William Friedkin’s 1977 picture Sorcerer is seen as an expensive flop from a director who was asking for it. It represents, in the history books, the director’s slip from the top of the Hollywood ladder. Other 1970s talents such as Peter Bogdanovich and Michael Cimino suffered a similar fate. Indeed, Friedkin was not the sole creative voice to fall out of favour with the money-men at the studios, however he continued to work and made solid, occasionally inspired films unlike Bogdanovich and Cimino.
At the time many were aghast Friedkin had the audacity to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot’s action thriller, The Wages of Fear (1953). Though it had been filmed by Howard Koch as Violent Road, in 1958, it was a ballsy move still. There were plenty of people revelling in Sorcerer’s box office failings with Friedkin’s perceived arrogance and egomania not helping the cause. Releasing the picture a week before Star Wars, although they weren’t to know, was another fatal blow. There were no wizards or sorcerers in it either. Confused ticket buyers were expecting an Exorcist follow up.
Sorcerer, the strangely titled seventh movie from Friedkin, took Clouzot’s jungle adventure and gave it a hard-edged dose of American cynicism. The director and his screenwriter, Walon Green, brought a contemporary socio-political touch with themes of terrorism, corporate crime and the mafia all entwined and symbolised in the lead characters. Wedged between this is Friedkin’s pet theme of the blurring between good and evil. He chose to elaborate on the characters’ back stories and shot sequences in New Jersey, Paris and Jerusalem. Clouzot did not do take this approach.
Sorcerer is a film with an international, expansive framing device. The Dominican Republic doubled as the central American country where the main story is set. The Caribbean nation, which shares an island with Haiti, was chosen because of business wrangling on the part of Gulf and Western, then in charge of Paramount. Alto Gracia provided the location for the grimy, poverty stricken oil town.
It is well documented Friedkin’s initial choice for the lead was Steve McQueen, but Roy Scheider (who’d appeared in The French Connection) would play the lead Jackie Scanlon/Juan Dominguez. Scheider was fresh off the success as Police Chief Martin Brody in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and delivers a very underrated performance.
Sorcerer’s initial European release was trimmed by 28 minutes. The scenes excised included the quartet’s back stories and why they’d landed in a Central American hell hole. It also lopped off the epilogue. This aligns it more with Clouzot’s original and diminished Friedkin’s vision. It also robbed the picture of one of its key sequences involving a car crash.
If you’ve read Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) then you’ll know all about the accusations of egomania levelled at the filmmaker. It was brazen and perhaps foolhardy, in the eyes of critics, to remake The Wages of Fear and there was plenty waiting for the fall which dully came. Yet Friedkin genuinely saw themes and undercurrents in the material he wished to explore. All he’s guilty of is not holding a ‘sacred’ film text in egregious reverence. He must have loved the original to remake it. His often volatile nature on set earned him the nickname Hurricane Billy, especially, after he employed helicopters to re-create a storm during the classic rope bridge sequence.
The shoot was not easy. This would become Friedkin’s own Apocalypse Now experience. He fought with the crew, pissed off studio executives, alienated his leading man and – if we believe Biskind’s book – burst into tears when a stuntman ran over a little pig during a take.
Made for $22 million dollars (which was a massive amount for its time) and financed between Universal and Paramount Pictures it raked $12 million back at the US box office. Friedkin was never trusted with a big budget film ever again and has since worked in low to mid budgeted features. Commercially it was a failure but judged on artistic and technical merits, the film is extraordinary and waiting for re-appraisal and its own ‘masterpiece’ status.
If you’ve never seen either The Wages of Fear or Sorcerer, the story centres on four mysterious international ex-pats with shady pasts tasked with delivering two truckloads of poor grade TNT ‘sweating nitro-glycerine’ 200 miles through harsh jungle and mountain terrain. Given its brittle quality, the stuff could go up at any minute. The tension rises and tightens like a knot. The slightest jolt or pot hole in the road could blow the trucks – and its drivers – sky high to kingdom come. These are men with nothing to lose and money to gain. This is a study of anti-heroes and villains working together.
An international cast was sort by Friedkin to play his rebels with/without a cause. Roy Scheider plays the closest approximation to Yves Montand’s original role. Jackie Scanlon/Juan Dominguez is a crook on the run from the Mob. Bruno Cremer starred as a Parisian corporate crook, Francisco Rabal plays Nilo and Amidou portrays an explosives expert and terrorist named Kassem. Given the two cuts – American and European – these characters are either fully formed or totally mysterious.
