Monday, 25 April 2011

Sorcerer (1977)

Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 The Wages of Fear is one of the all-time great thrillers, so attempting a remake in 1977 was a fairly bold movie for William Friedkin. Sorcerer is however a good enough movie to stand on its on merits.

A group of losers, low-lifes and criminals in a squalid town somewhere in the jungles of Central America is recruited to drive two truck-loads of explosives over 200 miles of almost non-existent roads to an oil well that is burning out of control.

Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is a minor New York mobster on the run from a major New York mobster after a bungled church robbery in which a priest was shot. Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a French financier also on the run after a shady deal goes badly wrong. Rounding out this group of misfits is a terrorist and a mysterious figure about whom we know very little. The movie spends a lot of time telling us the backstories, and doing it with considerable skill and ingenuity, although perhaps at too great a length.

Once the nightmare drive begins the movie hits high gear. The location shooting, done mainly in the Dominican Republic, is spectacular and was apparently almost as much of a nightmare for the cast and crew (who did most of their own stunts) as it was for the fictional drivers. It really is like a drive to Hell. A wet green Hell. Friedkin of course has a flair for action sequences which is very much in evidence here. There are plenty of heart-stopping moments. Driving trucks across rope bridges is not for the faint-hearted, and this was all done without CGI.

The explosives they’re carrying have been stored too long and have become highly unstable, adding to the horrors of the journey. One jolt could set them all off, and there are jolts aplenty.

The lengthy introductory backstories pay off in a big way with the viciously ironic ending. This story has a very nasty sting in the tail.

The movie was a commercial disaster. It was the right movie at the wrong time (being released at the same time as Star Wars it never really had a chance). And with the wrong title. Audiences expecting a supernatural horror film walked out in droves. In fact the title refers to the name of one of the trucks.

Friedkin’s other major headache was the casting. He wanted Steve McQueen for the lead but felt unable to agree to McQueen’s conditions, a decision he later bitterly regretted. And rightly so. McQueen not only had the star power that Roy Scheider lacked, he would also have been a far better choice in every way. McQueen was a very underrated actor with a knack for taking what could have been routine tough guy/action hero roles and making them complex and interesting, most notably in two superb movies for Sam Peckinpah, The Getaway and Junior Bonner.

Scheider is by no means bad, but he doesn’t have the necessary charisma.

There are no sympathetic characters in this movie and in fact in many ways one can’t help hoping they’ll all be blown to kingdom come. This could have been a fatal flaw but it isn’t. The odds against these guys are so steep and the scale of their battle with fate is so epic that you can’t help but be drawn into it. You might not like these people but in a strange way you come to care abut the outcome of their adventure. You might not care about them as individuals but there’s a kind of existential grandeur about their struggle against nature and against fate.

Universal’s DVD Region 1 release is fullscreen, has no worthwhile extras and would be difficult to recommend except for the fact that this is a fine movie from one of the more consistently interesting modern American film directors. It’s a movie that has its faults but its virtues are than than sufficient to make it very much worth seeing.


Andrzej said...

Is it weird that I saw this film before I even saw The Exorcist? In theaters no less!

Sorcerer is a pretty cool film with a really misleading title. I love the swinging bridge scene and a lot of the build-up scenes before they make it on the road. The only thing I felt really disappointed with is that the scenes that are re-created from The Wages of Fear aren't nearly as exciting as they were in Clouzot's film. That's just my opinion though!

dfordoom said...

Andrzej, that misleading title apparently did the movie quite a bit of harm. I think it's one of several things that Friedkin now regrets about the movie.

Anonymous said...

Sorcerer is actually the name of one of the trucks. So the title isn't misleading and due to the poster people should have figured out it wasn't supernatural lol