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Categories: Features

As it approaches its 40th anniversary, The Spread looks back to what could be the most underrated film of all time: the masterful Sorcerer.

It may be a bit of a cheat to give it such a title, because part of what makes Sorcerer so brilliant is how it does not slavishly chain itself to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s original film The Wages of Fear, but it is a film so good that it is definitely the greatest of something and, while clearly presented as an adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s original novel, it is dedicated to Clouzot. The beating heart at the center of it is the same as the one in Clouzot’s film. A tense, beleaguered, heart ready to stop at any moment. 

The story remains, essentially, the same. A group of desperate men in South America are hired to drive unstable nitroglycerine through the jungle to an oil field disaster. But, despite high anxiety and grisly demises, there’s a stark tonal difference.

Sorcerer captures each and all of the key themes from The Wages of Fear, from capitalism to existentialism, but fundamentally it is a film about death. Not just the suddenness and unexpectedness of it all but also its inevitability. We struggle and fight, anxious and fearful, to complete these tasks we set for ourselves, to clear each obstacle in the road, in the hope of reaching our destinations. But truthfully we are all heading to the same, final, destination. It sounds rather nihilistic but the film is actually quite pensive and visually beautiful.

There’s a downright Kubrickian kind of framing going on throughout Sorcerer that organises its shots like classical works of art, but its real showstopper is its editing. Editor Bud Smith also served as producer on Sorcerer and the clear line of sight between the vision on set and the vision in the editing room make this film hum like a perfectly built machine. The manufacturer name stamped across it is iconic: William Friedkin.

A director at the top of his game. Friedkin’s previous two films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, were instantaneously legendary. Why did Sorcerer fall by the wayside as a forgotten, close to lost, masterpiece? Many people blame it on the competition (Sorcerer opened right in the middle of Star Wars‘ incredible theatrical run) and the changing attitudes of the public, the grimness of 70s uncertainty had peaked with Watergate and America was yearning for the optimism of the 1980s. At any rate, it doesn’t really matter now. Because Sorcerer is an unquestionable masterstroke and a clear blueprint of how a determined filmmaker broke Hollywood’s rules to make something new. 

The defining word for every person, place and thing in Sorcerer is “tension”. Hitchcock once set the rules of suspense as having the audience know that there’s a bomb under the table while the characters do not. But this isn’t how Friedkin and Smith play it. You and the characters know that there’s a bomb somewhere, and you know it’s going to blow, but when and where is excruciating guesswork. A tire popping, a gunshot, the creak and crack of wood under pressure. Any of those
sounds could be the last you hear. There’s the rub. Never knowing “when and how” as it’s put by the wife of Victor, one of the drivers; a disgraced French businessman who had married into wealth from, presumably, working class origins (his wife briefly mentions that his father was a fisherman as the table complains about the lacklustre lobster from a South American trip). She’s editing a book on a French colonel who once pondered death at the artillery line, musing on a woman in the distance “in seconds my gesture would remove her from this world…whose gesture would remove me?”. “When and how”, we never truly know.

The other three principal characters are faced with similar conundrums. The film opens with a man walking into a room and, without saying a word, shooting another man. No explanation is given, none is needed. It’s clearly not a crime of passion. It’s cold, clean and precise. The motivation is money, as it is for most of the characters throughout the film. Victor overplays his hand in the financial world that he’s become accustomed to and is on the run from fraud allegations. Jackie Scanlon’s crew kill the wrong man in a heist. Nilo is an assassin who’ll kill anyone that’s between him and a paycheque. The only driver not there specifically because of greed is Kassem, the last surviving member of his terrorist cell. But they all take the job for the money. The oil company sends two trucks as they don’t expect a full survival rate, they don’t care about the dead workers and the riots over their charred corpses, they just need the oil to flow again. This is a world where the only thing that matters is the bottom line.

Star Wars’ success signalled that audiences were looking for more optimistic escapism in the coming 80s but Friedkin was already telling the kind of satirical tale of grotesque capitalism that would eventually define that decade. The funny thing is that the two films aren’t all that dissimilar. Both Sorcerer and Star Wars use overt fascistic imagery. The fundamental difference of course being that in Star Wars the brutal regime oppressing the people is destroyed and everyone gets a medal for doing such a good job. Sorcerer ends with Jackie Scanlon, finally broken beyond a point which he did not know existed, asks the old woman cleaning the floors of the bar on her hands and knees to dance with him. Perhaps because she knew Victor, she hands him something before he leaves but we never find out what. Perhaps because her tired eyes are now the same as Scanlon’s and she’s the only person who truly understands what it is to be broken by the life of a worker, the only one who truly deserves a dance.

Even though he was far from Friedkin’s first choice, it’s hard to imagine anyone else but Roy Scheider in the role of Jackie Scanlon. Sorcerer is a story of the damned but damned men specifically and very much an exercise in visual storytelling. The fear and emotional disintegration is told on its actor’s faces, each perfect performance standing as a testament to how elusive greatness can be. Virtually none of the actors were first, second, third or even fourth choices. It was an immensely difficult film to make when not even considering the brutality of the screenplay. Virtually every scene was shot on location across Europe, North America, South America and the Middle East. The bulk of the shoot taking place in the Dominican Republic for the jungle location; the rain and the mud mixing with the jaw dropping stunt-work to produce some authentic “how on earth did you even get permission to film something like this, let alone actually film it” moments. A lot of actors liked the script but they didn’t want to be the person who had to go through making it. Sorcerer seems if it easily could have had its own documentary to rival Hearts of Darkness, which was in fact being shot at the same time. If you can think of a film that owes its existence to Apocalypse Now’s obsessive descent into madness then that debt is also owed, in part, to Sorcerer.

It took two major studios (Paramount and Universal) to distribute Sorcerer and it took two directors of photography (John M. Stephens and Dick Bush) to film it. After more than 30 years spent fading from memory, and a lengthy legal battle with Universal and Paramount, Friedkin was able to screen Sorcerer again at the 70th Venice International Film Festival before overseeing its restoration to Blu-ray. All things considered, it’s a miracle of a film. Friedkin, Stephens and Bush were able to capture a natural vibrancy and very real danger that Clouzot simply couldn’t in the early 1950s but applied it to their subjects at every turn, making it an incomparably visceral and hauntingly human experience.

Its restored version has not yet been made available in all territories but if you’re on the fence about purchasing a region free Blu-ray player then please, I implore you, let this film be the deciding vote.

Sorcerer will be re-released in select UK cinemas for its 40th anniversary on November 3rd.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, and lifelong cinephile, who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University of London. You can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

Posted on Mar 14, 2017

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