Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou
Written by: Walon Green
Based on the Book “Wages of Fear” by: Georges Arnaud
Directed by: William Friedkin
Running Time: 2hrs 1min
NOMINEE – Academy Award: Best Sound (Robert Knudson, Robert Glass, Richard Tyler and Jean-Louis Ducarme)
NOMINEE – Melbourne International Film Festival: Best Narrative Feature
“My favourite film of all time – this may surprise you — is SORCERER, William Friedkin’s remake of the great Henri-Georges Clouzot’s THE WAGES OF FEAR. Some may argue that the Clouzot film is better; I beg to disagree.” – Stephen King – BFI Interview
“I felt then and still do that SORCERER is the best film I’ve made” — Director: William Friedkin – Liner Notes – the 2014 Blue Ray release
Tangerine Dream wrote the musical score using only a draft of the script given to them by director William Friedkin. At no time did the trio see any actual footage of the film. – IMDB
When it comes right down to it, there’s a section of William Friedkin’s 1977 film SORCERER that should, in my opinion, be acknowledged as ten of the most intense minutes in cinema history. Without the help of any computer-generated effects (as they hadn’t been created yet), the time spent watching two trucks make their way across an old rickety bridge in the middle of a storm will have viewers on the edge of their seats, unable to look away. Friedkin handles these scenes with such precision and intensity that, even if the surrounding movie were to fail (which it doesn’t), these sequences alone would still be worth the price of admission.
In the early 1970s, Friedkin was on a roll as a filmmaker. His 1971 movie, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, won five Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. He followed this up in 1973 with a film that many consider to be the scariest movie ever made. THE EXORCIST received two Oscar wins and another eight nominations, including Best Picture, while becoming a huge box office success. At this point, it seemed that the director could do no wrong and one might think that his next film would be a sure thing. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and his 1977 masterpiece (yes, I said masterpiece) received an overwhelming number of negative reviews and bombed at the box office. Many theories tried to explain why. One speculated that despite the movie being called SORCERER, the film has no supernatural elements, no magic, no demons and nothing that can’t be rationally explained. Coming from the director of THE EXORCIST, audiences probably expected another film in that vein only to leave the theater disappointed when they didn’t get it. Add to this the fact that a tiny film that maybe you’ve heard of, STAR WARS, made its debut around the same time and Friedkin’s film didn’t stand a chance.
SORCERER is the second adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel THE WAGES OF FEAR, originally filmed in 1959 by Henri-Georges Clouzot (DIABOLIQUE). Considered by many to be a classic, the original film currently sits with a 100% fresh rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, with top film reviewers like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert giving it a perfect score. This might make you wonder why someone would think it was a good idea to make another adaptation. Could a filmmaker possibly improve upon what has already been done so well and is loved by so many? Well, as much as I respect Clouzot’s vision, with SORCERER, I have to admit that William Friedkin has not only improved upon the original but may have come away with the most accomplished film of his career. It is a nerve-racking experience that blew me away the first time I saw it and continues to do so with each subsequent viewing.
The film centers around four criminals stuck in a small village deep in the Latin American jungle who are forced to take a treacherous journey that will test their sanity. It was adapted by Walon Green, a screenwriter who made his mark on the movie world when he co-wrote one of the greatest westerns of all time, Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH. A simple concept, the film boasts some interesting characters while also delivering some of the most thrilling set pieces ever filmed.
The movie begins with four separate prologues, introducing viewers to four characters from different parts of the world who are each guilty of their own very different crimes. There is the American gangster Scanlon (Roy Scheider), a crooked French Businessman, Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a terrorist Kassel (Amidou) and an assassin, Nilo (Francesco Bilal). There isn’t a sympathetic man amongst them and each is introduced as being involved in a situation that forces them to go into hiding in South America. These four men are strangers in every sense of the word, but they all end up in the same small, impoverished village. It is a place where only the desperate would want to live voluntarily. One character calls it “A good place to stay low. It’s the kind of place that nobody wants to look in.” Then, an accident at the nearby oil-drilling operation, which is the source of work for many of the villagers, creates the need for drivers to transport cases of unstable dynamite across the jungles and mountains that make up the land. Taking up the second hour of the film, it is this journey across the treacherous jungle, with the men literally carrying death on their backs, where the film really comes alive. The jungle’s rough terrain, whose smallest bump could cause the worst of catastrophes, forces the four men to test their sanity while being given no choice but to learn to trust one another.
The characters that Green and Friedkin introduce us to are not typical movie heroes. They are murderers and thieves who, for their own safety, have been forced to move to a place in the middle of nowhere. The film utilizes these anti-heroes to give viewers a unique and interesting look at this journey into madness, as the characters try their best to deal with what fate has to offer. This is a literal journey into Hell. The brilliance of the writing is in how the audience is made to still care about these characters, regardless of their past. As they journey down a path toward an unavoidable destiny, the viewer sympathizes with them as they encounter the continuous barrage of obstacles in their way. The most recognizable face in the cast is Roy Scheider (JAWS and ALL THAT JAZZ), who gives one of the best performances of his career as the main character, Scanlon, a character who slowly begins to lose his mind as he desperately tries to survive his journey toward redemption. The supporting characters, played by Francisco Rabal, Amidou and Bruno Cremer, are never treated as just background players. They all have their own stories to tell and the actors play them effectively enough to help bring their journeys of desperation to the forefront, at times becoming just as important as Scanlon himself.
Ultimately, SORCERER is not an actor’s film. The key to its success comes from its technical achievements. As a director, Freidkin combines the different elements of filmmaking to create an unyielding sense of awe and tension. Though there is an effectively haunting score by the group Tangerine Dream (THIEF), the director refuses to utilize it to manipulate the viewer’s emotions and increase the suspense levels during the most intense moments. These scenes are mostly void of music and when it does appear, it’s used very subtly to help create an eerie tone. Friedkin instead uses real jungle locations, documentary-style cinematography, practical effects and an incredible sound design, blending everything to create a true sense of realism within the danger. He also filmed the actors doing most of their own stunts, which draws us in even further, making everything more frightening as the dangers we see on the screen are real. Halfway through the film, with no CGI, we witness the actual actors forcing their way across the aforementioned bridge in the middle of a tropical storm. The falling rain, combined with the creaking sounds of the old rotting wood that could crumble at any moment, allow the bridge sequences to feel so genuine that it makes most of the CGI-laden scenes we see in cinemas today pale in comparison while putting the viewer on the edge of their seats cringing with fear, just waiting for something to go wrong.
When someone says, “They don’t make movies the way they used to,” they may as well be talking about SORCERER. Current movies rely so heavily on CGI that even though they may reach a certain level of entertainment value, they never rachet up to the levels of tension and realism created when filmmakers didn’t have this technology to lean on. SORCERER is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, unlike anything that could be made today and should be celebrated because of it.
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Yes, it is indeed. A great film. Splendid tension, dynamic set pieces, beautifully shot and cut, fantabulous production design, charismatic cast, the always-engaging Roy Scheider, great music. What else might we need? It’s a terrific heist thriller, the classic prototypes Rififi, Treasure of Sierra Madre and a rough, scruffy, sweaty, boozy rat pack trying to get out of the jungle alive. I would watch it again in a hurry.