TCM Classic Film Festival: William Friedkin's 'Sorcerer' finally finds an audience

By Daniel S Levine,

Amazingly, it has been two weeks since the first day of the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival, but some of the special events are still fresh in the mind. One of these is the U.S. premiere of the new restoration of William Friedkin's Sorcerer at the TCL Chinese IMAX Theatre, which took place on April 12.

Friedkin attended the screening and made it clear how important it has been to him that his 1977 follow up to The Exorcist has finally found its audience. He brought the key members of the restoration team on the stage and applauded their work. Screenwriter Walon Green was also there and Friedkin made sure he was recognized so he didn't have to shoulder all the blame for the film any longer.

There are a myriad of reasons why Sorcerer was an epic failure at the box office. Many put the blame on Star Wars being released just a week later, keeping Sorcerer out of theaters. But that’s just one part of it. Despite The Exorcist, Friedkin couldn't secure a major star for the three main roles in the film. The biggest star is Jaws’ Roy Scheider, who also appeared in The French Connection. While Scheider was an amazing talent, he wasn’t on the level of Gene Hackman or Steve McQueen.

It’s also the fact that the film’s title may have tricked audiences into thinking it was something it’s not. There is no actual “sorcerer” in this film. The title refers to one of the trucks used in the film and it’s not even the truck driven by Scheider.

By the time the lights dimmed in the theater, most of the audience who hadn’t seen the film had to be wondering if a film with all these issues could possibly be any good. I had not seen the film myself before and it drew me in quickly. Within moments, I knew - this is one film I’m going to be thinking about for a long time.

The plot is based on Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear, which was also the basis for Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 classic of the same name. An international group of desperate men find themselves together in a squalid Latin American town. There, they are approached to drive crates of nitroglycerin to an oil well engulfed in flames. The journey is not easy and, like Clouzot, Friedkin keeps the audience on the edge of their seats for the entire duration of the journey. I kid you not. The moment you think if can’t get any worse for these men, it does.

Friedkin borrowed a lot from Clouzot, though. As in The Wages of Fear, the audience has to sit through 45 minutes before the journey even begins. Clouzot spent that time letting the audience experience the atmosphere of the South American town to understand what drove the group to take on such a challenge. But Friedkin instead decided to show the actual crimes that forced these men to take such a challenge. It’s a different approach, but does the same job.

The fact that Sorcerer features no major stars has helped the film considerably, since Friedkin never has to ask the audience to believe that a person who looked like a glamorous movie star would be forced to such extremes. Schieder’s co-stars - Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou - just look like men who would be desperate for any opportunity to make money.

Sorcerer was released on Blu-ray this week, making it available for the first time in years. It may be over 30 years since its disastrous theatrical release, but it has finally found its audience, proving that some films are just made at the wrong time. With The Wages of Fear also available, we can now go back and compare the two films. But understand that both have its merits and Sorcerer can stand up right next to its predecessor.

You can check out my previous coverage from the TCM Classic Film Festival here.

top image courtesy of Daniel Levine



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