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USA 1977
Directed by
William Friedkin
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


Synopsis: Four penniless men hiding from the law in a South American oil township attempt to extract themselves from their predicament by transporting a load of unstable gelignite 200Km through the jungle.

William Friedkin is best known for The Exorcist and the title of this film suggest something in a similar vein but don't be put off. It is in fact a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's highly-regarded 1952 film, The Wages of Fear. According to Freidkin the title was taken from a Miles Davis number that he happened co-incidentally to be listening to at the time. It does, however, relate to some enigmatic quasi-mystical stuff going on with a young/old washerwoman that never gets developed and a sequence towards the end with the Roy Scheider character freaking out, Carlos Castaneda-like, in a sepulchral landscape, This was the'70s after why not?

I am not a fan of the Clouzot original because for me, technical limitations aside, it lacked the seat-of-your-pants suspense that was supposed to be its core. Freidkin has delivered that suspense in spades. There's a 30 minute scene-setting sequence (which, amazingly, was cut from the original release here in Australia) in which, to a hypnotizing synthesiser track by German techno-pioneers, Tangerine Dream, we are shown dramatically how the four principals happened to end up in a squalid village somewhere in South America. This includes in quick succession a robbery, a terrorist bombing, a suicide and a murder. Cut to the classic Conradian outpost, an oil mining venture complete with shanty-town, oppressive heat, corrupt police, shady characters and even an ex-Nazi barkeep. And then the main course - the task of getting the gelignite through the jungle. Everything that has gone so far has been brilliantly done but this section must count with some of the most stunning sequences of adventure film-making, up there with Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now in order of difficulty. And like those films, all done before the days of CGI. The sequence on the bridge is breathtaking despite being largely SFX generated (it is worth checking out the IMDB trivia section for information on the production).

What comes through Friedkin's film is the director's fastidious attention to detail while at the same time holding true to the over-arching vision. The physicality of the production is its substance and that deserves no end of superlatives. In the nature of things, characterisation tends to take a back seat, to dramatic action. Roy Scheider, in a part that was originally written for Steve McQueen (the latter turned it down because he had did not want to be parted from his new wife, Ali McGraw), is the only character who really gets revealed. Scheider never was A-list but he's always great value (he has an amazing Easter Island sculpturesque profile that is shown to particular advantage in the opening sequence) and he does not disappoint here.

There are some elements which jar, (e.g. how could a Parisian investment banker be a first-class truck-driver and able to mix it with lowlife?; and, what is that quasi-occult business with the washerwoman about?), but in the main Sorcerer is a major achievement and should not to be seen on the big screen.

FYI: The film had the misfortune to be released at close to Star Wars. It  failed at the box office, returning only $9m of its $21m budget.




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