For Criterion Consideration: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer

When one thinks of iconic Criterion releases, many people will mention (rightfully so) the 2 disc edition of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. It was a film with a lofty reputation, one that people had on top 10 lists, influential to many filmmakers and they packed a ton of supplements as well, giving a well rounded package to a worthwhile film. This being a For Criterion Consideration article, I look for films that have been forgotten, out of print or dumped on DVD with a horrible pan and scan edition that most cinephiles would scoff at. That is why I’ve chosen William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, his own remake of The Wages of Fear. A film I feel, in some ways, surpasses the original Clouzot classic. I might be a bit mad, but I’ll explain myself. I think I even have a few people in my camp for this film.

The year was 1977 and William Friedkin was coming off of his huge hits The French Connection and The Exorcist. He got backing from both Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures with a budget of $22 million. Walon Green, the writer of the classic Sam Peckinpah western The Wild Bunch, was on board to write the script. Looking for the perfect fit for the starring role of Jackie Scanlon, he went to many of the top actors in Hollywood to see if they were interested in the film, such as Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson and Steve McQueen, who he wanted in the role of Scanlon in particular.

As history shows, McQueen loved the script but didn’t want to leave the country or his wife Ali McGraw, so he passed at the offer and Friedkin instead got Roy Scheider (who had just worked on the films Jaws and Marathon Man the previous two years). Friedkin also got Francisco Rabal to be in the film, who he had tried to get originally to play the villainous Alain Charnier in The French Connection after seeing him in the soon to be Criterion release Belle de jour but instead got Fernando Rey, another Spanish actor from other Luis Bunuel films (he passed on Rabel because he couldn’t speak English that well). He also got the fantastic French actor Bruno Cremer, Ramon Bieri, Joe Spinell, Peter Capell (who I’ll always see as the tinker in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Friedrich von Ledebur and Karl John (who sadly died that same year) to round out the ragtag group of characters.

The difference in the plot for both films is that in Sorcerer, the four main characters are criminals as opposed to working stiffs in a town that work has dried up. But the journey of these men, travelling through insane trials and trying not to die while transporting tons of explosives to stop an oil fire is the essential point in both films. This journey that desperate men will take in order to make a load of money to escape where they are is prevalent in both and that’s why I look at both films as essential viewing when it comes to showing how humanity can be at its lowest and what some men will do to leave their past behind.

With some of the most harrowing sets in a film, especially the suspension bridge scene involving the truck which will make you gasp for air, wondering how it will come to end, still electrifies myself and anyone I show it to and just builds upwards to this crescendo of tragedy that one can’t easily shake. If you’re familiar with either film, you’ll understand what I’m eluding to, but I don’t want to ruin it for those who have never seen it. And with an amazing soundtrack (I don’t care what anyone says) by German band Tangerine Dream taking us on their ride, how could this film ever fail? Oh right, there was a small film called Star Wars that came out a month before that stopped it in its tracks and like the explosives in the truck, made it a bomb as well. One wonders if it was the other way around. Not to say this film would have done hundreds of millions of dollars, but George Lucas’ film was a phenomenon and when people demanded more screenings of Skywalker and company, Sorcerer was pushed out much faster than the usual studio fare.

It’s a film I want people to finally see in its original intended format. Not the disgusting pan and scan full screen DVD that has been in print for years. It feels as if there’s a hidden gem that has been buried by the bad press over the years (Scheider had a terrible relationship with Friedkin because he took out a subplot that showed his character in a more sympathetic light), people saying it pales in comparison to the original The Wages of Fear and the fact that it bombed at the box office which makes the film ready for a proper unveiling. First off, I’d love a beautiful remastered print, with William Friedkin sitting in and making sure it’s to his liking. He’s also willing to record commentary tracks, which his tend to be insightful and full of great stories. Considering this was his favorite film that he made, I would think the stories would be plentiful. Sadly most of the actors have passed on but I’m thinking there has to be some vintage interviews with some of the actors, especially Scheider. Which brings me to hoping a great retrospective about Roy Scheider would be made for this dream release, with friends, colleagues and various other people who knew the man. And if they could obtain the Tangerine Dream soundtrack to include as well, that would be an amazing extra to have with this release.

In closing, I just want to say how much I love Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. But I simply adore Friedkin’s Sorcerer. I really believe this film has not been given the chance it deserves to shine on in the collective masses of cinephiles the world over. The tension this film holds within its two hour running time are some of the most intense scenes ever put to film and everyone should take the time and give this film another look. It’s growing in cult status over the years and let’s not let the whole remake stigma take over the fact this is just good film making from one of the greatest directors in the business. And perhaps with this release, maybe a few other Friedkin films could make their way into the Criterion collection. One can dream, can’t he?

We also have a special Three Reasons video made exclusively by Robert Nishimura from Primolandia Productions for my hope of a Sorcerer release. Please take the time and look at the fantastic work he did and also for future installments of For Criterion Consideration in the near future.