Based on the French film "Le Salaire de la Peur" (The Wages of Fear), this production begins with the individual expose of outcasts from different backgrounds/nationalities who are forced by misfortune to work in a remote oil drilling operation in South America. When fire breaks out of control, the outcasts are given the opportunity to earn enough money to get out by transporting two crates of unstable nitroglycerin through miles of jungle in ancient trucks. Will they succeed and regain their honor and citizenship, or get blown up for their efforts?
Roy Scheider ... Jackie Scanlon / "Juan Dominguez"
Bruno Cremer ... Victor Manzon / 'Serrano'
Francisco Rabal ... Nilo
Amidou ... Kassem / 'Martinez'
Ramon Bieri ... Charles Corlette
Peter Capell ... Lartigue
Karl John ... Marquez
Friedrich von Ledebur ... Carlos
Chico Martínez ... Bobby Del Rios
Joe Spinell ... Spider
Rosario Almontes ... Agrippa
Richard Holley ... Billy White
Anne-Marie Deschott ... Blanche
Jean-Luc Bideau ... Pascal
Jacques François ... Lefevre
A remake of Henri-George Cluzot's 1953 film The Wages of Fear (also on DVD in a lovely Criterion Disc), this William Friedkin film stars Roy Scheider (at his weary, doomed finest) as one of four men exiled to an unnamed South American country by their mistakes and crimes. Trapped in squalor (and it's damn convincing looking squalor, too, far beyond the sunbaked black-and-white compositions of Wages of Fear; this film looks like it's leaving mud on your shoes), unable to return to the lives they abandoned, they're driven by circumstance to accept a normally unthinkable job. They have to drive old, unstable dynamite from its storage site hundreds of miles over mountain terrain and washed-out roads to the location of an oil well fire so the blaze can be snuffed out. The pay is exorbitant -- but it's commiserate to the danger. The risks are colossal ... and they ultimately have no choice.
Sorcerer is tense, suspenseful film-making at its finest; you become physically uncomfortably during this film thanks to the incredible sense that at any minute our heroes would literally be blown to hell. (I mean, we all walk around with the philosophical knowledge we could die at any moment, but talk about your concrete metaphors ... ) Friedkin creates a palpable sense of place, and Scheider is immensely powerful as a man whose every move suggests that he knows he's doomed. Taut with suspense, completely convincing and breathtakingly human, Sorcerer is an unfairly maligned film that delivers in every way.
Here's one exception to the general rule or opinion that re-makes are not as good as the originals. This is even better than the 1953 "The Wages Of Fear."
"Sorcerer" (a better title might have helped in the status of this film) is divided into three segments. The first part deals with the various criminal acts committed by the four principal characters in their particular part of the world.
The second part shows the seedy life these criminals must now endure in a poor South American town after they are forced to flee their respective countries.
The third segment is the major part of the story. An oil well fire rages out of control and these men are selected to do something that can solve the problem, in exchange for enough money to get them out of that hellhole. The job: transport cans of extremely-volatile nitroglycerin in a truck in a harrowing 218-mile trek through jungle terrain to the site of the disaster.
This long segment is one of the most suspenseful and well-photographed scenes I've ever seen on film. This is good stuff, particularly for the first-time viewer. There are some amazing scenes that just about wear you out.
Added to the no-nonsense story directed by one of the best, William Friedkin, is some unique electronic music by "Tangerine Dream." If you are thinking of the kids watching, there is no sex and very little profanity but some of the violence is very bloody.
Friedkin claims this was the toughest film to make of his career, and it isn't hard to see why. The balance of this film takes place in some woe begotten Latin American country. You can just feel the poverty and desperation in the air as the only work is for an oil drilling firm who doesn't exactly seem bent on worker safety. The elements are intentionally brutal and they only add to the tension. And thats even before this story really gets going.
