Released in 1977 against the headwinds of a terrible title, the “Star Wars” juggernaut, no bankable star, and withering reviews, William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” died a humiliating death at the box office, especially for a hotter-than-hot director who had just delivered the one-two punch of “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973).
In the 40-page excerpt from his memoir that comes with the new “Sorcerer” Bluray, Friedkin admits that after his earlier successes turned him into a “callous, self-obsessed” monster, everyone in Hollywood wanted to see his career die. With “Sorcerer,” he handed them the gun.
Friedkin also says that despite everything, “Sorcerer” remains his legacy, his “magnum opus.”
Lucky for Friedkin, then, that he has lived long enough to see his magnum opus finally get the resurrection it deserves. Having seen “Sorcerer” myself for the first time Friday night, I can tell you that Friedkin has every right to be proud of his masterpiece, one that is every bit as brilliant as “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” and “To Live and Die In L.A.”
Though officially a remake of Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear” (1953), from what I’ve read, Friedkin only used the basic premise and plot framework of that film to create something entirely his own.
As originally conceived, “Sorcerer” was supposed to be a low-budget quickie, something for Friedkin to direct in-between “The Exorcist” and another big film. Somewhere along the line he became obsessed, and a $3 to $5 million budget exploded to over $20 million.
The good news is that everything made its way up on the screen. Not just the budget, but also an extraordinary talent guided by an extraordinary obsession that would permanently derail what promised to be an extraordinary career.
Spread out over four corners of the globe are four men: one facing jail time for bank fraud in Paris (Bruno Cremer), an Arab terrorist in Israel (Amidou), a Mexican assassin (Francisco Rabal), and a New Jersey stick-up man (Roy Scheider). Out of options and places to hide, all four have fled to the same remote South American village.
Porvenir is a place where people who don’t want to be found can hide only if they are willing to live in filthy huts, drink warm beer, and bribe local officials eager to exploit desperate men. Porvenir’s economy is kept alive mostly by the American oil industry, which brings with it jobs, danger, and political division.
Oil exploration in the region is threatened when a well catches fire. The only hope is to snuff the blaze out with an explosion. Unfortunately, the nearest dynamite is 200 miles away and improper storage and care has made it highly unstable. Skilled drivers in specialized trucks will have to carry a half-dozen crates of dynamite over the worst jungle terrain imaginable.
Guess who volunteers for the job?
What follows is 50-minutes of tension that becomes especially unbearable during a bridge crossing that might be the greatest sequence of Friedkin’s storied career.
“No one is just anything,” one character says early on, and “Sorcerer,” an existential action movie, sets out to prove it. But there is also a line about not knowing when death will tap you on the shoulder that also looms over the entire film.
Scheider and company are not wire-fu’d, muscle-bound action heroes. They are not even friends or a team. They are criminals with 200 miles of hell between them and their last hope for a second chance.
In most movies, these four men would be the villains. To Friedkin’s great credit, he never asks us to sympathize with them. To his even greater credit, we still do.
My expectations for “Sorcerer” could not have been higher. They were exceeded.
Sorcerer is available for sale at Amazon.com.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC