Sorcerer (1977)
By: Stuart Giesel on May 29, 2014 | Comments
Kinowelt | Region B | 1.85:1, 1080p | English DTS-HD MA 5.1 | 91 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Sorcerer (1977)
Credits
Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri
Screenplay: Walon Green
Country: USA
William Friedkin, fresh off the enormous success of puke-spraying The Exorcist and his Oscar-winning The French Connection, decided to remake the classic The Wages of Fear as Sorcerer (sorry — I meant transplant the story to a new scenario, given Friedkin insists that Sorcerer is not a remake).

Unfortunately for Friedkin and the cast and crew of Sorcerer, the film bombed in a big way for at least two reasons. One: the enigmatic, some would say wholly inappropriate, title was likely off-putting for many, or at least suggestive of a swords n' sorcery film or a followup to The Exorcist in that sort of supernatural vein. After all, what else could a title like Sorcerer imply? Two, and probably the more prominent cause: Sorcerer was released around the same time as a little film you might have heard of, George Lucas' Star Wars. The rest is history. Star Wars became the highest grossing film of all time up to that point, and along with Jaws ushered in the new era of the modern blockbuster, leaving gritty 70's crime sagas and auteur films in their wake. Audience expectations had shifted, and Sorcerer had missed the boat, so to speak. As a result, Sorcerer was consigned to the cinematic dustbin of history and maddeningly enough the rights holders never produced a decent home video release. That's now changed, thanks to Friedkin himself who was able to wrestle the rights out from its legal quagmire.

Sorcerer has a lot in common with that other much-maligned flop, Heaven's Gate, released a few years later. Both films were passion projects from their famously stubborn-willed, Oscar-winning auteur directors (in Heaven's Gate's case, Michael Cimino). Both films were expensive epics fraught with production problems, budget overruns and delays. They were both unapologetically grim and brutal films thematically and content-wise, seemingly at odds with the much lighter blockbuster fare released around that time. Both films, upon their cinematic release, were critically drubbed and lost a lot of money and, in their own way, spelled the end of their respective directors' careers, at least in terms of their autonomy and influence within the industry. And, crucially, in both cases the films themselves did not deserve their negative reputations. Sorcerer is a beautifully filmed and horrifically tense journey into the South American jungle that deserves reappraisal or, as is more likely for most modern movie lovers, a first viewing. Finally, Sorcerer comes to home video in a format that does this fine movie justice.

Essentially this is a "desperate men take on a dangerous job to get out of their current predicament" movie. We're introduced to four men from all parts of the globe: a French businessman named Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) who has been accused of fraud and faces the loss of his company and worse, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) who is on the run after an assassination, Kassem (Amidou) who is fleeing after an act of terrorism and the capture of his buddies, and Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) who after a botched robbery kills his compadres in a car accident and is being hunted by the Mafia. These men all find their way to the same shitty part of South America, Porvenir (the "Devil's asshole" according to one character), finding themselves safe from their respective troubles, but stuck in this shithole working for an oil company and unable to leave until they can accrue the funds to buy their freedom.

An opportunity arises when a terrorist attack blows up one of the oil wells – the company wants to shut down the well, but the manager Corlette (Ramon Bieri) wants to stop this from happening, meaning he has to stop the oil fire. This means getting some desperate idiots to travel 218 treacherous miles by road to the well to blow up the leak with dynamite. Unfortunately the job is made incredibly dangerous because the dynamite at hand has become extremely volatile thanks to a nitroglycerine leak, and the roads to the oil well aren't exactly paved dual-carriageways. Desperate for a huge payday despite the risks, Manzon, Nilo, Kassem and Scanlon get the job, driving two trucks loaded with dynamite to the well to increase the odds that one of the trucks gets there intact. Scanlon and Nilo drive the truck named "Lazaro", and Manzon and Kassem drive the truck named "Sorcerer". Fun ensues.