Early on, we are introduced to four characters who are all guilty of doing something terrible in one corner of the world or another. Roughly a half hour into the film, all four find themselves in a tiny impoverished Latin American village trying to eek out a living and forget the troubles they left behind. Not only is the local economy weak, but the place is socially on the verge of revolution. It's amazing the kind of jobs men will volunteer for to get out of these circumstances. Anyway, these four men are given the chance of transporting some highly explosive dynamite through rugged terrain in crappy old trucks so it can be used to put out a massive oil fire some 200 miles away. It is noted by one of the men that more than enough explosives are being transported. Obviously, at least one of the trucks is not expected to make it! Not only do you have an explosive cargo with unreliable trucks, but also there are armed rebels along the way who probably won't just let you pass right on through. Still, the reward for completing this job is just too much to pass on.
The film is very, very good. In fact the skill that it took to make the film is responsible for most of the stars I'm giving it. The story itself is often just not believable. The journey these four men take is ludicrously perilous. They drive their vehicles over rickety bridges that nobody in real life would have tried to get over in those trucks. Like in other Friedken films, no character is completely likable, but that only makes it tougher to figure out who will live and who will die. There are a few nice twists here and there, right up to the very end to keep you guessing. The acting is exceptional. Scheider was Friedkin's fourth or fifth choice for the main character. Steve McQueen originally wanted it badly, but he demanded a part included for then wife Ali McGraw. Friedkin balked at this and then later regretted the decision. He later stated that he never thought Scheider was a good enough leading man. This is an error, however. Scheider is a terrific actor and his performance here is outstanding.
The film bombed badly at the box office. Heck, if you weren't in line to see Star Wars that year, you were in line to see Smokey and the Bandit! This is definitely one of Friedkin's best, and it has somehow almost been completely forgotten. The film apparently got a PG rating but it is filled with violence and all manner of evil goings on. You'll have to suspend your disbelief for some of the scenes, but you'll be glad you did. I'll give it 8 of 10 stars.
* Tangerine Dream wrote the musical score using only a draft of the script given to them by director 'William Friedkin' . At no time did they see any actual footage of the film. During the original theatrical release the film had an overture of Tangerine Dream's music.
* Cinematographer Dick Bush found Friedkin so demanding and difficult to work with that he left the film halfway through. Friedkin used second unit cinematographer John Stephens for the remaining production. Both received screen credit.
* Director William Friedkin initially wanted Steve McQueen to star in the film. McQueen accepted the part, but on one condition. He wanted a co-starring role for his then wife, Ali MacGraw. Friedkin would not accept his conditions, and McQueen dropped out of the film. He later went on record, regretting not accepting McQueen's conditions. Friedkin tried to get Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson but neither wanted to travel away at that time. He stated that casting Roy Scheider in the lead was the worst casting decision he has ever made. Although he felt Scheider is a good actor who did a great job he is only interesting in a film as a "second or third banana, he's not a star." The actor Amidou who played the Arab Kassem/"Martinez" was his only real first choice all the other actors according to Friedkin were "fourth, fifth and even sixth choices."
* A deleted scene shows Nilo (Francisco Rabal), driving the truck when the truck suddenly comes to a very steep and bumpy road down a large hill. Scanlon ('Roy Scheider' ) quickly jumps to Nilo's side to help him steer as the truck descends the hill too fast while shaking violently. This scene was cut from the film but a clip of it still remains in the sequence towards the end where Scanlon has his emotional breakdown while driving and begins having flashbacks.
* In the book "William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality by Thomas D. Clagett. Friedkin names "Sorcerer" as "my favorite of all the films that I have made. It's one of my only films I can watch because it came out almost exactly as I intended."
* The film was originally to be titled "The Wages of Fear" from the original French film and novel. Friedkin has stated that the strange title of "Sorcerer" refers to the evil wizard of fate.
