In a remote part of South America, an oil rig has recently been blown up by political dissidents, causing a fire that burns unceasingly. It’s cost several workers their lives and is costing the America oil company a great deal of money. The only way to stop the fire is to dynamite the source, and the only dynamite available is (a) so old and poorly maintained that it is leaking nitroglycerine and (b) 200-plus miles away over inhospitable terrain. Someone needs to drive it all that way – who would be desperate or crazy enough to take on such a job?
Someone’s always desperate enough. In fact, we have four someones. Four men who’ve fled to this part of the world to escape their pasts, only to find the present unendurable. Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is wanted by the mob after a church robbery he was part of goes awry. Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a Parisian banker fleeing the collapse of his business. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is an enigmatic hit man, presumably on the run after his latest mission. And Kassem (Amidou) is a PLO bomber trying to escape Israeli intelligence. These four men are willing to transport a very dangerous cargo over mountain roads, jungle swamps, and the world’s most rickety bridge.
William Friedkin’s remake of H. G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear is a nail-biting bit of work. It’s also the rare film that demands a functioning brain on the part of its audience. It begins with a lengthy prologue that shows how the four men came to the godforsaken corner of the world, and does so without a lot of help for the audience. We’re shown, but not told, and Friedkin takes a big gamble by the most accessible backstory (Scanlon’s is the only one set in America and not subtitled) come last. We then get a glimpse of life in South America, and it’s a place of squalor and desperation, heat and filth. Small wonder these men take on what’s essentially a suicide mission.
The drive to the oil rig is one of the most suspenseful things I’ve seen in a long time, as the drivers creep along at agonizingly slow speeds (less than ten miles per hour!) lest they jostle the dynamite and set the nitroglycerine off. Along the way there’s the aforementioned bridge, a downed tree, and other dangers both expected and unexpected. Even the weather is a threat as the men peer through rainswept windshields. Not even the trucks the men drive can be relied on (the vehicles animal-like growls and roars do a great deal to ratchet up the tension).
Technically Sorcerer is an impressive work. The cinematography has a gritty, almost documentary feel to it. Tangerine Dream’s electronic score is an odd choice but works well, lending an almost otherworldly feel to the proceedings. The atmosphere throughout is palpable, from the squalid desperation of the South America town to the isolated jungles and mountain roads. As the journey wears on the men seem more and more beaten down by fear and the elements.
And yet, for all the trouble Friedkin has gone to in portraying these men and what brought them to this dangerous task, he generates little empathy for them. It’s difficult to feel too sorry for them, save for Marzon who, business corruption aside, seems a decent sort at heart. The others? One’s a hitman we learn little about, one’s a terrorist. And even an awesome actor like Roy Scheider can’t make us care for his character (his band of thieves steals from a church! While a wedding’s going on! And shoot a priest!). The audience’s sympathies are generated by the actors, not the characters, which is a shame because an already tense movie could have been even more so had we an emotional investment in the characters’ fates.
Fate wasn’t kind to Sorcerer back in 1977 – audience preconceptions of the film didn’t jibe with what they saw (thanks to the enigmatic title and to Friedkin’s previous film being The Exorcist), and then it got overshadowed by some space opera you might have heard of. Star something. Wars, I think. Something like that. Anyway, the movie deserves a look, especially if you’re interested in an action/suspense movie that does not insult your intelligence and if (like me) you miss Roy Scheider.
Unfortunately the DVD release is only in a full-frame version, and is bereft of extras save for production notes, cast and crew bios, and a trailer. It’s to the film’s credit that for the most part it overcomes its less-than-stellar presentation and still manages to entertain.