SORCERER: Friedkin Remakes A Classic, Makes It More Classic-er

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William Friedkin took all the studio goodwill and directorial clout he amassed with The French Connection and The Exorcist and pretty much flushed them down the toilet with this big-budget remake of the classic 1955 French thriller The Wages of Fear.

Filmed mainly during a politically turbulent period in the Dominican Republic (with additional scenes filmed in New Jersey, Jerusalem, and Spain), Sorcerer tells the sordid tale of four men from different walks of life who have come to a small village in South America to hide from the forces of their respective pasts. An American oil company has a stranglehold on the region, enslaving its populace and tainting the pristine jungles with billowing clouds of smoke from its refinery, the only real source of employment for hundreds of miles. One day the refinery catches fire and the company wants to use highly unstable nitroglycerin to extinguish the blaze but needs four men brave enough to embark on a suicide mission to transport the nitro by trucks across 200 miles of treacherous and unpredictable jungle terrain.

The men chosen for the job are Scanlon (Roy Scheider), a low level Jersey crook on the run from the mob; Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a French investment banker running from ruinous scandal; Kassem (Amidou), an Arab terrorist partly responsible for a devastating bombing in Jerusalem; and the mysterious hitman Nilo (Francisco Rabal), cooling his heels in the village after a violent assignment. Whatever differences these men may have, whatever dark secrets they may harbor, the thing that will ultimately bond them is seeing their dangerous mission to the end. This quartet of unlikely antiheroes must drive their rusted-out trucks over rickety rope bridges, through raging rivers, and across some of the most brutal landscape known to man. If they succeed the rewards will be great; if they fail dental records will be needed to identify their bodies, and that’s only if their teeth are even left.

Long regarded as a prime example of the folly of directorial indulgence, Sorcerer gained a respectable cult following and was able to finally put its troubled reputation to bed in the more than three decades since it debuted in theaters in the wake of Star Wars mania and promptly vanished after grossing a meager portion of its $22 million budget. It’s one of William Friedkin’s best films. Back in the day the man knew how to milk all the white-knuckle tension and palm-perspiring suspense he could out of a scene. Anybody who has witnessed the intense car chases in The French Connection and the underrated To Live and Die in L.A. and the sustained exorcism of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist can attest to that. In Sorcerer Friedkin delivers more than his fair share of scenes guaranteed to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

The story kicks off with a masterful extended opening sequence that establishes the back stories of our four main protagonists. These moments are integral to our understanding of the characters’ motivations for wanting to escape their pasts and maybe even get a second chance in life. Of course their reasons for transporting the nitro to the oil fire aren’t exactly noble. They need the money to flee the hellhole village they’ve exiled themselves to. That’s something I think we can all relate to. Plus one of the most interesting aspects of the film is Friedkin, working from Walon Green‘s morality minefield of a script, manages to have us sympathizing with people who have committed selfish and immoral acts. In the great tradition of film noir, our “heroes” are dark and complex men driven not by the need to do the right thing but by the desire to survive at all costs.

There are two action scenes in Sorcerer that truly make the movie a classic thriller. The first is where the trucks are forced to cross an ancient rope bridge half-buried in river quickly surging thanks to a punishing storm. Not since the “coin toss” scene in No Country for Old Men has a scene actually made me hold my breath and keep my eyes wide open. I won’t spoil the outcome of the scene for you if you’ve never seen the movie, but all I will say is that I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.

The second key scene is when the quartet encounters a rather large tree that has fallen directly on their only road. In a long sequence accomplished without music, the men get pissed, attempt to chop a new path in the jungle, and then realize that the only way they’re getting on with their mission is if they remove the tree. This is where Kassem’s explosives skills are put to good use. For nearly ten minutes we watch as he builds an improvised device out of rocks, rope, and sticks designed to lower some of the unstable nitro onto the tree thereby blowing it up completely. It’s both exciting and eerily compelling.

The shadow of death hangs over the main characters in Sorcerer but Friedkin’s expertly-assembled cast is up to the challenge. Roy Scheider gets a rare lead performance and he plays it to the hilt as the unofficial leader of the mission. There are a lot of things about his character we have to figure out for ourselves, yet Scheider preserves the mystery without making his professional tough guy into a psychological case study. The rest of the cast is a who’s who of international talent that’s refreshing for a big action flick such as this. Bruno Cremer is seriously good as the only one of our criminal antiheroes who’s never gotten his hands dirty. The only blood on his hands belongs to the business partner he inadvertently drove to suicide with his lousy dealings. Yet Cremer’s Manzon never feels out of place in the group. He’s even allowed some moments of pathos as he pines for the wife he left behind in France. Amidou is intriguing as the potentially volatile terrorist Kassem. International film legend Francisco Rabal brings extra shadings of moral complexity to his assassin Nilo.

The film is driven by a propulsive score by Tangerine Dream and boasts impressive production design by John Box, crack editing by longtime Friedkin collaborator Bud Smith, beautifully grimy and oppressive cinematography by Dick Bush and John Stephens, and a diamond-hard screenplay by the aforementioned Green, best known for co-writing Sam Peckinpah’s western masterpiece The Wild Bunch.

Most importantly, Sorcerer is William Friedkin’s baby. The director’s reverential respect for the original Henri Georges Clouzot-directed The Wages of Fear is ever present here but Friedkin never slavishes follows the original shot for shot. Instead he adds his own interesting contributions to the narrative, most prominently the telling social commentary about how industry has raped once beautiful countries and the memorable opening scenes that lay out the main character’s back stories in often graphic detail. The result is a truly awe-inspiring piece of high-tension action cinema that still manages to hold you in its spell after all these years.

Sorcerer is one mean, two-fisted bastard of a flick. Take a chance and see this underrated action classic.

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One Response to “SORCERER: Friedkin Remakes A Classic, Makes It More Classic-er”

  1. Great review, I’m glad you liked it. BTW, I’m the author of Sorcerer’s wikipedia entry. I would be most flattered if my work inspired you to see it! : )

    Like

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