Panned and largely ignored on its initial release (although it was up against Star Wars at the Box Office), Sorcerer is a beautiful, brutal and unbearably tense film.
The first half an hour or so is set up, where we learn something of the back story of Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a hitman who pulls off a killing in Mexico, Kassem (Amidou), an Arab terrorist who has just set off a bomb in the middle of Jerusalem, Serrano (Bruno Cremer), a crooked French banker, and gangster Scanlon (Roy Scheider) who has to flee after robbing a church and killing a priest whose brother is in the mob. All four find themselves in the South American town of Porvenir, a dismal place where, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, "men sweat 24 hours a day". With funds low and desperation high, their only way out is to drive trucks full of highly unstable Nitro-glycerine over treacherous mountain dirt roads to help put out a fire at an American owned oil well.
The film takes the same source (the novel Le salaire de la peur) as the 1953 French thriller The Wages of Fear. However, director William Friedkin, who denied this was a remake of the earlier film, stamps his own personal style on to the material with a mix of the documentary realism and stylised imagery seen in The Exorcist.
There is shaky handheld close-up camera work, which bring us right into the chaos and confusion, but Friedkin also seems to anthropomorphise objects. The jungle sometimes feels like a malevolent sentient being, with vines and branches leaping out from nowhere to attack the trucks, and, when viewed from the front with their headlamps glowing in the dark like eyes, the trucks almost have a life of their own, like beasts that the men are riding on an ancient mythical quest. Friedkin is also comfortable with regular passages of non-English dialogue, or even long passages of no dialogue whatsoever, using images to tell the story.
Visually the palette is rich, with blue skies and green jungle backdrops contrasted with fiery orange explosions and the ubiquitous brown mud. Sound also plays a big part in the film, from Tangerine Dream's creepy, gloomy score to the contrasting scenes of noisy chaotic action, and total silence.
The brilliant direction is backed up by a brilliant cast, headed by Roy Scheider, who, despite playing a mafia hitman, brings the same likeable and identifiable everyman quality to his role that he did in Jaws. From the rest of the cast Bruno Cremer makes the most impact, as the suave playboy thrown from a world of luxury and money into one of sweat, toil, desperation and poverty. These are people trapped by location and circumstance of their own making.
The other character is that of the landscape itself, which suffers as much as any of the people, both from the trucks ploughing through trees and churning up mud, and the fires and pollution of big business.