Sorcerer ★★★★½

William Friedkin goes rather balls to the wall with this unnerving remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic 'The Wages of Fear' (1953).

The prologue of the movie features the backgrounds of our four main protagonists.

We are introduced to the Mexican contract killer Nilo (Francisco Rabal) who has just finished a job, the PLO terrorist Kassem (Amidou) who is on the run after detonating a bomb in Jerusalem, Parisian investment banker Bruno Cremer (Victor Manzon) who has fled the French capital and his family after being accused of fraud and finally Irish mobster Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) who is similarly on the lam after a robbery of a Mafiaso connected racket in New Jersey ends in a cacophony of violence when his fellow outfit members turn their guns on each other.

All four now live under assumed identities and have taken refuge in the fictional Latin American town of Porvenir, the exact location of which is never revealed.

There they live in squalor working menial jobs for an American oil company. Each has aspirations to save enough money so as to emigrate to a somewhere better but with their wages a pittance any hope of this is depressingly remote.

However, a local oil well explodes and the only way of extinguishing the resultant blaze is to use dynamite which has been stored in poor conditions resulting in its nitroglycerin becoming highly unstable.

The four men decide to take up the role of constructing reinforced trucks using local parts and transporting said dynamite 200mph cross country to the oil well in question with the carrot of permanent legal citizenship - which will guard them against extradition - and a large one-off payment dangled in front of them.

With substandard vehicles and a haphazard cargo the men will also have to battle against overwhelming weather conditions and an almost impossible terrain not to mention their justifiable suspicions of each other.

A passion project for Friedkin it was his first picture after his box office mega-hit 'The Exorcist' (1973) and is executed in his very own personable, unflinching and visceral style.

You can almost feel the humidity, blood, sweat and tears dripping from the screen as the director typically pulls no punches.

It's very grimy, very '70s and very William Friedkin.

A frank cinematographic approach from John M. Stephens and Dick Bush is matched well with some uncompromising editing by the duo of Bud Smith & Robert K. Lambert and the performances from a pretty stellar international cast really are all in. By all accounts, most of the stunt work was undertaken by the principal cast themselves with little use of stand-ins so there's no doubting any of the lead's commitment here and it shows.

By the end, Scheider looks genuinely traumatised and exhausted by his character's exertions and indeed later described the shoot of the notoriously troubled production of 'Jaws' (1975) as 'a picnic' compared to the filming of 'Sorcerer'.

For me, this is a classic picture and one of the last of the great '70s golden age of truly original and affecting movies.

Alas, it's greatness and originality was quickly usurped upon its release by the box office smash 'Star Wars' which came out at the same time and blew just about everything else out of the water as it claimed previously unseen box office domination and public admiration.

Not helped by its the somewhat deceptive title which conjured up expectations of another supernatural event similar to Friedkin's previous offering the film was a financial disaster with a production budget of well over $20 million but meagre worldwide box office takings of well under $10 million.

Along with the likes of Apocalypse Now (1979) - another movie with production problems of epic proportions which was also being made at the time - and Michael Cimino's 'Heaven's Gate' (1980) - which was a far more spectacular box office disaster than even 'Sorcerer' - it heralded the end of the New Hollywood period of the late '60s through the '70s that saw young exciting filmmakers progressively given carte blanche to effectively make the films they wanted with gargantuan budgets but little or no studio interference.

For that reason alone its reputation and place in film history is assured but for me viewed purely on its own merits and unaffected by the culture and contrivances of the time it's an outstanding picture full of stark imagery and resonating themes of regret, guilt, desperation, damnation and the hope for salvation.

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