Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
SPOILERS FOR SORCERER AHEAD
The William Friedkin movie Sorcerer begins with a series of standalone sequences establishing the backstories of its four principal players. First, we meet Nilo (Francesco Rabal) as he silently assassinates an unnamed figure in Veracruz. Next, we’re introduced to Kassem (Amidou) as he participates in a bombing in Jerusalem followed by a separate vignette establishing Victor Manzen (Bruno Cremer) as a wealthy man in Paris, France who abandons his extravagant life under the threat of being arrested under criminal charges of fraud. Finally, we come to New Jersey, where a group of crooks rob a church. Everyone in the operation ends up perishing in a car accident save for driver Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), who proceeds to flee to the Latin America village of Porvenir.
Walon Green’s screenplay kicks Sorcerer off not only by introducing the numerous lead characters of this production but also by establishing the bleak tone of the entire movie. By setting these individual sequences in such vastly different locations, Green makes it clear that Sorcerer operates in a world where anguish is everywhere. No matter what continent you go to, there’s bound to be some form of suffering. To boot, the very first scene showing Nilo quietly murdering a man immediately makes it apparent that the specter of death is an inescapable presence in life. Are these ideas bleak? Extremely so. Do they manage to make for compelling cinema under the direction of William Friedkin? Also affirmative.
This grim atmosphere also informs the primary mission that unites these four morally corrupt lead characters. Instead of some kind of noble quest that promises redemption, Scanlon, Manzen, Kassem and Nilo are brought together because a wealthy company doesn’t want its nearby oil operation to keep losing money. With an oil well exploding, the only way to rectify the situation is old dynamite that can only be properly transported by way of automobiles. This is where the quartet of protagonists come into play as they’re hired to take two jeeps and transport the dynamite safely to the oil well. In the end, they’ll get money and visas. This is a practical assignment that everybody is participating in for personal gain.
Sorcerer then depicts the lead characters struggling to navigate all kinds of challenges that they face on the road back to the endangered oil well. All the while, Sorcerer demonstrates the sort of qualities that make its somber tone captivating rather than draining. For one thing, Green’s screenplay allows for small moments to transpire that allow the viewer to understand the distinct personalities and motivations of each of the lead characters. Though they’re all figures who spread and experience constant misery, they’re not interchangeable individuals. There’s plenty to differentiate Nilo from Scanlon, for example, and those sort of vividly-defined differences make their interactions together on the road so fascinating.
Also helping to make the downbeat atmosphere so richly-realized is the impressive filmmaking on display. This is especially apparent in the pair of scenes depicting each of the jeeps crossing rickety bridge during a rainstorm. It’s astonishing to watch these sequences play out knowing that no modern-day visual effects wizardry was used to accomplish such elaborate set pieces. These are actual vehicles inhabiting real environments, there’s no sense of artificiality to the proceedings. That lends a tactility to the scenes that make the peril of these characters so absorbing. Just as important to the success of these sequences is basically every other aspect of the filmmaking process. The camerawork, the editing (the precise timing of the cuts in the second jeep sequence are especially masterful), the acting, all of these elements come together to make the danger feel so immediate.
Watching these jeeps trying to make their way across that ramshackle bridge, I was totally astonished These are the kind of well-crafted scenes that remind you why movies are such wonderful creations in the first place. Even better is the fact that, though these serve as the best scenes of Sorcerer, it’s not like everything afterward feels anti-climactic. On the contrary, Sorcerer continues to provide propulsive intensity stemming from how just how well Green and director William Friedkin have established the random cruelty of this universe. No matter how long Sorcerer goes on, its brilliantly-rendered gruesomeness continued to shock me, including with the beautifully-executed demises of Kassem and Victor.
Even after all the carnage Sorcerer has delivered, the deaths of these two figures shocked me to my core. This can be attributed to Green’s excellent decision to have their demises be so random, they don’t get heroic self-sacrifices or even perish at the hands of villainous characters. A blown-out tire and some rough terrain end up sealing their doom. These chilling deaths reinforce what those opening scenes of Sorcerer established; grisly horrors exist anywhere and can emerge at any time. It’s a theme that’s managed to linger in my mind long after Sorcerer finished and the same can be said for the haunting scene where Scanlon, the sole survivor of the mission, returns to the burning oil well grubby, near-mad and with no vehicles. Standing there as a shell of the man while a towering fire illuminates his silhouette against the night sky and Tangerine Dream’s eerie score plays, Sorcerer once again displays its gift for capturing the darkest and emptiness parts of the human experience. This is truly a remarkable film that deserves far more love than it’s received.