Directed by William Friedkin
Produced by William Friedkin, Bud Smith
Written by Walon Green (screenplay), Georges Arnaud (novel)
Cinematography by Dick Bush, John M. Stephens
Edited by Robert K. Lambert, Bud Smith
Music by Tangerine Dream
Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures
Warner Bros. Blu-ray (2:01)
William Friedkin’s Sorcerer may be one of the most unjustly cursed films of all time. Not only did it have to complete with the initial release of the first Star Wars movie, the film featured only one recognizable star (Roy Scheider, above, in case you don’t recognize him), boasted a title that was misleading, contained some of the most destitute locales ever filmed, and suffered production mishaps that were, according to Kelly Vance in an article about the film, “near-biblical, rivaling even Francis Ford Coppola’s ordeals while shooting Apocalypse Now.” (“Sorcerer: Noir… or Not?”, Noir City Annual 2014, The Film Noir Foundation) Yet the film stands as a stunning example of film noir (thus answering Vance’s question – at least for me – with an assertive “yes.”).
The film begins with four seemingly unrelated incidents: a Mexican assassin named Nilo (Francisco Rabal) flees after killing a man in Vera Cruz; a terrorist bomber named Kassem (French-Moroccan actor Amidou, second from R) is captured after exploding a bomb in Jerusalem; a French businessman named Manzon (Bruno Cremer, second from L) is about to be jailed for fraud via the Paris Stock Exchange; and a man named Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider, center) is the lone survivor of an Irish gang who robs a Elizabeth, New Jersey Catholic church of its bingo racket money. And don’t think the local mob leader (whose brother the priest was shot in the holdup) is going to forget about Scanlon anytime soon.
For reasons never fully explained, all four men find themselves hiding out in a poverty-stricken Latin American village called Porvenir, a place that hands-down wins the prize for the most unglamorous non-wartime setting in any major American film of the 70s (or maybe ever). All of the Porvenir scenes were filmed in the Dominican Republic, but you’d think they were filmed on location in the deepest imaginable hellhole. The details here are both wonderful and disgusting as we encounter filth on a grand scale, dilapidated buildings, a dirty little boy plucking a chicken, disease-ridden food, naked and half-naked men laying on the floor of a jail cell, corpses in the street, and poverty on a scale few people have probably ever seen pre-Internet. (It’s astonishing that the film was rated PG.)
When terrorists blow up a nearby American-owned oil field, the resulting fires threaten to turn the region into an inferno. The only way to contain the massive fire is to blast it out by dynamite, but the only known dynamite is in Porvenir, over 200 miles away. The dynamite is also highly unstable, having been improperly stored and neglected for so long that nitroglycerin has leaked out saturating the sticks.
The American oil company hires four drivers (guess which four?) to drive the dynamite across a rugged landscape in two rickety trucks that should’ve been relegated to the junkyard years (if not decades) earlier. Only one truck is really necessary for the job, but the company knows full well that one of the trucks probably won’t make it. If the drivers survive this suicide mission, they’ll come out rich enough to escape Porvenir. At least that’s the plan.
Sorcerer is based on Henri-George Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece The Wages of Fear (Friedkin refuses to call it a remake) and while it’s influence is certainly present, Sorcerer is its own film with its own distinct personality. As Clouzot did in the original, Friedkin captures the utter desperation of the characters as they make their way across the jungle in some of the most nerve-shattering scenes ever filmed. In a time well before CGI, I have to assume that everything in the film – including the amazing drive(s) across a suspension bridge that looks like it wouldn’t hold a cat, much less an enormous truck – is real.
Yet we’re here to talk about noir and in my mind, we are firmly in noir territory with four criminals who are each trying to escape four different situations that they themselves are responsible for producing. They’ve committed their crimes and are suffering for and from them, not from any legal or legislative authority, but from fate itself. Whether they deserve it or not, will there be any escape for them? It is a crime picture, yes, but the essence of noir lies at the crux of their hopes and desires – to escape the inescapable with slim hope for the future.
Having previously completed two enormously successful films, The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), Friedkin wanted to make Sorcerer (originally titled Ballbreaker) as something of a labor of love. Boy, was it… You can find plenty of information online about the troubles surrounding the film, but the film’s Wikipedia article may be the best place to start. Just to give you an idea of the end result, the film’s budget reached $22 million (a staggering $87 million in today’s dollars) and only earned $9 million worldwide.
One of Friedkin’s many headaches was in casting. Steve McQueen was Friedkin’s first choice for the role of Scanlon, but negotiations fell through. Friedkin also approached Robert Mitchum, who declined, saying “Why would I want to go to Ecuador for two or three months to fall out of a truck? I can do that outside my house.” (The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir ) Scheider wasn’t the actor Friedkin wanted, but that was who he got. In the Noir City Annual 2014 article, Kelly Vance muses on what it would’ve been like if an actor such as Richard Widmark or John Garfield had played the role. That’s something we’ll never know, but does Scheider pull it off? I’ll leave that for you to answer.
The film is even more relevant now than it was upon its initial release. We can (unfortunately) now understand the acts of terrorism depicted in the film in a far different way than we could in 1977. The scenes of mob violence, raging anger, murder and destitution – we are all too familiar with them in 2016 as we turn a corner to 2017. Although it unnerves us, we can understand the destitution and the desperation we see in Sorcerer. We may not like it, it may disturb us, but we can understand it. And we can understand, at least to some degree, why these four men take up what seems a foolhardy and dangerous challenge: survival.
Sorcerer is available as a Warner Brothers Blu-ray, which looks impressive, but unfortunately contains no commentary or extras whatsoever. Some critics have stated that in order to get that information, you’ll need to read the Friedkin memoir mentioned above. I’ll probably do that, but it would’ve been nice to have heard from the director himself, if at all possible. (Friedkin will turn 82 on August 29, 2017.) Regardless, Sorcerer is a forgotten treasure that should be rediscovered.
Photos: The Greatest Movie EVER Podcast!, Fangoria, blu-ray.com, JoBlo, Ferdy on Films