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William Friedkin’s lost masterpiece still thrills

Sorcerer, director William Friedkin’s lost film from 1977, is now available in a new Blu-ray edition out this week, following on the heels of its super high resolution theatrical release (it ran for one weekend earlier this year in Seattle and is now playing at Film Forum in New York). Neglected by studios, overlooked by audiences and ignored by the critics compiling their lists of golden era favorites from that decade, the reappearance of the film offers undeniable evidence that Friedkin was operating at a daring level of confidence when he made this grim, grimy, thoroughly gripping thriller. His special talent for crafting set pieces composed of sustained chaos and white-knuckle tension is on admirable display in Sorcerer.

The movie, starring Roy Scheider (left) was an expensive flop at the box-office, a victim of its poorly timed release  — only one week after Star Wars stormed America’s freshly minted multiplexes. Friedkin made the picture after two hits in a row, The French Connection and The Exorcist, and even though he was susceptible to a bit of directorial hubris, he was unfairly maligned for a runaway ego during the making of Sorcerer. There is no denying the millions he spent on the film are all on the screen. This remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear is, in my view, a much better realization of the potential built in to the setting, mood and dynamic, high-concept plot of the original.

Friedkin opens with a globetrotting prologue shot in Jerusalem, Vera Cruz, Paris and New Jersey. Four different criminals — a hit man, a terrorist, a white-collar fraud and a two-bit thief — must all flee their respective countries in a hurry. Lacking cash, passports and connections, they all somehow end up hiding out in the same South American jungle backwater, an erstwhile camp for transient misfits scraping together a few pesos by working for an American oil company. The four men are hired to transport several cases of stale dynamite — all of it contaminated with volatile nitroglycerine — more than 200 miles across rugged terrain in order to blow out a raging fire at one of the oil company’s wells.

Friedkin’s depiction of the squalid jungle village is itself a tour de force. A muddy, open sore of a hellhole consisting of outcasts, drunks, whores and an utterly corrupt police force, you can sense the tuberculosis oozing from every sweating pore. When the charred victims of the oil well fire are trucked into the village, the director stages a riot between the dead men’s families and the soldiers delivering the corpses. The scene includes a near-silent moment of sorrow for one of the bodies carried aloft in the crowd, before everything escalates into sheer bedlam. It’s one of the film’s several visceral highlights. 

Friedkin indulges his love of acceleration by constructing propulsive sequences with a clean, classic appreciation of montage. The time he allows for the four drivers to re-tool salvaged parts into a pair of drivable trucks is a master class in editing. And in the earlier New York sequence, he orchestrates a getaway and an ensuing car crash which sums up the low-life, greedy aspirations of the hoods, all but one left bloody and dying in the aftermath.

But it’s the extended scene of the men driving their ramshackle vehicles over a decrepit suspension bridge, in a driving rainstorm no less, which caps Friedkin’s mad auteurist desires. Shot over several months, without the luxury of digital trickery, the 12-minute episode could be the pinnacle of the director’s penchant for delirious showstoppers. It also demonstrates what a film can accomplish by eschewing dialogue for action.

Friedkin has always been untroubled by a need for characterization. Like Sergio Leone, he believes a few days worth of stubble and a gnarled hat says more about a man than words ever could. In Sorcerer, the keening wail of a rainstorm or the groan of a truck’s gearbox supplies the exposition. In this case, a dead-end existence in a cesspool instills a desperate need for escape. What more do we need to know? 

Sorcerer is not only a single-minded, mesmerizing thriller; it’s also a masterful, self-indulgent squawk of fashionable nihilism from a great director.

This review first appeared on The Restless Critic. For more film reviews go here.

 

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