In either version the men are very unsympathetic sorts and the audience will perhaps struggle to care for them in the traditional sense. Their obscurity, however, takes on a symbolic guise when tasked with their mission. The terrain and its features produces a sort of psychological condition. What we might describe as psycho-architectonics (if being speculative and borderline pretentious). Yet other concerns are in place such as the shifting political situation in the country itself, alluded to several times. The quartet are promised new passports and $10,000 each if they survive. Along the way the men fight, squabble and unite in order to deliver the trucks and their cargo. It’s clear Friedkin sees his pressure-heavy picture as a comment on the harshness of life and the battle between good and evil.
Another brilliant addition to Sorcerer was Friedkin’s hiring of electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream to score the movie. This was to prove a landmark moment for Hollywood in itself as it dispensed with the traditional orchestra arrangements for a droning, layered electro selection. This move lends Sorcerer some serious cult classic credentials. The score works against the dense green vistas and fiery characters but imbues the images and atmosphere in an oft-kilter, though thoroughly cinematic manner.
Roy Scheider, being the leading man, gets most of the screen time. The very ending, completely different from Clouzot’s in every way, vaguely recalls the finale of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). The past finally catches up with Jackie despite him succeeding at the mission and collecting his passport and money. Friedkin’s camera pulls away and lifts up. We don’t know exactly how things will play out but it’s ominous enough. Sorcerer’s closing moments delivers a nice sting to the tail in a less overt manner than Clouzot gave the audience.
The photography by the unfortunately named Dick Bush (sharing duties with John Stephens) is another high mark of quality. Bush grew weary of Friedkin’s methods and attitude and walked from the shoot mid-point. Stephens took his position. The atmosphere in Sorcerer is palpable from the off. It looks naturalistic on occasion but slips into expressionism to highlight a specific idea or point. The scenes of Scanlon lost in his own nightmarish recollections demonstrates the use of this contrasting technique, where the landscape appears map-like across his face. The use of sound, the film’s sole Oscar nod, recalls what a master Friedkin is in the art of effect.
Friedkin devised some extraordinary sequences which easily rival anything Clouzot gave us. When the trucks take a wrong turn, the men end up having to cross a dilapidated rope bridge during a storm. A raging river below heightens the threat of their predicament. Nerve-wrecking, ingenious and pictorially outstanding, this scene is a classic nail-biter. Using zero CG or post-production special effects, the trucks needed to cross the hazardous bridge (three were constructed at various locations). Friedkin has acknowledged it was a very tough sequence and the trucks did often fall into the river needing to be replaced and the scene re-shot. It was filmed using a hydraulics system (expertly hidden by camera angles) costing $1 million dollars and took three months to complete due to location issues.
It is also here that the director pays direct homage to the original. Kassem is entangled in ropes after he falls through a rickety wooden panel but Serrano (Cremer) doesn’t see him and ploughs on almost crushing his co-driver. In Clouzot’s original film, Yves Montand’s character is forced to drive over a man stuck in a swamp. He has no other choice. Friedkin’s take never gets quite so brutal.
As mentioned, a major reason Sorcerer failed upon its original theatrical release was down to George Lucas’ Star Wars becoming a cultural phenomenon. Opening a week before the childish sci-fi extravaganza was, of course in hindsight, not the smartest move. But they weren’t to know Lucas’ Akira Kurosawa-pilfering flick would become one of the biggest box office draws of all-time. Still there’s no accounting for taste.
Friedkin’s winning streak was over. Still the 1970s were very kind to him. The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer and The Brink’s Job would look great on anybody’s résumé. In Europe, Sorcerer was released as Wages of Fear à la Clouzot’s original. That was bound to annoy people too. Friedkin never really saw his film as a remake either. They are quite different works which share a common narrative. Comparing one to the other isn’t really worth the time. Both are equally brilliant for different reasons.
Friedkin, depending on what day you ask him, called Sorcerer his own personal favourite because “It’s one of my only films I can watch because it came out almost exactly as I intended.” The burden of this dream destroyed his high standing in Hollywood but thirty-four years on, this epic jungle thriller is definitely not a flop. It’s actually pretty special and needs to be re-visited. Sticking up for Friedkin’s film might not be seen as very cool but this 1977 production is bloody well worth it. We need this film on Blu-ray or perhaps a new 35th anniversary theatrical re-release.