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"Despite all the problems and setbacks, bruised egos and shattered friendships, I felt then and still do that Sorcerer is the best film I've made." - William Friedkin

After William Friedkin's career took off with the consecutive successes of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), he used his clout to make a passion project, a reworking of Henri-George Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953) (Friedkin insists that it's not a remake) that he rather abstractly titled Sorcerer, named after one of the two trucks that set out across treacherous jungle roads with a cargo of unstable dynamite in the back.

It was a resounding commercial failure and it took the luster off of Friedkin's golden boy image. Forty years later it's being heralded, at least in some quarters, as an overlooked masterpiece. Distance, along with the film's unavailability for well over a decade, has allowed viewers to return to it with fresh eyes and a better understanding of Friedkin. I'm not part of the "masterpiece" chorus, at least not to the extent of The French Connection, but I find a terrible, beautiful power in the film's primal imagery and almost abstracted conflict of man and nature. Like Apocalypse Now and Heaven's Gate and other passion projects by seventies filmmakers that spun out of control in a perfect storm of ambition, obsession, arrogance, and bad luck, Friedkin's passion and commitment comes through in some superb filmmaking and riveting scenes and stunning imagery.

Sorcerer opens with something that Clouzot's film denies us: introductions to the four men who will take the trucks through the jungles. There's an assassination in Vera Cruz, a terrorist (Amidou) fleeing a Jerusalem bombing, a financial officer (Bruno Cremer) about to be indicted for fraud, and finally the armed robbery a Catholic church collection in New Jersey by an Irish New York gang. Gangland wheelman Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is the sole survivor of a disastrous getaway but he's in the crosshairs of the Jersey mob so he has to get out. He lands in a muddy, grubby, impoverished little village of clapboard shacks in the middle of the South American jungle, connected to the outside world by a packed-dirt airfield. Like the other three men, he's trapped there, sweating his days away in a crummy job and drinking his nights in the town's cantina, too poor to fly out and nowhere to go if he could.

When a guerilla attack on an American oil field turns a well into an inferno blasting out of the earth, these men get their one shot at escaping: a suicide mission driving crates of unstable dynamite (the nitroglycerin has seeped into the casing) across 200 miles of primitive jungle road to the oil field. Four men make the cut in driving auditions (Jackie, a professional getaway driver, is a shoo-in) just as a shadowy, improbably well-dressed man (Francisco Rabal) arrives in the village, surely a hit man out for one of the four, but which one? When the mystery man kills one of the drivers, he's drafted into taking his place. We're not even sure if that was his whole plan in the first place, or if he got his man the first time out and inadvertently got pulled into the odyssey.

Once they leave the village they are, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the human world, like pioneers following the ghost of an old trail in rattling trucks practically rebuilt from scraps. Friedkin keeps exposition to a minimum and tells us almost nothing about the men beyond what we've seen in the prologue, making them almost abstract figures in a landscape ultimately defined by nothing but a primal drive to escape the village and survive the trip. It's no coincidence that these men are all foreigners. The overwhelming visual story of Sorcerer is of men trying to survive an alien world. They are outsiders in the village and potential prey in the dangerous yet indifferent jungle, a place that is quick to reclaim man's efforts to carve passage through it.

Friedkin gives the jungle a primal quality, an aliveness that makes their journey feel like a trip through an merciless world waiting to swallow them up, and he makes the trucks themselves as elemental as the jungle, something ancient roused to life to carry the men through this primordial world. The title of the film, in fact, is taken from the name painted across the front of one of the trucks. It's man and machine versus the natural world, a place that is neither Eden nor Hell, simply eternal and implacable. In contrast, the men are oddly without dimension apart from Jackie, who takes the name Juan Dominguez in his underworld witness protection plan. 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, and the suspense showpiece of the film, a slow creep across a rotting, swaying suspension bridge spanning a raging river. It's the opposite of Friedkin's celebrated race under the elevated train in The French Connection, one man driving at a crawl while a spotter scrambles ahead to direct the wheels to the boards that haven't broken away. The scene plays twice, one for each truck, and it's even more tense the second time through as they have to negotiate over the damage left by the first truck.

The score by German electronic outfit Tangerine Dream--their first soundtrack for an American film--helps set the otherworldly tone. Their music is actually used sparingly through the film, with the rumble of the engines, the noise of the trucks scraping through the tight roads, and the sounds of wind and rain and rushing water filling the soundtrack the rest of the time, but their slow but insistent rhythm and at times eerie electronic tones (unique at the time and still quite effective) is the film's defining sound.

The film flopped on its original release and Friedkin, who claims it as the best film he ever made, in hindsight considers any number of reasons for it. The title suggested something supernatural along the lines of The Exorcist rather than an elemental thriller, which may have confused expectations. It's a grueling piece of tension with little overt action. The first fifteen minutes play out in foreign locations with subtitles. The reviews were brutal. And it opened in the wake of Star Wars, which was expanding out from its limited opening to become a national phenomenon, dominating the box office and the popular culture moment. Friedkin had gone millions of dollars over budget chasing his vision and overcoming delays and location problems. He had final cut and he kept it, but the film didn't come close to covering its costs, let alone turning a profit, and due to a legal morass--the film was a coproduction between two studios and neither was sure how the rights were split or cared enough to work out the details--it was kept out of circulation for more than a decade, available solely on home video by an early, long-out-of-print DVD, an edition that simply did not do the film justice.

Friedkin spent years trying to untangle the rights and ended up suing to force the studios to clear up the legal morass. He supervised a restoration, mastered from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative, that screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2013 and played around the country before making its Blu-ray debut in April. The disc looks and sounds superb and Friedkin has made a point of preserving the photographic texture and color of the film, though like previous Friedkin-supervised restorations, he appears to have taken the opportunity to tinker with the color. While most of the film has an exaggerated naturalism, the jungle photography looks boosted and some of the green of the vegetation looks unnaturally bright and verdant. It's initially distracting but is does add a hallucinatory quality to the odyssey.

Back in 2013, when Friedkin first announced the work on the restoration, he hinted (via his Facebook page) that the release would feature a commentary track and other supplements. Sadly, the disc features no supplements beyond a letter from Friedkin and the 40-page Blu-ray booklet with photos, art, and an excerpt from Friedkin's autobiography that covers the production.

While the Blu-ray looks superb, Warner accidentally mastered the DVD version from an unrestored master rather than the restoration overseen by Friedkin and featured on the Blu-ray. Warner pulled that disc and announced a remastered DVD for June 10.

by Sean Axmaker