Friday, 10 November 2017

Review #1,261: 'Sorcerer' (1977)

Due to its catastrophic failure at the box-office and underwhelming reception from critics, William Friedkin's Sorcerer will always find itself linked to the that floppiest of flops, Heaven's Gate. Yet while Michael Cimino's over-ambition caused costs to skyrocket (taking down iconic studio United Artists in the process) and the thought of a bum-numbing, slow-burn western proving rather unappealing to audiences, Sorcerer's failure is often chalked down to the timing of its release - alongside Star Wars, which, of course, rapidly became a pop culture phenomenon and a box-office smash. On paper, a remake of French classic The Wages of Fear seems like a terrible idea, but Friedkin's gruelling and visceral thriller has quite rightly received a critical re-evaluation of late, with many recognising it as The Exorcist director's greatest achievement.

Other than the basic set-up, Sorcerer shares little in common with Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic. It spends a lot of time establishing the four main characters and the sins that will eventually bring them together. In Mexico, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) casually assassinates a man using a gun with a silencer; in Israel, Kassem (Amidou), an Arab terrorist disguised as a Jew, causes a deadly explosion in Jerusalem; in France, businessman Victor (Bruno Cremer) is rumbled for fraud and given 24 hours to pay back an unrealistic amount of money otherwise he'll be turned into the authorities; and in the U.S., Irish gangster Jackie (Roy Scheider) sees a robbery go tits-up and a price placed on his head by a powerful mob boss. Their destiny lies in Porvenir, a remote village in Latin America. Following an oil well explosion, a lucrative job becomes available for four lucky men. Only the work entails transporting damaged dynamite containing unstable nitroglycerin across 200 miles of jungle, mud roads, crazy locals, and a broken down rope-bridge.

It takes a while for the unsavoury foursome to shift into gear, but when the engines start rumbling, backed by Tangerine Dream's hypnotic score, Friedkin takes us on a punishing journey into the heart of darkness. Like Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Klimov's Come and See, Sorcerer makes the experience seem physically draining. The troubled shoot is etched on the character's faces; sun-scorched, sleep-deprived and eyes bulging with madness, you can really feel their torment. The scene that adorns the poster, in which the two bulky trucks must navigate across a rotten and flimsy rope-bridge in hammering rain, is truly one of the most nail-biting set-pieces ever made. It's a miracle they even managed to film such a complicated and dangerous-looking sequence, and this adds a real physicality to the action. There are pacing issues as the film over-milks its introductions, but the international cast are a pleasure to watch during these early vignettes. The Exorcist will always remain at the very top of the pile, but Sorcerer is certainly Friedkin's most misunderstood work, and one that deserves recognition as one of the last great movies from the New Hollywood era.

Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Sorcerer (1977) on IMDb

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