Sorcerer (1977)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #548


Also known as Wages of Fear
Number of Views: One
Release Date: June 24, 1977
Sub-Genre: Existential Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $22,000,000
Box Office: $9,000,000
Running Time: 121 minutes
Director: William Friedkin
Producer: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Walon Green
Based on Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud
Special Effects: Tony Parmelee
Cinematography: John M. Stephens, Dick Bush
Score: Tangerine Dream
Editing: Bud Smith, Robert K. Lambert
Studio: Film Properties International N.V.
Distributors: Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures
Stars: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri, Peter Capell, Karl John, Friedrich von Ledebur, Chico Martínez, Joe Spinell, Rosario Almontes, Richard Holley, Anne-Marie Deschodt, Jean-Luc Bideau, Jacques François, André Falcon, Gerard Murphy, Desmond Crofton


Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] Tangerine Dream “Sorcerer”

[2] Tangerine Dream “Betrayal”


Payday is something we can all relate to. It is over two years since I last worked a “regular job” but I still recall that moment when the last Friday of the calendar month approached and I fervently awaited the deposit of a monthly wage into my current account. For me, it was always something of a double-edged sword as I was never particularly happy in my full-time vocation and, despite starting out with the very best of intentions, by the time my employers had relieved me of any feeling of individuality, money was my only motivation to set the alarm each morning. However, after watching William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, I’m just thankful for my mundane workload.


Based on Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel Le Salaire de la peur, which had already been adapted by Henri-Georges Clouzot for his 1953 film The Wages of Fear, Friedkin had no intention of simply painting by numbers and instead used the basic outline for the story and enlisted Walon Green to create an all new screenplay. Having cut his teeth with a number of documentaries early on his career, this kind of ambitious project suited him down to the ground. As it turned out, this prior experience proved invaluable as the shot was plagued by problems and it’s a marvel it got made in the first place and great credit to Friedkin. No wonder he lists this as his favorite of all his films. When you consider the competition includes the likes of The Exorcist, The French Connection and To Lie & Die in L.A., that’s no small compliment.


So about these problems then. Well, for starters, Roy Scheider was never intended for the lead role. While Friedkin praised his performance, he makes no bones about the fact that he didn’t consider him leading man material. He actually wanted Steve McQueen but, when they couldn’t agree terms, the deal fell apart. Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson were also on his wish list but both declined so he stumped for Scheider. For the record, he makes a more than capable leading man and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.


He also intended to shoot in Ecuador but,when it was deemed to costly, he was forced to move it to the Dominican Republic. Tensions were running high which placed additional stress on production. Meanwhile, a hurricane destroyed the set, causing the $15m budget to rocket to $21m. He had to endure conflicts with cinematographer Dick Bush, who walked out midway through the shoot. There was also bad blood between Friedkin and his producer David Salven over the ballooning cost of the project, which resulted in him eventually firing Salven. Indeed, it was this film that earned him the nickname Hurricane Billy on account of his fiery temper.


Sorcerer adopts an interesting approach to introducing us to our four key characters and its prologue whisks us off to different corners of the globe for our meet and greet. Opening in Veracruz, Mexico before jetting off to Jerusalem, Paris and New Jersey in turn, we are provided with a brief back story for each of our pawns. While they all come from entirely different backgrounds, one common bond links them – exile. Due to events no longer within their control, none of them are deemed welcome in their own countries any longer and the four pariahs head off to the remote Latin American village of Porvenir to lay low while the dust settles.


In order of introduction, we have Nilo (Francisco Rabal) – a Mexican assassin skilled with firearms, Kassem (Amidou) an Arab terrorist adept in engineering, Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) – a Parisian investment banker with a take-charge attitude, and last, but by no means least, Jackie Scanlon (Scheider) – a gutsy getaway driver whose skills behind the wheel are second to none (despite driving his car into a tanker at high-speed during his last job and wiping out his crew in the process). In their native countries, their names are muck but here they are just four average schmucks trying to remain inconspicuous.


Unfortunately, their existence in Porvenir is far less than charmed. Forced to survive on meager salaries and surrounded by poverty and unrest, each of them are looking for a way out but emigration costs are extortionate and no amount of overtime is going to make this option a realistic one. However, with the village dependent on American oil to fuel its economy and a well 200 miles from its coordinates exploding, they are thrown a somewhat dubious bone. The only way of extinguishing said blaze is with dynamite and that means transporting nitroglycerin from points A to B. The problem is, said cargo is incredibly unstable and, should it be compromised during transit, then kaboom! and then some.


With air-lifting deemed too dicey an endeavor, the only way of transportation involves a cross-country expedition via truck. Of course, this perilous pilgrimage requires four men unhinged or desperate enough to risk their lives for the cause and doing so will pocket them an almighty one-off payment, enough to buy their way out of Porvenir one and for all. With precious little left to lose and all other avenues of escape inaccessible, they reluctantly agree to the terms and set off on their hazardous road trip.


It is here, midway through the second act, that Sorcerer cranks the heat up to almost unbearable levels. You see, their route is far less than clear-cut and increasingly fraught with peril. One bum steer and the repercussions are beyond severe, a fact made all the more disconcerting by the numerous inhospitable obstacles that litter their path forward. Aside from extremely changeable weather conditions and bumpy terrain, they are faced with the ominous task of traversing a rope bridge so rickety that The Pointer Sisters wouldn’t dare to cross it, let alone an articulated truck transporting volatile explosives. Beyond that, there’s the small matter of a felled tree to negotiate and this is no tiddler we’re talking about either.


Despite hardly being bosom buddies, the men are forced to set aside any differences and cooperate to stand any chance whatsoever of making it to their destination in less than a million pieces. This is where Sorcerer really comes into its own as Friedkin is prepared to pull the rug from beneath our feet at any given moment and their safe passage is far less than a given. The performers are uniformly excellent, with Scheider perhaps the easiest of the four to identify with given his everyman stature. Should you buy into their plight, then you will likely be left a twitching bag of nerves come journey’s end and rarely has my heart endured such an extended stay in my mouth as it did here.


Aside from Friedkin’s pitch-perfect direction, the photography of John M. Stephens and Dick Bush is truly second to none and captures both the beauty and beast of the tropical surroundings, ensuring that we feel every last drop of humidity in the air. Meanwhile, the pulsating electronic score from progressive rock giants Tangerine Dream is as inspired a choice as it is unorthodox and compliments the visuals exquisitely. Tight and suspenseful in the extreme, Sorcerer is a fascinating study of determination, desperation and humanity driven to absolute extremes. It’s clear to see how much of a labor of love this was for Friedkin and I’m hard pushed to think of any other filmmaker out there with the cojones to make it happen.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Read To Live and Die in L.A. Appraisal

Read The Exorcist Appraisal

Read The Guardian (1990) Appraisal

Read Jaws Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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