1977, 121 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
William Friedkin always said that of any of his films, he's proudest of Sorcerer, his poorly titled (the movie has nothing to do with sorcerers or fantasy), yet beautifully-exectued reimagining of the Georges Arnaud novel The Wages of Fear, which was made into a 1953 film by Henri-Georges Clouzot. The 1953 film is a masterpiece and is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, which is why it is frightening that Sorcerer can even hold a candle to it.
Sorcerer tells the story of a group of men living in exile in South America. Each of them has their own reason for coming to this hellhole. None of them have much money, so when a large American oil company offers four drivers the chance to earn a fortune, all of them vie for the opportunity. But what is the opportunity? To transport nitroglycerin across the South American jungle by truck - if nitroglycerin is disturbed in any way, it explodes.
Clouzot's The Wages of Fear was a film of slow-burning suspense. Sorcerer is a film of violence, grit, and explosive set pieces. What both films have in common is the ability to hold their audiences on the edge of their seats. Where Clouzot's film was polished and calculated, Friedkin's is dirty and guerrilla.
Friedkin's films are known for their energy. The French Connection's climactic car chase is a prime example. The handheld cinematography, quick editing, and close-ups make that scene visceral. Friedkin uses the same techniques to accomplish the opening hour of Sorcerer. During the film's second hour in which the truck drivers are transporting the explosives, the physical filthiness of the film increases and the shot composition becomes more polished, yet the feel is no less gritty. Everyone becomes dirtier and dirtier as the suspense increases.
Sorcerer is most famous for its dumbfounding suspension bridge-crossing scene in which the trucks must make their way across a rotted-away, rickety rope bridge during a hellish rainstorm. This sequence alone cost approximately $3 million and endangered the lives of the cast and crew. Every part of this astounding sequence was achieved on location without the use of reverse-screen projection. Set pieces like this make Sorcerer pulse-pounding. The Oscar-nominated sound used during these sequences makes them terrifying. Every creak of a wooden board could mean the death of any of the four protagonists.
While I believe The Wages of Fear is an overall better movie than Sorcerer, there is much about Sorcerer that I prefer, namely the build-up. While Wages' suspense sequences are more thrilling and the ending is more powerful, its first hour takes place in one village and can be too slow for its own good. Friedkin's film, however, wastes no time getting into the action. Friedkin tells the four stories of the four men that will eventually be driving the trucks and each one is riveting.
Overall, Sorcerer is a compelling, white-knuckle thriller with a fast pace and a strong lead performance by Roy Scheider. The new restoration of this film is a fantastic showcase for the colorful, awe-inspiring images. From the cinematography, to the performances, to the hallucinatory score by Tangerine Dream, Sorcerer is a bizarre beast that is best experienced on the biggest screen possible.
Film Forum in NYC is now showing Sorcerer.