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Escalating costs and the well publicized strife between director and crew poisoned the public reception of Sorcerer (1977). It took years for Sorcerer to find its audience and carve a place for itself in the popular canon of classic films of the seventies. This was largely achieved by positive word of mouth once Sorcerer was available on video-tape and later DVD. Today the critical reappraisal of Sorcerer is complete and can often be found on “best of” and “personal favorite” lists of critics and Letterboxd users.

Director William Friedkin is no stranger to such reappraisals or a delayed reception. Sorcerer, like Cruising (1980), was blacklisted by audiences not because of the film itself but rather its journey to the screen. As stated above Sorcerer experienced numerous budget problems and turmoil amongst the crew. But Friedkin, to his credit, saw the film through with the same determination as the film’s protagonists. Sorcerer is a literal feat of filmmaking not dissimilar to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). Friedkin was ever the student of Henri-Georges Clouzot which accounts for his perfectionism, stubbornness, and obsessive desire to complete a film.

Yet, to characterize Sorcerer as a remake of Cluzot’s Le Salaire de la peur (1953) is to totally misunderstand Friedkin’s intent. Sorcerer is more an homage to Cluzot than a remake. Friedkin adapts the same source material (Le Salaire de la peur) but with his own unique touch that, while influenced by Cluzot, remains singularly his own. In this way Sorcerer is a companion film to Le Salaire de la peur with whom it is always in a direct intertextual discourse.

Friedkin’s version of Georges Arnaud’s classic novel reimagines the text as a statement on American industrial imperialism seen through the lens of the fractured nationalist psyche of the immediate post-Vietnam War era. The nihilism and suspense of Cluzot’s film are present but the queer coding and in depth characterization are discarded to bring these uniquely American themes into sharper focus. For Friedkin Le Salaire de la peur is a fantasy representation of the internal spiritual crisis represented by Roy Scheider’s character which itself is a reflection of its contemporaneous historical moment.

This element of the fantastque exists covertly in the gritty images of the world Friedkin presents his audience. Sorcerer may look like a social realist piece akin to so many of the New Hollywood pictures of its time when in actuality it is as dynamically expressive as Fritz Lang’s Das indische Grabmal (1959). The rope bridge, the smiling native, and the hallucinatory finale are all broad gestures motivated by the iconography of the popular imagination arranged to askew their signified meaning into something far more self-destructive than escapism. These jingoist images become the hell-scape that American culture cannot escape.

The score by Tangerine Dream reiterates this subtle quasi-unreality with wild punctuations of synths that piece a soundtrack dominated by the hums and gurgles of a diesel engine. Friedkin has correlated every aspect of Sorcerer to fold the fantastique into the realistic. This endeavor turned Sorcerer into one of the great subversive masterpieces of the seventies. The ambiguity of where reality and the human conscious begin and end would only be pushed further by Friedkin in Cruising, linking these two box office failures irrevocably.