* Friedkin originally just wanted one prologue for the main character Jackie Scanlon/"Dominguez". However he and screenwriter Walon Green agreed that would make it far too obvious as to who would survive until the end so four separate prologues were chosen instead. Originally they were supposed to be shown in flashback form but that idea was scrapped in favor of four consecutive prologues during the opening.
* The robbery of the church in the Elizabeth NJ prologue was based on a real life church robbery that took place three blocks from where the church in the film was shot. The perpetrator of that crime was Gerard Murphy a former ex-con who became an actor. Friedkin gave him the part of the head of the robbery/Donnelly mob.
* Friedkin wanted the car crash in the Elizabeth NJ prologue to look as real as possible. Twelve cars were destroyed before the stunt was deemed satisfactory.
* The film's location shooting was estimated as so costly Universal studios partnered with Paramount pictures to share expenses. Friedkin and producer David Salven (who was his associate producer for "The Exorcist") had frequent clashes regarding the various expensive location shoots. Friedkin eventually fired Salvin and took the producer credit for himself.
* The film was originally supposed to be shot in Ecuador for the jungle scenes but when that was deemed too expensive it was moved to the Dominican Republic a virtual military dictatorship at that time. The town in the film is Alto Gracia. Soon after the film was finished the town erupted in real life riots (reflecting a scene from the film) when the president nullified an election that he lost to a liberal candidate. The riots spread to neighboring villages forcing the president to step down.
* The oil fire was created by pumping up thousands of gallons of No. 2 diesel fuel as well as raw propane into the air ignited. Once the fire started it was so hot that no one could get within fifty feet of it.
* Despite its look, the rope bridge was actually quite elaborate in its construction and contained numerous safety devices as well as hydraulic lifts in order for the special effects crew to manipulate it into motion. It cost one million dollars to build. After it was completed, the original river for the scene (in the Dominican Republic) went almost completely dry for the first time in its history due to a drought. The bridge had to be torn down and a new location in Tuxtepec Mexico was found. The bridge had to be rebuilt at the cost of another one million dollars. However once again at the new location the raging river started to dry. The crew had to put a 24 hour guard around the bridge because the superstitious locals threatened to blow it up believing it was the bridge/intruders that caused the river to become shallow. By the time filming began the water was only 18 inches deep and looked completely nonthreatening. The crew didn't have the time or the money to find yet another location so Friedkin decided to add an artificial current and rainstorm (using helicopters/wind machines and men on towers with giant hoses.) The bridge itself was so rickety that despite the safety precautions the truck (often with an actor inside of it) slid off the side and into the shallow water five times during rehearsals and filming. The entire sequence took three months to shoot. Friedkin stated it was by far the most difficult sequence he ever filmed in his career.
* Due to the various delays with shooting in the jungle (including a hurricane that wiped out a set) the original 15 million dollar budget rose to 21 million.
* The production sound man mixed in an undertone of a tiger roar for the sound of the "Sorcerer" truck and a cougar roar for the "Lazaro" truck. Bow draws across a viola were used for some of the sound groans of the rope bridge. The film's only academy award nomination was for best sound.
* Friedkin made sure he had final cut on the film's domestic release but did not specifically request it for the foreign distribution. As a consequence the opening prologues were either cut, greatly shortened or incorporated into the body of the picture as flashback for the film's foreign releases.
* The film was so anticipated that the week of its release the lines at Mann's Chinese Theater were around the block. By the second week the crowds had completely dissipated to almost nothing. The film only recouped 9 million of its original 21 million dollar budget making it a financial disaster.
* Due to the subtitles at the beginning of the film many theater patrons began complaining, believing that they had unknowingly paid to see a foreign film. In order to alleviate that, special posters were quickly printed up and posted in the theater lobby which stated the following. "YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. To dramatize the diverse backgrounds of the principal characters in "Sorcerer", two of the opening sequences were filmed in the appropriate foreign languages - with subtitles in English. Other than these opening scenes, "Sorcerer" is an English-language film."