Sorcerer (1977): Friedkin’s Remake of Clouzot’s Masteriece, Wages of Fear

After striking Oscar gold with the 1971 Best Picture for The French Connection, and box-office gold with the 1973 The Exorcist, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, divided critics and was a commercial failure vis a vis its considerable budget.

The film’s title derives from the name of one of the trucks, and the film was a remake of the superlative French classic, The Wages of Fear, helmed by Clouzot and based on the novel by Georges Arnaud.

The plot depicts four outcasts from varied backgrounds in South American village, where they are assigned to transport cargoes of nitroglycerine.  The film’s first part is devoted to establishing the violent backgrounds of the main characters before they embark on an extremely dangerous trip with their trucks.

The drivers, played by Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Amidou and Francisco Rabal, are hired by the oil company boss because he urgently needs the nitro to fight a growing fire.

The production took nearly a whole year, with the film beinh shot largely in the Dominican Republic and central Mexico, but also in Paris, Jerusalem, New Jersey, and New Mexico.

By standards of the time, the film’s budget was huge (about 20Reports are the fil could have gone as high as $21 million.

The story has a strong existential feeling, desperate men staking their lives on a nearly suicidal mission because they have no other way of making a living.

The journey, which occupies the feature’s second half, is thrilling due to the obstacles that the trucks encounter, causing tension, hysteria and panic among the men.

Curiously, the narrative feels distant and cold, even when it describes the adventures of its protagonists: Scheider’s involvement in a New Jersey robbery, Cremer’s in a French bank scandal, and Amidou in an Arab terrorist incident.

The Variety review was perceptive when it noted: “Friedkin vividly renders the experience of several men driving trucks loaded with nitro through South America, yet the characters are basically functional.”

Sorcerer was originally conceived as a modest project to Friedkin’s next major film, The Devil’s Triangle, with a $2.5 million budget. But the director later opted for a bigger production.  The cost of Sorcerer was earmarked at $15 million, escalating to $22 million, due to a troubled production with various locations and conflicts between Friedkin and his crew.  The mounting expenses required the involvement of two studios, Universal (domestic) and Paramount (internationally).

The film gained mixed to negative critical reception upon its release. Its domestic and foreign gross of $5.9 million and $9 million respectively, didn’t recoup its costs. Some attributed the film’s commercial failure to its release at the same time as Star Wars, which became a blockbuster and pop-culture phenomenon.

Over the years, the film has been enjoying a critical re-evaluation, with some critics lauding it an overlooked masterpiece. Friedkin considers Sorcerer as his best and personal favorite work.

In the UK, the film was retitled and cut to 92 minutes, by eliminating most of the flashbacks.

Oscar Nominations:

Best Sound

Reel Impact:

The electrnic score of Tangerine Dream was also acclaimed, and the band became popular soundtrack composers in the 1980s

Produced and directed by William Friedkin
Screenplay: Walon Green
Camera: John M. Stephens, Dick Bush.
Editor Bud Smith
Music: Tangerine Dream
Art Director: John Box