Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Bruce the Shark but was undeniably excellent in all of them. He is outstanding in Sorcerer too, even without having to deliver many lines. The physical performance and range of emotions etched across his gaunt face speak volumes, as his character is pushed to the edge of endurance, but defiantly refuses to admit defeat.
You have to feel a degree of sympathy for Friedkin, who poured his heart into this film - which he still considers to be his finest work - only for it to be initially released around the same time as Star Wars opened in 1977. Naturally it couldn’t compete at the box office against that phenomenon from Lucas, so slipped quietly away having been further blighted by mixed reviews. It suffered a worse fate in Europe, with nearly a quarter of the film excised by a mean-spirited distributor. This is the version that originally played in UK cinemas, confusingly under the title Wages of Fear.
Slowly over time the film has gradually gained the respect it deserves, with famous admirers including Quentin Tarantino and Stephen King – who cites Sorcerer as his all-time favourite movie. Praise indeed for Friedkin’s once underappreciated “lost” movie. Now after a 40-year absence it finally returns to the UK for this anniversary re-issue, gloriously restored from the archives - importantly in its’ entirety for the first time. Watch it on the largest screen possible to fully appreciate all the film has to offer, but be prepared for a truly gruelling journey into the unknown.
Sorcerer receives a limited cinema release on 3rd November 2017, followed by a Blu-ray release from EOne on 6th November (including an interview with the director).