The ’70s were a great time for cinema. The Hollywood New Wave was in its infancy, the studios took plenty of risks and this saw the rise of some brilliant directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin etc. Friedkin showed the world his astounding talent with his gritty cop drama, The French Connection. This was the kind of the film which had never been attempted before in Hollywood. It should’ve naturally inspired his contemporaries, as an year later, Coppola would come out with The Godfather and an year after that, Scorsese with Mean Streets. Friedkin’s raw, gritty style of filmmaking made a strong visceral impact on audiences. Why then, did audiences banish this 1977 film to near obscurity?
Many attributed the film’s failure to a couple of reasons. One was its misleading title, and the other was the release of a little film from a little known director called Star Wars. They say that from the title, people assumed that this was going to be another horror film in the vein of Friedkin’s The Exorcist and naturally, came out of the theaters disappointed. Star Wars had likable characters, breathtaking sequences they’ve never seen before and had a more optimistic tone compared to Sorcerer’s. Who then, would want to see a film populated with unsympathetic and morally ambiguous characters? In my humble opinion, Sorcerer holds up much better today than Star Wars and deserves more appreciation.
The film opens with four vignettes about four different men in four different parts of the globe: Jack Scanlon (American actor Roy Scheider) is a criminal who is on the run from the mob after he shoots a priest and takes off with the money from a New Jersey church. The priest is the brother of a local mafioso and the stolen money belonged to him. He makes plans to get out of the country after he is informed by a friend that the mob is desperately after his head. Victor Manzon (French actor Bruno Cremer) is a French investment banker accused of fraud and has no choice but to leave Paris when his business partner commits suicide. Nilo (Spanish actor Francisco Rabal) is an assassin who walks out of a building in Mexico after eliminating a target. Kassem (Moroccan actor Amidou) is an Arab terrorist who flees from Israeli Special Forces after setting up a bomb blast in Jerusalem.
All four men are brought together by fate in a drab, remote and desolate-looking South American village called Porvenir. An oil well belonging to an American Oil Company explodes and the fire can be extinguished only with the help of dynamite. The only available dynamite is improperly stored inside a remote warehouse and given that the nitroglycerin is extremely volatile, even the faintest vibration can trigger an explosion. It is decided that transporting them with the help of two trucks is the only viable option. The company hires these four men to drive the trucks. Their journey is intensely harrowing as they encounter various seemingly insurmountable obstacles. To make matters worse, some of the characters don’t trust each other.
Just as in The French Connection, there are no relatable characters. You are not sure who to root for. Every character’s fate is predetermined by the deeds they have committed in the past. In that regard, I think Friedkin is influenced so much by French cinema. Some of his films strongly evoke the existentialist themes that is dominant in the films of French director Jean-Pierre Melville. Friedkin himself has professed his love for European cinema in some of his interviews. Every character gets what is coming to them, in spite of their attempts to redeem themselves.
It’s a strange feeling when you realize how the fate of the film (and Friedkin’s career) mirrors that of the fate of some of the central characters in the film. Friedkin did not have an easy time making this film. This may have been the second most difficult film to make after Apocalypse Now (which would release two years later). Scheider once famously remarked that making Jaws was a walk in the park compared to this. The film took a whole two years to make and when it came out, it was a commercial failure. And that ended all hopes of the studios taking chances on scripts like this ever again. The success of Star Wars made sure of that. Can you imagine a film like Sorcerer getting made today? Impossible!
The standout sequence in the film, undoubtedly, is the bridge crossing sequence. It is incredibly tense and suspenseful. It reportedly took three months, two locations and two million dollars to film this memorable scene. No computer wizardry of any kind was employed. Friedkin took every trick he knew and cranked it up to eleven. He recalled it being the most excruciating scene he had to work on. The characters are faced with the impossibly difficult task of getting the truck laden with explosive from one end of a weak wooden suspension bridge to the other. The image of a heavy, ramshackle looking truck blowing smoke from two of its pipes and swaying violently on the bridge due to the extreme weather conditions is reminiscent of one of those fire-breathing monster in one of those fantasy tales and sends a chill down your spine. These guys are trying so hard to be like those princes trying to vanquish this “giant monster”.
Sorcerer is my favorite Friedkin film and I think it is way better than The French Connection. That said, I love the latter as well. It’s just that I think Sorcerer has a lot more going for it. Sorcerer also saw the debut of the German electronic music group Tangerine Dream. The score they have conjured up is so magnificent and apt for the living nightmare that the characters go through. The music and visuals combine together to deliver a result that is strangely hypnotic. In an interview Friedkin mentions how it is the most favorite of all his films, despite all the ordeals they went through. He also said that he wouldn’t have made it had he known beforehand how unexpectedly chaotic the production would become. I can’t imagine a world where this film does not exist. I am so glad that it does and I am so thankful to Friedkin for making it happen.