In Films by Alex Moss Editor

How is a film judged as a success? Box office return? Critical acclaim? Sorcerer, at its time of release in 1977 had neither. Off the back of success with The French Connection and The Exorcist director William Friedkin was Hollywood hot property meaning anticipation around his latest film was planet destroying big. But, thanks in no small part to bad reviews and the release of some movie called Star Wars around the same time, Sorcerer bombed at the box office.

Time has been kind to Sorcerer though. So much so that it is now considered something of a classic. Indeed, Friedkin rates it as his best film, stating in the book William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality by Thomas D. Clagett that he loved it because it is the only film of his work that came out as intended. Of course it’s probably also a case that like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Sorcerer was very much Friedkin’s journey into a heart of darkness.

Based on Georges Arnaud 1950 novel The Salary Of Fear, which had been previously adapted as The Wages Of Fear, Sorcerer is a typical slice of ‘70s nihilistic filmmaking. The film starts by following three seemingly unconnected men who all find themselves in hiding in a small South American town. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) the terrorist, Serrano (Bruno Cremer) the crooked banker and Jackie (Roy Scheider) the gangster are all desperate men cornered into this out of the way, off the radar existence. So when a local oil company needs a well plugging with highly volatile nitro glycerine no one is able to drive the rickety old trucks on the 200 miles trek through the rainforest other than men with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In typical Friedkin style Sorcerer, as if the film itself is carrying explosive potential if moved along too quickly, opens at a glacial pace. We take in each and every detail of the characters’ lives before and once in South American. The result is a deeply layered, if slightly confusing, opening act in which the three key stories seem to have very little in common. Once in South America though the plot begins to gradually give a little gas.

The aesthetic is humid, sweat dripping grime. This is a place where the outlaws and desperados of the world come to hide. Imagine Casablanca but with mosquitos, tequila and mud, lots and lots of mud. This is the world of Sorcerer and Friedkin wants you to taste every drop of filthy, contaminated water.

Between the slow pacing and staggering atmosphere by the time the trucks finally roll you are seeped in Sorcerer’s world. So invested in the characters and the precarious situation they find themselves in that every piece of gravel that flies of a cliff face, every creak of a rickety bridge and every fist pounded into the mud in frustration of another obstacle in the way you’re left exhausted. It is a nail-biting thriller that plays out at a plodding pace in such a way as to ramp up the tension rather than undermine it. This is old school filmmaking, the kind they don’t make anymore because it would have people reaching for their phones within the opening chapter. But more is the pity, because Sorcerer is hauntingly beautiful to experience. These aren’t macho men, they’re not going to grab a gun and save the day, they’re down on their luck, ambiguously bad guys who you crave to find success in some form or other.

Visceral, gripping and generating enough tension to pull all the Marvel universe into a black hole of forgettable nonsense, Sorcerer is a film of stunning brilliance.