New To Blu: Sorcerer

Last week, Friedkin's Sorcerer finally came home in a special edition digibook blu-ray.

"Roy kill my
mother. She was a shark.
Now you WILL die!"
Three years after the 1973 worldwide box office smash 'The Exorcist', director William Friedkin set his sights on a project as ambitious in scale and personal in scope as anything yet attempted in Hollywood: a remake of the 1953 French thriller 'The Wages of Fear' by Henri-Georges Clouzot and ferocious beast of a film called 'Sorcerer'. The setup is exceedingly simple: four criminals in hiding accept a grueling and suicidal job of carting nitroglycerine through a precarious and dangerous terrain on two barely functioning trucks, with the promise of great fortune if the task is completed. In both the original film and Friedkin's reinterpretation, it's an exercise in white knuckle tension with the fate of the men's lives on the balance as they tightrope walk their way through one death defying obstacle after another. 

 Originally titled 'Ballbreaker' (the studio nixed that title immediately), 'Sorcerer' is metaphor for fallen, lost souls trying to redeem themselves from the Hellscape they find themselves in, and the simultaneous futility of trying.  It's also a critique of avarice and the depths to which people will dive out of desperation driven by the almighty dollar.  In a positively mortifying sequence, the men elect to drive their ticking time bombs across a deteriorating and unstable suspension bridge.  Anyone in their right mind would look at it and refuse to accept the situation, but we're watching people who have long since passed the realm of reason and rationale and we instinctively fold our arms tight as they charge full steam ahead into almost certain death. 
"Pull it up....just a little more..."
Using techniques that would become commonplace in the suspense thrillers from Steven Spielberg, Clouzot and Friedkin's films zero in on rickety wooden slats on a bridge giving way, screws becoming undone, rope pulleys tearing, tires getting stuck, and intense close-ups of the grimy faces of men in the grip of terror.  Sound is essential in both films to ratchet the stomach churning tension, with many scenes playing without the aid of music to relieve our tightly wound nerves.  The new found (at the time) German electronic band 'Tangerine Dream' provide a brooding score full of dread and unease, foreshadowing the terrors ahead of these men trapped in a highway to Hell.  Much like the oil entrepreneur black comedy 'There Will Be Blood', 'Sorcerer' captures in a bottle the sheer awesome horror of an oil well explosion in all it's awful glory.

Sadly, this 1977 super production co-funded by both Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios spiraled far over budget and was eclipsed by the groundbreaking success of George Lucas' 'Star Wars'.  An early chapter in the death knell of director driven pictures, which would ultimately be closed with Michael Cimino's financial disaster 'Heaven's Gate', 'Sorcerer' would find itself in limbo for many years and was nearly lost forever to a rights gridlock left unsorted by it's two financiers.  The box office failure of 'Sorcerer' was tied to many factors, starting with it's misleading title, with some viewers expecting another 'Exorcist'.  The casting of Roy Scheider in the lead role didn't have the box office draw needed to recoup the film's extravagant costliness.  Expensive set pieces were either re-shot due to lighting problems or the look of the sets themselves, and the cast and crew suffered hardships such as Malaria to Gangrene as a result of the jungle shoot.

For years, 'Sorcerer' was nearly forgotten and dumped on video sourced from poor and damaged masters only available in fullscreen.  With the same desperate fervor as his four protagonists hung out to dry, Friedkin fought to save his masterpiece from sinking completely from sight in court with a lawsuit against both studios.  An uphill battle with the studios claiming neither knew who owned the rights to 'Sorcerer' eventually did prove victorious when Warner Brothers swooped in and saved the day, securing the rights and financing the full digital restoration of the picture.  This week, one of the most requested and personal titles of Friedkin's catalog finally had it's day in a remastered Warner Book Blu-ray edition, supervised and approved by Friedkin himself.  While the remake trend as of late has grown beyond passe, 'Sorcerer' is that rare reinterpretation that at once acknowledges it's influences while managing to carry it's own hefty weight with a punch that genuinely stings and burns long after you've endured it.  In short, this is one of the most intense, virtually unseen action thrillers of all time.

-Andrew Kotwicki