Sorcerer

US (1977) Dir. William Friedkin

There’s taking risks then there is taking risks. Some do it for the thrill others do it for the money or whatever rewards benefit them. Skill and tenacity will get you so far but when your life is endangered by these risks, is it going to be enough?

Porvenir, a remote, impoverished Latin American village, is reliant on an American oil company for its economy. It is also a hideout for foreign criminals, including American gangster Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), French investment banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), Palestinian terrorist Kassem (Amidou), and Mexican assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal).

When an oil well on the outskirts of the village explodes, the best way to extinguish the fire is with dynamite, but the only available explosives have been improperly stored in a forest depot. The nitro-glycerine within them is so unstable, the slightest vibration will detonate them, yet the only means of transporting the explosives to the well is via truck. The four drivers chosen for the task are Scanlon, Manzon, Kassem, and Nilo.

If the plot sounds familiar this is because Sorcerer is a reimagining of Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel Le Salaire de la peur, which has already been made into a film as The Wages Of Fear by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1953. Whilst it is an automatic reaction to label this film a remake, director William Friedkin is insistent it isn’t, and he has a very good case to argue.

Nobody can disagree that the basic premise is the same, since both films share Arnaud’s novel as their source material, but Friedkin has made many significant changes to the details and plot points that it becomes its own film, and not one destined to linger in the shadow of Clouzot’s classic.

For a start, the setting is relocated from Puerto Rico to Chile, whilst the diversity and the backstories of the four principals is different from those in Clouzot’s films. Sorcerer actually opens with four short vignettes to introduce the players and explaining what they were running away from – Scanlon was part of a gang that killed a corrupt Priest; Manzon is accused of fraud and can’t find the money to bail himself out of trouble; Nilo has just made his latest hit; and Kareem is the sole survivor of his terrorist group.

All four men are forced to give up their varying comfortable lives in their native countries for the humid, dreary, poverty-stricken slums of Porvenir, earning meagre wages, living in appalling conditions, and risk of trouble from the police over their false new local identities. Corlette (Ramon Bieri), the American oil company representative, seems just as shady, turning a blind eye to such things since it is to his advantage.

Before the explosion, the four men hadn’t interacted much, only Scanlon and Manzon passing the time in a bar just the once. Kareem had in fact befriended a German man known as Marquez (Karl John), originally one of the chosen drivers but Nilo killed him on the night before the job and took over Marquez’s spot, upsetting Kareem. Luckily, Nilo was paired with Scanlon to spare the animosity boiling over into vengeance.

The perilous journey undertaken was 200 miles through the forests of Porvenir in two newly rebuilt trucks both containing three boxes of nitro-glycerine each. Sorcerer was the name of one of the trucks, hence the title, though many people thought this would be a horror film because of Friedkin’s previous hit The Exorcist. No possessed girls here but still plenty of chills courtesy of the suspenseful trek through hell with dangers at every turn.

Like The Wages Of Fear, the second hour of Sorcerer covering the journey is where the film earns it merits, though Friedkin delivers a tighter and more eventful first hour than Clouzot did. The verdant landscapes of the Dominican Republic, doubling for Porvenir, are beautifully shot in illustrating the expanse of the route whilst Mexico provided the setting for some of the close-up scenes.

Nails will be bitten as the drivers are forced to navigate their bulky vehicles over broken, decaying wood bridges where collapse is imminent, yet this is just a teaser for the most suspenseful scene, the crossing of the rickety wooden suspension bridge during a violent rainstorm. It is not just a masterclass in building tension through editing and febrile camerawork but in the death defying driving by the actors who did their own driving despite stuntmen being on set!

It’s hardly surprising Roy Scheider said making Jaws, an arduous role for him, was like a picnic compared to making this film! The role of Scanlon was originally designated to Steve McQueen but he didn’t want to travel without wife Ali McGraw and Friedkin refused to add McGraw to the cast. We could speculate what sort of job McQueen would have done, but just as in Jaws, Scheider excels as a man being pushed beyond his limits, making this role his own.  

Friedkin was faced with many problems during this shoot – he didn’t get on so well with Scheider, feeling he had become big headed after hitting big with Jaws, the budget was exceeded due to reshoots and the sacking of the original film crew and other staff, the bridge sets had to dismantled, moved and rebuilt in different countries, and a stuntmen was injured during an explosion scene.

Unfortunately, the film bombed at the box office, opening a month after Star Wars in the US which was breaking records left, right and centre, ending up with a limited run. It also didn’t help that with the first 15 minutes being in different languages with subtitles many though it was a foreign language film and walked out disappointed!

But box office isn’t everything and Sorcerer has since gone on to become a film of great acclaim, and a rare instance of a “reimagining” able to stand shoulder to shoulder with its predecessor. For nerve-wracking suspense, this is definitely worth the risk!