Sorcerer is a film of three parts. The first – the establishment of the characters and their predicaments – is the weakest. Then comes the scenes in the crappy town of Porvenir, the act of terrorism at the oil well, and the various scenes of the guys making the two trucks road-worthy. Finally, we get to the meat of the movie: a brilliantly-filmed, tense, nerve-shattering journey on a 218-mile "road" that would make traversal on pushbike a terrifying prospect, let alone horribly heavy trucks laden with explosives. It's this part of the film that really makes an impact. Everything's been effective enough up to that point: the actors are all suitably grizzled, world-weary and paranoid, direction is solid without being spectacular, and the cinematography is nice. But when Sorcerer switches gears from a gritty 70's crime/thriller to a claustrophobic survival film, it's as if the film is given a new lease of life, because it suddenly comes truly alive. There are moments in Sorcerer that are as sphincter-tightening as anything in the most effective of horror films, or even in last year's anxiety-fueled Gravity. There are a handful of tremendously effective scenes, the primary one being the journey across a rickety suspension bridge that looks incapable of withstanding a light breeze, let alone a fifty-ton truck. Friedkin and his crew apparently spent three months shooting this sequence, and one can only imagine how nightmarish it would have taken to film, but the results are enormously impressive – the sort of thing that would be done with CGI these days and have far less impact. The fact that this was done "for real" (admittedly, with some modern-day engineering and structural support) means we get one of those magical moments in cinema – like the desert raid sequence in Lawrence of Arabia - which will stand the test of time not only because of the worthiness of the scene by its own cinematic standard, but also because of the technical precision, timing, persistence and stubbornness that it must have taken to stage and capture it in the first place.

It's just unfortunate that so much time passes before we get to this good stuff. Those unfamiliar with Sorcerer's structure will find the first half-hour or so especially baffling and frustrating. Friedkin and writer Walon Green claim that this was done so that the audience does not have the lone "hero" to root for and, therefore, would not necessarily know who was going to survive the trip. It's clear that this structure worked better than peppering flashbacks throughout the 218-mile journey, as doing this would have ruined the momentum and tension of the dangerous trek. However, my major complaint about Sorcerer would indeed be this slow start that detracts from the quality of the rest of the film. The men's backstories ultimately matter a lot less than you might think. Does it really matter why they ended up in this dangerous predicament? Personally speaking, I believe the film would have worked far more effectively if the backgrounds had been jettisoned altogether, or merely hinted at through conversations between the men, and rather we got to know these desperate individuals through their actions, their dialogue and their relationships with one another on the drive itself.

Like Apocalypse Now, another testosterone-fueled descent into lunacy that had been plagued with production problems, Sorcerer feels like a unique film, precisely pitched at that very edge of madness without tipping over, and one that you feel couldn't have been made by any other filmmaker. But it's also a peculiar and uneven experience. It's nerve-rattling, absolutely, but there's a point where the tone shifts jarringly towards the end into something more out of a David Lynch horror film than a South American-set thriller. As you might have already guessed, it's a fairly grim film. It isn't just Sorcerer's tone and themes that make the movie especially dark – it's a fairly bloody affair, too, quite surprising considering its PG rating. Truly, this is a product of the 70's, when dark, adult-themed urban films like Taxi Driver, The French Connection and Super Fly were able to blossom. Basically, don't go in expecting a barrel of laughs.

Scheider was always a reliable performer, and he's aided by a solid supporting cast, but it's not really his (Scanlon's) story as much as it is a journey for these four desperate men who have come together on this journey into hell. But it's the technical prowess on display here that truly impresses. The scale of the film, the relentless, nightmare-inducing driving sequences and the "exotic squalor" of the setting make Sorcerer one of Friedkin's least appreciated yet most remarkable films. It's uneven, but the breathtaking driving scenes more than compensate for any structural weaknesses.
The Disc
Fans of Sorcerer have had to make do with an apparently awful pan-and-scan transfer for its sole DVD release for years. Thankfully, we now have a release whose superior picture and audio quality do Sorcerer justice. The picture is, in a word, superb. With strong yet naturalistic colours and tones, a high degree of detail and clarity and a fine level of cinematic grain, this is as good a picture as you could hope for. The DTS.HD 5.1 mix is extremely front speaker-centric – the rear speakers rarely come into play – but it's an immersive mix nonetheless, with the film's tremendously impactful sound effects helping to crank up the tension. There were a handful of scenes which appear to have been artificially enhanced with extremely heavy rain, which causes the sound to be blown out to distracting levels, but this is the only downside to what is otherwise a thoroughly successful transfer. Tangerine Dream's excellent electronic score has never sounded better presumably outside of Sorcerer's original theatrical run.

Unfortunately, presumably due to legal issues, there are absolutely no features on the disc. I guess you could say that the fact we got Sorcerer in high-def is enough of a win.

The Blu-Ray comes in a Digibook format, containing a booklet with extracts from The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir by William Friedkin, as well as a separate letter from Friedkin talking about the release and how Sorcerer is not a remake.

Oh, and the main menu is absolute shit.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Sorcerer is a grim, unforgettable adventure film if, by the meaning of the word "adventure" you mean an excursion into hell laden with paranoia, sweaty and desperate men and nightmare-inducing sequences of suspense. Far better than its lacklustre reputation would suggest, it's a definite must-see for any fans of 70's thrillers. Structurally it's a mixed bag, but the skill with which the driving sequences are staged make this a most effective, white-knuckle ride.
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