Judge Daryl Loomis would rather pluck both eyes out than drive down these roads.
Worst. Day. Ever.
The early 1970s brought great success to William Friedkin. First, in 1971, he directed The French Connection, which thrilled audiences with its fantastic automobile action. Then, he returned in 1973 with The Exorcist, a legitimately horrifying experience for everyone in the theater. Because he made the same mistake, though, that others have made by heading to Central America to make an epic thriller, his next movie was far over budget and delayed three years until 1977, when he finally got Sorcerer into theaters. Trouble was, it came out right around the same time that a different kind of movie came out. That one was called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and that one, arguably, changed everything. Dead was the era that produced Bonnie and Clyde and Dirty Harry and long live the blockbuster era, from which we unfortunately have yet to emerge. But that's old news and has nothing to do with Sorcerer as a movie, because it is legitimately one of the greatest nail-biters ever to come out of Hollywood.
Facts of the Case
In the depths of the South American jungle, an oil well explodes, leaving death, destruction, and a raging fire in its wake. The oil company doesn't care about that so much as the profits that they're losing because of it and they don't have a lot of options. What they do have is six cases of rotten nitro-glycerin and exploding them into the fire will close it off and let them continue to work. Any vibration and they'll blow up outright, but they have to get it done. So they hire four men, led by Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider, Jaws), a.k.a. Juan Dominguez, who are desperate enough to risk their lives for the hazard pay. So they split off into two trucks, three cases apiece, to drive 200 miles over treacherous jungle and swamp, knowing every second that any wrong move means kaboom.
Sorcerer may be the most criminally underrated movies of its era. It may not be a better movie than Wages of Fear, the 1953 George-Henri Clouzot movie that inspired it, but it's a helluva lot grittier and more violent. In suspense, the two are about equals, and though Clouzot is the better filmmaker, Friedkin acquits himself beautifully, never making Sorcerer seem like a remake, and it's different enough to barely qualify as one. The structure of the plot is the same, but the feeling is much different.
The original can say this too, but Sorcerer delivers more tension per minute than almost any movie I can think of. It moves slowly at first, but that's to get across the desperate situations these people, and the native townspeople, find themselves in and, truly, these are some cruddy conditions. It's a dour world that the viewer wants out of as bad as the characters, but be careful what you wish for, because you might just get out, which is when the true terror begins.
But this isn't terror like a crazy burned dude in your dreams; terror here is legitimate. Factually, most of Sorcerer is about two trucks driving, but we understand how high the stakes are and, once we see that, it's easy to slide into the heads of these drivers, which is not a good place to be. Once the explosion happens (which, by the way, is more violent and gruesome than much of what we see today in action movies, yet in 1977, received a PG rating), the tension begins to mount until it becomes almost unbearable.
In many ways, Sorcerer is an excruciating experience; it's a relentless movie that flaunts its danger at every turn. I don't know what precautions were taken for this, but it doesn't seem like very much. If these actors were safe, then more power to Friedkin, because this is one of the most dangerous, scariest movies, real scary not horror scary, that I've ever seen. You know it won't end well and, really, there's no good reason to root for these characters, but as you watch them sweat and drive and sometimes speak to each other, I defy anyone not to have their heart in their throat, waiting for that moment when, BOOM, and it's all over.
Friedkin's direction and the screenplay from Waylon Green (The Wild Bunch) get this over really well, but the believability of the performances is what takes this over the top. Roy Scheider, as good an actor as he is, never had the star power that his compatriots had, but his lack of baggage and genuine skill make his role sing. To his side are three other top notch performers in their own right. These include Bruno Cremar (Under the Sand) as a German with a disgusting financial past, Francisco Rabal (Dagon) as an assassin on the run, and Amidou (Ronin), playing a man just barely escaping Israel after organizing a terrorist attack. This is a derelict group if I've ever seen one, but between the performances and the stakes, it could be four clones of Hitler and I'd still care.
Because of this very fact, Sorcerer is William Friedkin's best, most powerful film, but it's far from just him, the writing, or the performances. This movie drew a full house with a cinematographer in Dick Bush (Tommy), whose nature photography makes the horror look gorgeous, and a soundtrack by pioneering electronic band Tangerine Dream, a soundtrack that delivers the kind of surreal and unsettling tension that Goblin delivered for their score for Suspiria, and anyone who knows me knows that this is high praise. Sorcerer is a genuinely fantastic film; really, the best work of Friedkin's career. If you want a beautiful looking movie that will have your heart in your throat, than this is a movie I can't recommend strongly enough.
Sorcerer comes to Blu-ray for the first time via Warner Brothers in their Digibook packaging. The 1.78:1/1080p transfer is spectacular. Previous editions have left this movie looking dull and drab, but here it's absolutely gorgeous, filled with vibrant color, near perfect flesh tones, and deep black levels. The grain structure stands up nicely and, through it, fine detail is apparent everywhere. It might not be a reference quality transfer, but it's as close as we're getting and far better than it's ever looked in the past. The sound is also excellent, with a full-sounding Master Audio surround mix that uses the spectrum to help deliver the movie's supreme atmosphere and musical score. Dialog always sounds great, engine sounds roar constantly through the speakers, and there's no noise whatsoever. Technically, it's a fantastic disc, but aside from the Digibook, which contains a letter from the director and an excerpt from Friedkin's memoirs, there are no extras at all. A true shame given the tumultuous production. This is the kind of think that could have benefited from a Burden of Dreams or Heart of Darkness kind of documentary treatment, but things aren't always so serendipitous, sadly. Still, no interviews or commentary or anything? Kind of a rip if you ask me.
The lack of extras aside, this release of Sorcerer is the best it has ever looked and sounded. This is no horror movie, but there are few in that genre or any other that can match the excruciating tension that Friedkin builds here. It's brilliant stuff and if you've never seen it, which it turns out (at least from a small sample poll) that few people actually have, watch it now.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
Review content copyright © 2014 Daryl Loomis; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.