Pondering William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer”


I am endlessly fascinated by William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer.” Last week, it was presented at Amherst’s Screening Room, and I wrote a bit about the film, and its unique history, for the Buffalo News Gusto blog (buffalo.com).

William Friedkin released his autobiography a few months ago, and in it, the director of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” spends as much time on his more troubled efforts as he does on the successes that launched him to international prominence. Chief among these disappointments is the film that sent his career plummeting down from the stratosphere, “Sorcerer.”

Opening one month after “Star Wars” in 1977, Friedkin’s remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French classic “The Wages of Fear” was a colossal flop. It was a deliberately paced, downbeat story of four men hauling nitroglycerin in South America. It lacked a major star (Steve McQueen passed on the project; Roy Scheider was eventually cast). And then there was the title.

“I was listening to an album by Miles Davis called ‘Sorcerer,’ with driving rhythms and jagged horn solos that characterized Miles’s band in the late 1960s,” writes the director in “The Friedkin Connection.” “We painted the word Sorcier (French for ‘Sorcerer’) on the other truck, and I later decided to call the film ‘Sorcerer,’ an intentional but ill-advised reference to ‘The Exorcist.’ The original title I’d proposed was ‘Ballbreaker.’ ”

“Ballbreaker” might have been a better bet. But in the following decades, “Sorcerer” has been embraced in film geek circles as a neglected masterpiece. The difficulty in finding a quality version of it to watch only added to its allure.

Now, nearly 40 years after its release, “Sorcerer” is back with a Friedkin-approved Blu-ray, and the film screens at 9:15 p.m. on June 14 and at 7:30 p.m. on June 17 in the Screening Room Cinema Arts Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst). Like Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” it’s a film that deserves reassessment.