Fango Flashback: “SORCERER” (1977)
Following years of distribution limbo, William Friedkin’s 1977 box-office misfire SORCERER finally sees the light of day again this spring, beginning with a special one-week engagement (in a DCP restoration overseen by the director) at New York City’s Film Forum (209 West Houston;  727-8110) from May 30 to June 5. Of his celluloid catalogue, Friedkin considers SORCERER his most accomplished work (he says he wouldn’t change a frame), better than his THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST! You can judge for yourself when the thriller, a remake of Henri-Georges’ Clouzot’s French classic THE WAGES OF FEAR, burns up repertory houses decades after its initial debut.
Released a few weeks after STAR WARS to mostly negative reviews and empty theaters, the dark, uncompromising SORCERER never caught on with summer movie audiences, who had grown enamored with killer sharks and space battles. Intrigued by the ominous poster artwork and a catchy title (named after a truck in the film), I caught SORCERER during its first release under the assumption that Friedkin had made another horror film. Instead what I got was a suspenseful existential thriller about four losers hiding out in South America and the suicidal journey they embark on. The doomed men—a professional hitman; a Middle Eastern terrorist; a French embezzler; and a New Jersey hood, played by Roy Scheider, fresh from JAWS—accept a dangerous gig to drive two rickety trucks carrying extremely unstable nitroglycerin through 200 miles of dense tropical forest to extinguish a blazing oil well fire. That’s pretty much all the plot in this Walon (THE WILD BUNCH) Green-scripted film, but you will be sweating just as much as the foursome of seedy antiheroes as they make their perilous trek. SORCERER’s highlight finds the two trucks driving across a swaying and crumbling rope bridge, pre-INDIANA JONES, during a raging rainstorm.
Friedkin channels much horrific imagery into SORCERER. He includes random shots of an imposing toothsome stone idol (perhaps a distant relative to the Iraqi Pazuzu relic from THE EXORCIST?). The trucks, lumbering through the jungle at night with headlights glaring, resemble wheezing mechanical monsters hunting for prey. When Scheider’s surviving vehicle finally breaks down short of its goal at the end, the surroundings look like some kind of remote alien landscape. The film’s hypnotic score by Tangerine Dream (THE KEEP, NEAR DARK) further sets the movie’s otherworldly mood. “SORCERER may not be a horror film in the conventional sense,” wrote author Marc Sigoloff in his tome THE FILMS OF THE SEVENTIES, “but Friedkin documents this desperate struggle for freedom as if it were an escape from hell itself.”
Flawed by sketchy characters and an overlong, globe-trotting prologue that introduces the leads, SORCERER never approaches the perfection of 1952’s THE WAGES OF FEAR. Not until the nihilistic ending do we really feel a glimmer of sympathy for Scheider’s Jackie Scanlon. Regardless of these quibbles, there’s plenty to admire in SORCERER, and you will willingly go on this grim ride with the confidence that a visionary director is guiding you along those twisty paths. (And look for a bit part by MANIAC’s Joe Spinell, who later joined Friedkin again for CRUISING.) Maybe you too will be caught up in SORCERER’s spell as it takes a shot at theatrical rediscovery.