Perfect films usually only ever appear so in retrospect. A case in point is Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s 1977 reimagining of the Henri-Georges Clouzot 1953 classic, The Wages of Fear.
The gloriously remastered print of Sorcerer, showing as part of the Melbourne International Film Festivals ‘Masters and Restorations’ program, is an incredible tale of failed masculinity, predatory capitalism and madness.
It was a commercial flop upon release, only recouping nine million of its original twenty one million dollar budget, largely due to appearing at almost the exact same time as the first instalment of Star Wars. Friedkin viewed it as the toughest job of his career. Shooting was littered with accidents and problems, including the film’s riveting central scene, where trucks must cross a rickety rope and timber bridge over a raging river in the middle of a fierce tropical storm. The sequence, due to weather and other reasons, occurred over two countries and took three months to shoot.
Three men, on the run from past mistakes, have ended end up in a run down, impoverished town in an unspecified Latin American banana republic (the real location being the Dominican Republic, which at the time was under an actual military dictatorship).
Jackie (Roy Scheider) was part of a heist on a Catholic Church that ended in a car crash in which all the other members of the gang are killed. The mob-controlled target of the robbery put a contract on his life and he barely gets out of New Jersey alive. Serrano (Bruno Cremer) is a French businessman who has fled his adoring wife and a prison sentence after he was discovered embezzling money and his partner committed suicide. An Arab named Kassem (Amidou) is hiding from Israeli authorities after he helped carry out a bombing in Jerusalem.
The three eke out a precarious living working for the town’s main employer, an exploitative US oil company that is in bed with the authorities. They all need money, whether it is to get a forged passport or a plane fare out of the country.
There is an explosion at one of the oil company’s wells in the middle of remote jungle two hundred miles away. The only way to stop the fire is to blow up the well. The only materials at the company’s disposal on such short notice are crates of highly unstable explosives, due to leaking nitro-glycerine, stored near the town. The dynamite is too unstable to take by air so the company has no choice but to transport it by road. Out of financial desperation, Jackie, Serrano and Kassem all volunteer for the almost certain suicide mission as drivers. Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a mysterious professional assassin who is on the lam, murders the fourth driver at the last minute and takes his slot.
What follows is a masterfully shot and paced sequence as the men, in teams of two, drive their trucks through dense jungle and along treacherous narrow winding mountain roads to deliver the dynamite to the burning well. The highlight is the aforementioned bridge sequence, although they also have to deal with rebel fighters, blocked roads and each other. The tension is unrelenting. Every bump and swerve could set the dynamite off. That’s if the unstable, paranoid nature of the four men doesn’t explode first.
It’s easy to view this film as a lay down misere for Friedkin, given the source material, the 1953 classic film, in turn based on a novel of the same name by Georges Arnaud. But while Friedkin borrows much from the original, he infuses it with an uncompromising, quintessentially seventies sensibility and style. His hardboiled vision is impressive because it is so unrelenting.
The town is a hellhole, complete with corrupt cops and a grimy bar owned by a former Nazi. The atmosphere of a poor country in the grip of dictatorship is vividly depicted, including a scene in which the town’s people stage a bloody (and futile) riot after the truck arrives carrying the gruesome charred remains of the workers, killed in the oil well explosion, wrapped in sheets of plastic.
The company are far more interested in profits than any human welfare. One of the reasons they need to cap the oil well fire so quickly is because, if they don’t they will have to start paying extra money to the government. The drivers are expendable. The company doesn’t even have any new trucks and the drivers have to put them together using parts scavenged from a warehouse of derelict vehicles. Finally, Friedkin takes the psychological pressure on the drivers and tightens it a few screws, depicting them as literally driven mad by the ordeal. The by turns dreamy and malevolent score by German electronic group, Tangerine Dream, is the perfect accompaniment to their increasingly fevered state.
Schieder wasn’t first choice for the lead. That was Steve McQueen, who eventually said no to the role after the director refused to cast his then spouse Ali MacGraw. Other names mentioned, a virtual who-is-who of US seventies cinema machismo, included Gene Hackman (who passed on the script because it was too violent) Kris Kristofferson (who chose Peckinpah’s 1978 trucker movie, Convoy, instead), Warren Oates, and, if various accounts are correct, even Robert Mitchum (who thought he was too old for the part). But Schieder, who helped put the meat on the bones of such seventies classics as French Connection (1971), the underrated The Seven Ups (1973) and Marathon Man (1976) feels perfect for the role with his nuanced tough guy feel and his slightly identikit face.
Sorcerer is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Sunday, August 10. Details are available on the MIFF site.