‘Sorcerer’ – a dark odyssey through the jungle on Criterion Channel

In William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), four men hiding out in a grimy South American village who agree to drive two trucks with unstable dynamite in the back over 200 miles through the jungle.

If that sounds familiar, it because it’s a remake of Henri George-Clouzot’s survival thriller The Wages of Fear, and apart from a lengthy prologue that introduces the men and the crimes that sent them into hiding, it’s quite faithful even as it brings an entirely different aesthetic to the odyssey. Friedkin gives the jungle a primal quality, an aliveness that makes their journey feel like a trip through an alien world waiting to swallow them up. The trucks themselves become characters in the film; the title Sorcerer is actually the name of one of the old trucks, which are practically reconstructed by the drivers for the trip.

In contrast, the men are oddly without dimension, apart from Roy Scheider’s New Jersey mobster Jackie Scanlon, who takes the name Juan Dominguez in his underworld witness protection plan. A gangland wheelman in his former life, he’s the driving force (so to speak) in grinding through the challenges of the overgrown road: a fallen monster of a tree, cliff roads almost washed away by monsoon rains, a terrorist band hiding in the jungle. The most grueling sequence takes us creeping across a rotting suspension bridge over roaring whitewater rapids. It creaks and groans and snaps with each roll of the tire over the failing structure. And it’s all there on camera. No CGI involved. It is riveting.

Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, and Amido fill out the international team of criminals on the run who roll the dice on this convoy for a payday that will enable them to escape from their jungle prison. Walon Green, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Wild Bunch, adapts the novel by Georges Arnaud and the score by German electronic outfit Tangerine Dream—their first soundtrack for an American film—helps set the otherworldly tone. Their music is used sparingly but their slow but insistent rhythm and electronic tones (unique at the time and still quite effective) is the film’s defining sound. In fact, the sound earned the film’s only Oscar nomination.

It was a dream project for Friedkin, who used the clout after the back-to-back successes of The French Connection and The Exorcist, but the film—which was released the same month as Star Wars—was an expensive flop. It was only years later that it was reassessed as a dark masterpiece in its own right.

Sorcerer was unavailable to see for years due to a legal morass surrounding the ownership. William Friedkin spent years trying to untangle the rights, finally suing to force the studios to clear up the legal issues, and supervised a restoration, mastered from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative, that screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2013 before going to home video. That restoration is the basis of streaming and disc versions now available.

Rated PG

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Sorcerer [Blu-ray]
Sorcerer (Booklet Edition) [Blu-ray]
Sorcerer [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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