For a moment, between the ascension of Francis Ford Coppola and that of Steven Spielberg, Hollywood’s hottest young director was William Friedkin.
The one-two punch of “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973) made the man nicknamed Hurricane Billy a gale-force talent. The failures of “Sorcerer” (1977), “The Brink’s Job” (1978) and “Cruising” (1980) sent Hurricane Billy out to sea.
Friedkin, 78, never stopped working, and, since a career retrospective at the 2003 Torino Film Festival in Italy, his 21st-century reputation has been in recovery.
Relatively low-budget genre films like “Bug” (2006) and “Killer Joe” (2011) had premieres at Cannes and Venice. The once-reviled “Cruising” re-emerged as a campy cult film, and a positive critical consensus has developed around “Sorcerer,” the action extravaganza that capsized Friedkin’s career.
Released by Warner Home Video on a crisp Blu-ray, “Sorcerer” is hardly the disaster it was deemed when it opened in June 1977, weeks after “Star Wars” reoriented the entertainment industry. “Sorcerer,” too, had a retro quality, but where George Lucas gave the primitive space operas of Depression movie serials and early television a giddy new gravitas, Friedkin updated the most literal-mindedly existential action movie of the 1950s, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear,” a tense, pessimistic French thriller in which four desperate characters drive two truckloads of nitroglycerin across formidably rugged terrain.
“Wages of Fear” is a movie with a slow fuse, and that of “Sorcerer” is even slower. Working from a script by Walon Green (whose screenplay for “The Wild Bunch,” written with Sam Peckinpah, appropriated its opening scene of children torturing insects from “Wages of Fear”), Friedkin uses back stories shot in Veracruz, Mexico; Jerusalem; Paris; and Elizabeth, N.J., to introduce his quartet of dead-enders. More than one-third of the movie has elapsed before the director revs up his narrative engine in the wretched cantinas and mountainous rain forests of an unnamed South American country dominated by a foreign oil company.
Named for one of the trucks, “Sorcerer” has even sleazier characters driving more dangerously decrepit vehicles than those found in “The Wages of Fear.” Nature is also more malevolent; at one point, the trees and vines seem to reach out of the jungle to trap the trucks. If “The Wages of Fear” seemed to have something to do with the atomic bomb, “Sorcerer” is very much a movie about the disaster of its own making.
Although Friedkin had a three-picture deal with Universal, Lew Wasserman, chairman of the studio’s parent company, balked at making a lavish jungle production with Roy Scheider as its only American star; the movie required a second studio. Paramount, owned by Gulf and Western, agreed to help finance “Sorcerer” if Friedkin switched his primary location to the Dominican Republic, a country where Gulf and Western had extensive holdings.
“Sorcerer” was troubled by delays, mishaps and cost overruns. Originally budgeted at $2.5 million, it wound up costing nearly 10 times as much while grossing only $9 million worldwide.
It cost the director his deal with Universal. Friedkin still considers “Sorcerer” his best film; the sequence in which the trucks lurch mid-monsoon across a swaying bridge may be the most elaborately orchestrated of his career.
In his 2013 memoir, “The Friedkin Connection,” he wrote that this “totally realistic” bridge took three months and cost $1 million to build: “It was a mad enterprise and definitely life-threatening.”