Sorcerer ★★★★

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention #46

After making his mark on the American cinematic landscape with The French Connection and The Exorcist, director William Friedkin boldy decided to tackle a loose remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's thrilling French masterpiece, The Wages of Fear, which was also based upon the novel by Georges Arnaud. His magnificent vision of the existential thriller involved months of filming in South American jungles in a move that bears similarities to Herzog's ambitious and wonderful follies; Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Production costs spiralled and the studios backing the film made huge losses when it was released only a week before a certain film by George Lucas, sadly ushering it into obscurity and almost consigning the film to history as it languished untouched for many years before being recut and restored for modern audiences.

The version we see today isn't vastly different from that which was presented in 1977 but the addition of a stirring Tangerine Dream soundtrack and the essential inclusion of each of the main character's back stories at the start of the film (some of these scenes were removed or inserted as flashbacks in a number of the film's international releases) heighten the intensity of the nail-biting scenario and add important character development. As in Clouzot's stirring adaptation the story focuses on four downtrodden men from various walks of life who take on the unenviable and lucrative task of transporting volatile explosives over incredibly precarious terrain to help stem the fire from an explosion at a distant oil field. One false move could spell certain disaster for these fearless drivers as they traverse long forgotten tracks through the jungle, and encounter all manner of dangerous obstacles such as rickety bridges, impenetrable foliage and violent bandits.

Sorcerer is a real slow burner of a film - the perilous journey doesn't commence until almost an hour in - but by the time it gets going we are fully invested in the fate of the four desparate men as they take what could be the only chance to escape their hellish lives in the tropics. The intriguing setup provides invaluable insight into why they have all ended up in this uninviting part of the world, working for a pittance in a place where they are unlikely to ever be found by those from their past lives who might be seeking them. These scenes help us to understand what drives the protagonists and enable us to harbour an emotional investment as they come face to face with one of the most life-threatening challenges they could ever experience.

Friedkin poured his heart into the creation of Sorcerer and there are many elaborate scenes that showcase his unbridled passion for this project. One of the standout sequences is when the drivers attempt to transport the trucks across an almost impassable bridge (that is literally falling apart at the seams) over a river whilst being assaulted with torrential rain. It is a bravura moment where you are left completely and utterly stunned; not only due to the incredible intensity of the heart-stopping scenario but by the sheer audacity of the film-makers in realising such a treacherous action sequence that continues for far longer than you would expect possible. This is pure cinema - a phenomenally suspenseful thrill ride that gnaws at the very crux of what it feels like to be alive.

Roy Scheider takes top billing as Jackie Scanlon, an American Irishman who takes refuge in the South American jungle when fleeing from the mob. His steady nerves and skill behind the wheel secure him a place in the assignment and his character becomes more unhinged as the trucks inch ever closer towards their destination. Bruno Cremer portrays Victor Manzon, a once successful French businessman down on his luck who would do anything to be reunited with his wife. These are tragic men who are struggling to survive against the unpredictable tide of fate and (along with Francisco Rabal as Nilo and Amidou as Kassem) they provide an astonishing depth of emotion in their performances; anchoring the films heavy themes with a raw and visceral expressiveness of character that leaves you breathless - in total awe and appreciation of the dedication to their craft.

The camaraderie between the men is shallow and fragile; they are bound together through their actions but remain ever fearful that a single mistake from their companions could spell certain doom for the mission and their life. They all seek dominance and control over the risky decisions they face and the hostilities between the four are as fascinating to behold as the deadly manoeuvres they undertake whilst grappling with the controls of the trucks. Friedkin focuses in on the wheels spinning and the explosives shaking in the rear compartment just as much as the frightened reactions from his protagonists and these cuts heighten the heart-palpitating tension close to unbearable levels.

Sorcerer is a monumental thriller and a testament to Friedkin's astounding ability as a director; particularly when you consider that he overcame a plethora of setbacks throughout the film's volatile production. Tackling a reinterpretation of a renowned masterpiece and being successful in doing so is no small feat, and one that demonstrates just how remarkabl Friedkin's talent is. When working on the restoration Friedkin himself said 'I felt then and still do that Sorcerer is the best film I've made', and I wholeheartedly concur that this is a masterclass in film-making that rivals The French Connection and The Exorcist.

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