Whereas many self-indulgent films by ’70s auteurs have been injured by time, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer has actually seen its critical stock rise in the intervening decades. There’s no question the director was due for a fall after scoring two blockbuster successes in a row with The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), and prior to the release of Sorcerer, he did just about everything necessary to unsure the critical knives were out: He gave overbearing interviews extolling his own directorial genius; he let four years pass between movies; he elected to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), a sacred text for cinephiles; he let his perfectionist streak run wild, shooting outrageous numbers of angles and takes that put his cast and crew through a long ordeal in rugged South American locations; and he slapped a supernatural-sounding title onto the project even though Sorcerer involves nothing otherworldly, which understandably resulted in confused expectations because of his association with The Exorcist.
As a result, Sorcerer was eviscerated upon its original release, even though some brave souls immediately recognized the film as a unique piece of deranged artistry. Seen now, the picture is a crazily intense thrill ride that matches the inherent tension of the plot with a probing descent into the psyche of an archetypal character driven insane by circumstance. Roy Scheider stars as Scanlon, an American criminal hiding out in South America and desperate enough for work that he agrees to join a crew driving trucks loaded with unstable nitroglycerin down 200 miles of bumpy jungle roads toward a demolition site. Playing the other unlucky souls sharing the task is an international cast: Frenchman Bruno Cremer, one-named Moroccan Amidou, and Spaniard Francisco Rabal. Crisply explanatory vignettes reveal why each man is a fugitive, but that’s about all the picture provides in terms of character; Friedkin is much more interested in dramatizing whether small men can rise to a life-threatening occasion.
Sorcerer contains one of the most elaborately filmed suspense sequences in cinema history: The precarious crossing of a hand-made bridge across a jungle river in the middle of a horrific rainstorm. Using a staggering number of camera angles, Friedkin drags the scene out to create an excruciating level of tension, and that cinematic commitment carries through to nearly the entire film. Also noteworthy is the disturbing score by German synth-rock ensemble Tangerine Dream, making their debut in American films. For the last word on Sorcerer, I’ll defer to Stephen King, writing in his nonfiction survey of the horror genre titled Danse Macabre (1981): “I liked that one because there were a lot of close-ups in it of sweaty people working hard and laboring machines; truck engines and huge wheels spinning in soupy mud and frayed fanbelts in Panavision-70. Great stuff.”