The wages and the fear remain high in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer

The wages and the fear remain high in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Fast & Furious 6 inspires us to look back on other vehicular action movies.

Sorcerer (1977)
Maybe it’s misleading to call William Friedkin’s Sorcerer an action movie. (It was certainly misleading to name it Sorcerer—a reference to one of the film’s central vehicles, but also a transparent attempt to make the director’s follow-up to The Exorcist sound like a supernatural thriller.) Though there’s gunplay, and more than a few explosions, the focus of this grim jungle odyssey is on the prevention of carnage, the heart-in-throat attempts not to blow something up. Still, few bona fide action films approach the kind of intensity generated by Friedkin’s fatalistic scenario, lifted from both Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel The Wages Of Fear and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 adaptation of the same. Four men—two to a truck and each outrunning a criminal past—sign on to transport a highly volatile shipment of dynamite across 200 miles of rocky Central American terrain. As too much jostling could set the explosives off, the journey is a perilous one; narrow roads, fallen trees, and flooded riverbanks become life-and-death obstacles. There’s a big paycheck waiting at the end of the voyage, but will any of the men survive to collect it?

An expensive flop upon initial release—it rather famously opened at Mann’s Chinese Theatre right after Star Wars, the very definition of a tough act to follow—Sorcerer doesn’t exploit its nerve-racking premise quite as effectively as The Wages Of Fear did. (In Clouzot’s version, even driving too slow is dangerous. The French director also plays with the distance between the two trucks, building suspense from their proximity in a way that Friedkin never does.) Yet Sorcerer distinguishes itself in other ways. The pre-trip portion of the movie, which is something of a slog in Wages, here becomes a gritty prologue, crosscutting among the backstories of the four beleaguered protagonists. There’s Roy Scheider’s terrific, bug-eyed performance—hard to believe he was the director’s fifth or sixth choice for the lead—and a bewitching electronic score from Tangerine Dream, who would go on to provide music for many of Michael Mann’s early movies. Mostly, though, it’s Friedkin’s clean, muscular direction that makes Sorcerer worthwhile. The film’s most captivating setpiece, immortalized on the original poster, finds one of the trucks attempting to cross a swaying rope bridge during a tropical storm. It’s a terrifying sequence, made all the more powerful by the plainly visible fact that Friedkin really pushed that monstrous automobile across that flimsy bridge. Few of today’s filmmakers would attempt such a scene through non-digital means, which is a pretty solid reason for none of them to mount another Wages remake.

Availability: An imperfect DVD transfer, which can be purchased through Amazon or obtained through Netflix’s disc delivery service.

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