The protracted prelude to Sorcerer (1977), William Friedkin’s remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), which itself was an adaptation of George Arnaud’s 1950 same-named novel, whisks us on a world tour of criminal activity, starting in Veracruz, Mexico, before making stops in Jerusalem, Paris, and New Jersey. What Friedkin’s film takes great pains and many minutes to show us is something the Clouzot efficiently and effectively dealt with in a handful of lines: we’re about to be told a story of sundry scumbags who wind up in an unnamed but fairly miserable-looking Latin American purgatory and take a gig transporting extremely sensitive nitroglycerin across 320 kilometres of shoddy jungle and mountain road; Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green want to know just what kind of scumbags we’re dealing with, so they frontload Sorcerer with backstory that reveals our quartet to consist of a hitman (Francisco Rabal), a terrorist (Amidou), an embezzling investment banker (Bruno Cremer), and the driver (Roy Scheider) for a gang who rob a church. In every case something goes amiss that forces the characters to flee and hide where their pursuers will hopefully never look for them.
To be sure, these backstories function more as colour than as essential narrative materials, but maybe Friedkin and Green just figured that knowing how people got into a mess will make the mess itself more interesting. That’s certainly the tack that Friedkin and everyone else involved in the restoration and re-release of Sorcerer are taking in trying to get audiences to engage with this cursed production. I don’t think that any amount of New Hollywood mythmaking is going to make Sorcerer into the lost masterpiece it’s being touted as, but the context is fascinating: Friedkin was coming off of the massive success of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), and considered Sorcerer a personal project destined to cement his status as a genuine auteur, but his misadventures in the wilds of a developing country, his running way over budget, and the film’s misfortune to open the same year as a little space opera called Star Wars doomed its prospects. Sorcerer is in a sense, Friedkin’s Apocalypse Now (1979) or Heaven’s Gate (1980), though, really, it isn’t nearly as ambitious or artistically successful as either of those legendary films made by his peers. It’s a confused movie with fumbling existential visions and half-hearted political statements. Having said that, it’s also extremely watchable, captivatingly seedy, mesmerizing in its use of locations, and features an excellent Tangerine Dream score. It has some spectacular and expertly executed suspense set-pieces and a handful of wonderful, almost throwaway details that indeed speak to something that could be deemed almost singularly Friedkinian.
While Scheider’s gang is storming the backroom of the Jersey church—and senselessly killing a priest while doing so—we get cutaways to the (presumably shotgun) wedding between completely incidental characters transpiring in the chapel—and a close-up of the bride’s black eye! Later a cop will open a bottle of Coke with an automatic. Later still we watch our antiheroes trying to cross a collapsing bridge and blow-up a tree. All of this, and, of course, the pleasures of watching Scheider, make Sorcerer very much worth rescuing from obscurity. The new print premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and has since been making the rounds in the major centres. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray.