William Friedkin named his movie Sorcerer after the cruel wizard of fate, but if there’s a corporeal villain in his adaptation of George Arnaud’s 1950 novel, The Wages Of Fear, it’s the oil company that hires four desperate men to drive trucks loaded with dynamite leaking volatile nitroglycerin through the treacherous terrain of Central America. When Friedkin needed an image to represent the distant cabal of suits for whom these hard-working men’s lives were no more than an entry in a ledger, he ripped a picture of Paramount Pictures’ board of directors out of the studio’s annual report and stuck it on the wall.
That gesture, with its mixture of bravado, determination, and self-righteousness, works as a nifty encapsulation of Sorcerer itself, a defiant, mad gesture of a film that features some of the most exhilarating sequences in movie history. Coming off The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin was at the height of both his powers, and, by his own account, his arrogance, and he eventually became so wrapped up in the fate of Sorcerer’s characters that he began to take on their burden, placing insurmountable obstacles in his own path and railing gloriously against them.
Friedkin’s movie is more of a parallel adaptation than a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic, and Friedkin wastes no time staking out his own territory with a distinctive prologue introducing the movie’s four protagonists: a hit man (Francisco Rabal), a terrorist (Amidou), a crooked financier (Bruno Cremer), and a wheelman (Roy Scheider) whose last job was an ill-starred church robbery in which the brother of a local mob boss was shot. (That the mob boss’ brother is a priest, and that the robbery takes place during a wedding in which the bride’s face is marred by an enormous shiner, speaks volumes about the movie’s vision of a higher power.) Although each individual sequence is economical, placing four of them back-to-back at the beginning of the movie is like starting a journey with a long trip through customs; the original plan was to dole them out in flashbacks, which would have allowed the movie to gather some momentum first. But once the four converge in a corrupt Central American backwater, a sense of overwhelming obsession sets in and never relinquishes its grip.
As Friedkin relates in his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, which is excerpted in the booklet accompanying Warner Bros.’ new Blu-ray—he has gone to some trouble to point out that there is no new DVD, even posting a one-star review of the current disc on Amazon—he wanted Steve McQueen for the lead, and cursed his decision not to meet the star’s terms after Sorcerer flopped at the box office. But Scheider is extraordinary as a man whose desperation eventually turns to mania; there’s more than a shade of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre’s Fred C. Dobbs in the way he screams “We’re sitting on double shares!” when he thinks the other truck has gotten permanently detoured. Although Scheider was coming off Jaws and Marathon Man, he looks less like a movie star than a ground-down working man who wants more than anything to take the lead for once. McQueen could play worn-down, as he did in Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, but there was still the sense he was capable of greatness. Scheider’s angry at the world, and the world doesn’t care. When he and Cremer share a beer—served by a bartender who’s also a fugitive Nazi—Scheider tells his fellow exile, now known as Serrano, that word has gotten around he used to be in banking, and Cremer inquires about Scheider’s name and erstwhile profession in turn. “Dominguez,” Scheider drawls, turning away. “Ice hockey.”
In a pointed exchange in “Serrano’s” prologue—Walon Green’s taciturn script makes the most of its few dialogue scenes—he and his wife discuss the plot of a novel she’s editing, which involves a former Foreign Legion soldier who comes to a critical moment and responds with the violence he was trained to exercise. “He was a soldier,” he says, and she responds, “No one is just anything.” But in the course of Sorcerer, that statement plays out as more of a question: Can we change who we are, and if not, is there a Sisyphean nobility in trying anyway?
The brute struggle against implacable fate finds its most literal, and most thrilling, expression in the sequence where Scheider and Rabal maneuver their truck across an unravelling rope bridge stretched over a swollen river—a miniature masterpiece of escalating tension and practical special effects whose only rival may be the locomotive gag in Buster Keaton’s The General. The shots where the bridge sways until the truck nearly topples into the raging torrent below weren’t as dangerous as they look, but they weren’t exactly safe either: The truck actually fell off several times, and this was after the entire apparatus had to be torn down and rebuilt when the first river it was built over dried to a comical trickle. Friedkin likens it to the impossible steamship portage in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and though the two directors’ oeuvres don’t much overlap, it’s a fair comparison in terms of the level of obsession and the impressiveness of the result. (It’s not even the craziest thing Friedkin did on set; that would be hiring a shady figure nicknamed “The Torch” to blow up a massive tree on camera.)
Sorcerer was a financial flop, which Friedkin has blamed on opening a month after Star Wars, but it’s hard to see the film being a hit in any era, and it would’ve felt wrong if it had been; the long struggle to bring it out of legal limbo is of a piece with its pessimistic views. The restored Sorcerer looks magnificent on Warner Bros. Blu-ray, with the explosions at an oil refinery cutting through the film’s gray-green palette like a Biblical pillar of fire; and with Tangerine Dream’s eerie, inorganic electric score wafting through the jungle, it sounds great as well. The real-life story, at least, finally has a happier ending.
There are no other extras, but having the film back in circulation after decades is special feature enough.