William Friedkin’s follow-up to The Exorcist was Sorcerer, an adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear, which also inspired Henri-George Clouzot’s film of the same name. Friedkin’s version starts in the same dispersed global space as The French Connection and The Exorcist, and devotes its first half to a motley crew of criminals whose paths eventually converge in South America – Jackie, played by Roy Scheider, Serrano, played by Bruno Cremer, Nilo, played by Francisco Rabal, and Kassem, played by Amidou. For the most part, this opening half is pretty austere, moving from story to story, and focusing entirely on the financial, professional and political relationships between these four men, rather than introducing any real emotional or interpersonal dimension. That austerity is paired with a lush and almost hyperreal sense of space, as each setting brims with a sense of global connectivity, thanks in part to our first fleeting glimpses of the Tangerine Dream score, which operates as the synthetic perception needed to discern this emergent global space. While Friedkin moves through several distinct genres – terrorist thriller, financial thriller, gangster film – he doesn’t quite commit to any of them, creating an oddly suspended and distended tone that coalesces around vivid depictions of mechanical movement that become more car-centric as they proceed – an elevator in Vera Cruz, a car bomb in Jerusalem, a series of fluid POV shots from a car in Paris, and a car chase and crash in New Jersey that introduces Jackie as protagonist.
Whereas The French Connection resorted to insatiable wandering, driving, tracking and trailing to evoke this new global connectivity, Sorcerer thus opts for a much slower and denser opening, building one network of gazes after another, and condensing the manic car chases of The French Connection to a single road trip that the four men embark upon to launch themselves back into this global space from its impoverished margins. Halfway through the film, they all face a crisis that lands them in the same South American village, where Friedkin collapses all the narrative propulsion of the first half into a technological sublime that revolves around the American oil refinery annexed to the village. This ushers in the first emphatic appearance of the Tangerine Dream score, which is presented as another technological spectacle in itself – the ultimate technological spectacle – and effectively becomes an auditory emanation of the central oil well, which exists at the cusp between this locally manned factory and the broader sweep of the global oil trade. That makes it a particularly volatile space for all parties involved, and sure enough the second act opens with an insurgence by local workers, who bomb the main derrick, leaving thousands of gallons of oil burning every day with no immediate way to stop this endless leak of US capital into the ether.
Finally, Corlette, an oil representative played by Ramon Bieri, comes up with a solution – deposit dynamite into the well in order to stop the flow, even if it means destroying some of the plant in the process. However, there is no dynamite in the immediacy vicinity, while the nearest dynamite, which is stored in a remote locale, has been sitting in the humid jungle for some time, meaning that it has started to copiuously “sweat” nitroglycerine. This makes it too volatile to transport by air, and almost too volatile to transport by road, but Corlette still manages to convince Jackie, Victor, Nilo and Kassem to band forces and attempt to drive it in two trucks through a series of back roads across the inhospitable jungle terrain. It’s a pretty risky assignment, so the four men only accept it on the condition that they can achieve legal citizenship, and so continue to travel freely abroad, or at least make a better life for themselves as entrepreneurs in their adopted country. As the pivotal link in plugging the oil well, and in their demands to be recognized as legal citizens, the four men occupy and moderate the cusp between local insurgency and global patterns of exchange – an unbearably suspenseful situation that Friedkin visualizes and conceptualizes through the road trip itself.
Even before they leave, the presence of the dynamite throws the minutiae of the truck and surrounding topography into vivid relief, while the nitroglycerine “sweat” quickly seeps into their own sweating, as their bodies are also caught in the unbearable tension and torpor between the microcosmic coordinates of the trip and their global selves – both as they existed in the past and as they are projected into the future. The technological sublime of the oil well, and the Tangerine Dream score, is also condensed to the truck, which in turn becomes a vehicle for the synthetic perception needed to chart this perilous topography between local and global patterns and systems of exchange. In fact, Sorcerer almost becomes a different film once the men leave, as the Tangerine Dream score shifts from an incidental to a monumental register, and the relation between man and machine assumes an epic scope. Friedkin seemed to have exhausted all regular obstacles and trajectories with the chase scene at the heart of The French Connection, so this road journey has to be an obstacle course writ at a sublime scale – and it succeeds, via some of the most breathtaking driving sequences ever filmed. Not only are the obstacles more exotic than in The French Connection, but the stakes are unimaginably higher, as the nitroglycerine continues to sweat, making each stretch of road more perilous than the last, and each bend and turn more unbearably suspenseful.
No surprise, then, that the road trip quickly takes on mythic dimensions, as the car – and camera – seems to be in a constant battle with the elements. Both have to be hyper-sensitive to the slightest change in terrain, or the slightest shift in navigation, as Friedkin joins the group of 70s directors who felt compelled to prove that their camera could conquest the jungle at its most hostile and spectacular. The more embodied and microcosmically present the topography becomes, the more the film seems to exist in a heightened state of suspension, since the men can shift the nitroglycerine – and truck – from side to side, but can’t bring it into friction with any other objects. In effect, they have to transport it as gently as if they were flying, such that the whole trip, and the whole film, yearns for aerial passage – from the first scene when the men are transporting individual cases of nitroglycerine onto the truck, intercut with an eagle soaring overhead, to the sublime helicopter shots of the burning oil well, to Jackie’s repeated insistence on taking the mountain route so they can remain closer to the sky. The moments of greatest risk, but also the passage to safety, tend to occur when the car is suspended in mid-air, culminating with the central set piece, when the truck has to travel over a bridge so sparse that the drivers are effectively suspended over open space, a roaring river beneath them, as semi-sentient trees claw at them, carried along by the current.
All the film’s stories finally converge on Jackie, the only character left alive, as he arrives at a surreal moonscape that is interspersed with a montage of flashbacks to every other major point in the film. In the closing scenes of The Exorcist, Friedkin uses the Georgetown staircase to gesture towards a cinematic possibility he couldn’t quite glimpse in that film, but which seems to have come to fruition here – the optic required to glimpse the devolution of Boomer masculinity into a new distended world space and system of global exchange. As the fulcrum and tipping-point of this exchange, this scene now necessarily takes the film out of the realm of realism, as Friedkin anticipates the lurid dayglo palette of To Live and Die in LA, breaking down the continuity as we cut abruptly to Jackie carrying the final nitroglycerine container towards the oil fire as if to plug the hole himself – the last, staggering step in this primal confrontation between the limits of individual autonomy and a globalized economic domain.
From there, Friedkin moves to a false ending – a sentimental moment in which Jackie dances with a local woman in a bar, confident he could live out the rest of his days back in the village, only to cut back abruptly to the Tangerine Dream score, as an aerial shot returns us to the global surveillance of the opening act as Jackie’s New Jersey enemies finally close in on him. It’s the perfect ending, although it does also beg the question of whether we really needed such an extensive opening, and such an extensive back story for each character, since Sorcerer would have been even more incredible with another hour of the road trip – when all is said and done, the men only spend about forty-five minutes of the running time in the truck. Perhaps that’s where Sorcerer doesn’t quite live up to films like Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo, which both valued the journey through the jungle above all else, since the men are never quite individuated enough to make their dehumanization during the drive especially moving, nor remote enough for the opening act to really reach the austere heights it seems to be striving for either. Call it an average screenplay, then, a screenplay that doesn’t really get the appeal of the material in the same way as Clouzot’s film, but which just happens to be paired with some of the best direction of Friedkin’s career, and the most striking set pieces.