Sorcerer (1977)

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Sorcerer
Dir. William Friedkin
Premiered June 24, 1977

If you asked Peter Biskind, author of the seminal New Hollywood history Easy Riders Raging Bulls, to pick one film contributed directly to the end of this particular era of studio filmmaking, he’d probably say Heaven’s Gate. If you asked him to name two, he’d probably say 1941. But if you asked for a third, he’d probably say Sorcerer.

Based on the French novel The Wages of Fear, which had already inspired to films in the 1950s, it was the second-most expensive movie of 1977, a massive co-production between Universal and Paramount studios. Director William Friedkin, fresh off the one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist, was given carte blanche on the sole condition that the film star Jaws’ Roy Scheider, and used this power to turn the film into a subtle protest of Paramount, then owned by oil conglomerate Gulf and Western. To hear Biskind say it, Sorcerer was an overindulgent disaster.

It’s genius.

The film begins with the story of four criminals:

  • “Nilo” (Francisco Rabal) a suave, mysterious Mexican assassin fresh off a job in Veracruz.

  • “Martinez” (Amidou), a Palestinian terrorist who is the only member of his cell to escape his Israeli pursuers after a bombing in Jerusalem.

  • “Serrano” (Bruno Cremer), a French banker under investigation for millions in fraud.

  • “Dominguez” (Roy Scheider), an American gangster who narrowly escapes a brutal car accident after robbing a rival gang’s church.

By chance, the fugitives all converge on Porvenir, a poor village in an unnamed Latin American country where an American oil company has recently completed a pipeline to a new well 200 miles away. When the well catches fire, the four men are chosen to drive a dangerously corroded payload of TNT through the jungle to seal the well, using two ancient, heavily modified trucks. In exchange, the corporation will provide them each $20,000 and brand new identities.

With its jittery, frantic cinematography and interconnected narrative, Sorcerer belongs more in post-9/11 Hollywood than in 1977. In fact, its influence on films of that era, such as Blood Diamond, There Will Be Blood, and even some of the movies of Wes Anderson are unmistakable. In many ways, it’s far less pedantic than most exotically-set, high-budget message movies since. Complementing the visual flair is an unending sense of grit and terror. These men know that their cargo could kill them at any moment, and the challenges that await them on the road seem impossible. The result is a film of herculean– some might say Herzogian– proportions, one of the true epics of the New Hollywood.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The unusual score, by techno collective Tangerine Dream: synths, but definitely not ‘80s synths. Germans and the PLO still go hand-in-hand.

How Did It Do?
With a budget of $21.6 million, Sorcerer was the second-most expensive film of 1977; with a total box-office gross of $12 million, it was also the year’s biggest flop. If one estimates marketing costs, Sorcerer’s losses were bigger than the box-office receipts for all but the ten highest-grossing films of the year. Across the United States, paying moviegoers were seen walking out and demanding refunds. Critics, however, adored it, earning an 80% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Those who dissented largely found themselves unable to get into it, or found it too bleak.

Much like At Long Last Love for Peter Bogdanovich and Health for Robert Altman, Sorcerer marked Friedkin’s descent from hitmaker to cult icon, languishing with such films as Cruising and charming niche audiences with To Live and Die in L.A. before moving on to television, returning to form with 2011’s Killer Joe.

In 1979, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert declared Sorcerer to be one of the most overlooked gems of the entire 1970s; someday to be remembered as a classic. Siskel even theorized that the film underperformed due to its title, which may have led potential audiences to mistake it for high fantasy (which, with the sole exception of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has never been a commercially viable film genre), especially with Friedkin coming off The Exorcist. On both accounts, he was right. Sorcerer is a great film and demands to be seen as such.

Next Time: Empire of the Ants

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