William Friedkin, 1977, USA
This is like Georges Arnaud’s ‘Le salaire de la peur’ imagined as a straightforward thriller by Werner Herzog. That is, rather than men stranded by the vagaries and random cruelties of fate, ‘Sorcerer’ pools together its drivers from four men running from thriller plots and their drive is more like a fight with nature itself. It’s a masculine thing, but it’s led by Roy Scheider who does the injured hard-man character and panicky/steely stare well; and nuance of performance is needed for there is little of the shading of character here as there was in Clouzot’s ‘The Wages of Fear’. Rather, this is a more bare-knuckle interpretation, if that’s possible, for it almost makes Clouzot’s film with its crisp black-and-white photography by Armand Thirard look glossy and civilised by comparison. That is, the trucks used look like a peril in themselves even before we begin, eaten by rust and neglect; and the weather seems to have swamped, flooded and rotted everything. It’s all mud, dirt and dampness.
The set-up here comes from four disparate thriller scenerios that start in different countries and meet up in South America: a hit man, a failed robbery, terrorism, white collar crime. This colours our unsympathetic protagonists’ fates as the consequence of their own choices and so a lot of sympathy is off the table and the social commentary is greatly diluted. Friedkin meant this to be more about the workings of fate – it’s called ‘Sorcerer’ – but these characters triggered this path so although the film is not without existential angst, it doesn’t quite capture fate’s random cruelty. And, as we don’t particularly care for them (although Scheider naturally draws out empathy) and aren’t particularly asked to reflect on the context, we’re left with the action. But that’s enough
The most memorable set-ups are the robbery in a church as a wedding is taking place, filmed in Friedkin’s deceptively straightforward style, and the terrorists bombing a public space filmed more in the style of the French New Wave. There’s a little morsel to chew on as stockbrocker Victor (Bruno Cremer) discusses “soldier poets” with his wife and reflects that “No one is just anything.” Tangerine Dream’s electronic score pulses and keeps pace as these lowlifes meet in South America and sign up for the suicide mission of transporting nitroglycerine through the jungle. Tension starts as soon as they drive around the first bend of a rough mountain road. There’s no bonding here – well, only as a prelude to death. What there is is excellent sound design and set-pieces exceptionally executed. There may not be the same raw tension that derives from characterisation frm the Clouzot version, but ‘Sorcerer’ is a very tactile film so that not only will the audience feel waterlogged but the screen radiates with the uncontrollable danger of the fires. Best of all is the jaw-dropping sequence where the trucks battle to cross a rope bridge in torrential weather and a flood.
With a re-release ‘Sorcerer’ seems to now have claimed an appreciative audience: perhaps the overwhelming fantasy of ‘Star Wars’ (released at the same time in 1977) really did realise that public preference was for overblown but morally simplistic fantasias rather than raw but grandiose realism with a hint of existentialism. But it’s true that I can’t quite fathom the extent of negative reception since ‘Sorcerer’ is intense and muscular, consummately realised, is bold and exciting and aimed at action for adults. So much so that it’s easy to see why it’s now being called a masterpiece.