Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Sorcerer (1977)

This month’s review is a guilty pleasure. Like a large chocolate fudge sundae. But more violent. If you considered movies such as Alien, The Terminator, and Predator to be mere juvenile mayhem, stop reading this review now. If you considered them juvenile mayhem, and still had a good time, stay with me. When William Friedkin’s Sorcerer was first released in 1977, probably the nicest thing anyone said about it was that it was merely juvenile. I mean, the critics even hated the title. Had they been able to send Friedkin to bed without supper for a month, they probably would have. And the public was no kinder. Many of them were also confused by the title. They thought they were going to a sequel to Friedkin’s The Exorcist, the projectile vomiting horror-rama that had shell-shocked audiences 4 years earlier. They went into Sorcerer expecting demons & priests battling it out for human souls, and they got …..trucks. Two trucks. Really old trucks. Jury-rigged out of parts from scrap heaps. Looking about as good as the Crawford Bay school cat after a haircut. Two trucks and four drivers. Four drivers willing to do anything to escape a nameless piece of hell somewhere in the remotest jungles of Central America. The four: a professional hitman (Francisco Rabal), a small-time American hood (Roy Scheider), a young Arab terrorist (Amidou), and a once-wealthy French industrialist (Bruno Kramer).

Two trucks, four drivers …..and a cargo of 6 cases of TNT and liquid nitroglycerin.

Oops. Forgot something. That’s 2 trucks, 4 drivers, 6 cases of nitro…..and 218 miles of BAAAD jungle road. One might be tempted to consider all of these ingredients as adding up to a great recipe for serious mayhem. Absolutely right.

Not that I’m a sucker for just any kind of mayhem. Although I’ve easily rationalized my appetite for generally mindless action movies as the result of a warped childhood (I had a G.I. Joe doll, a life-sized plastic M-16, and a bunch of toy soldiers), I’ve just as easily forgotten most of those movies as soon as I’ve popped the tape out of the machine or walked out of the cinema. Sorcerer was a rare exception. Images and scenes from this film have lingered with me since I first saw it some 12 years ago. I doubt I’ll ever forget that business on the rope bridge.

Friedkin took a classic adventure story, slammed it into high gear, and overlaid it with an aura of sheer spookiness. It’s the spookiness I always remembered. Maybe that’s why he chose the title he did. The old trucks, backlit with engines grinding, look and sound like wounded carnivores on loan from the Jurassic. The Mussolini-like profile of the latest dictator stares out like Big Brother from posters plastered on the walls of the nameless behavioral sink the central characters are trapped in. This is the Latin America of the Disappeared, the Death Squads. Of Corruption and Cockroaches Triumphant.

And the Jungle, with its birds of prey wheeling overhead and its grim Mayan/Aztec/Toltec stone gods staring though the undergrowth, is a vast alien entity unrelentingly hostile to outsiders.

The eeriness is amplified via some strange geography and a musical score created & performed by the German band Tangerine Dream (“the somber, meditative end of the pioneering German electronic space-rock void”—Rolling Stone Album Guide). The sound pulses throughout the film like a heartbeat and a curse. Toss in Keith Jarrett’s “Spheres (Movement 3)” and Charlie Parker’s “I Remember April” and the brew gets even stranger.

Sorcerer never loses the steamroller urgency it builds up in the opening scenes, which slam through Vera Cruz, Jerusalem, Paris, and New Jersey. It’s a real tribute to Friedkin’s skill that you still wind up caring for the four main characters after what you first see those scumbags do. We’re all suckers when it comes to empathy. Make the situation bad enough, stack the odds up high enough, and we start feeling sorry for the devil himself.

A lot of critics hated Sorcerer because it was a Hollywood remake of a classic French film: Le Salaire de la Peur (Wages of Fear) (1952), directed by Henri Clouzot. Although in his lifetime Clouzot was the target of attacks more bitter than anything Friedkin faced over the Sorcerer debacle, it is a given of the movie review business that Hollywood remakes of classic French films always stink. For all you Star Trek fans out there, this is the critics’ equivalent to one of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. And 95% of the time it’s correct. I didn’t projectile vomit when I saw what was done to Three Men and a Baby (originally Trois Homines et un couffin), but it was a near thing. Sorcerer is a five-percenter. It is dedicated to Clouzot’s memory, does him justice. It was a great story when Clouzot adapted it from George Arnaud’s novel; it’s still a great story when Friedkin updates it to fit a Central America that became a killing ground in the closing decades of this century.

I’ll even tell you how the movie ends.


Perfectly Deadly.

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

I’m just going to crib what I wrote in this section for Andrey Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train: Yeah, still kicks serious ass. ‘Nuff said.

By a happy coincidence, Gabriel Bell just posted a review of Sorcerer on “The brilliant film ‘Star Wars’ wiped from our collective memory.” It’s here:

Movie Information

Genre: Action / Adventure / Thriller
Director: William Friedkin
Actors: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou
Year: 1977
Original Review: June 1994


24 movie soundtracks you need to hear

An offering from that’s self-explanatory. The first few titles give an idea of the variety of Noah Berlatsky’s choices: R.D. Burman, “Apna Desh” (1972), A.R. Rahman, “Taal” (1999), Pritam, “Dhoom 2” (2006), Pierro Umiliani, “La Ragazza Dalla Pelle Di Luna” (1972), Ennio Morricone, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1966), Carl Stalling, “Rabbit of Seville” (1950), Duke Ellington, “Symphony in Black” (1935). Each selection is accompanied by a video clip. No one falls in love with movies without falling in love with movie soundtracks. I won’t say that Ennio Morricone is God, but with 522 credits as a composer there’s got to be some divine intervention involved.


This is actually a subscription-based streaming video service. I’ve included it here because the home page links you to free articles and short video clips relating to cinema. As I’m writing this, there are articles on “Hollywood Goes to War,” “How Movies Handle Trans Awareness,” and “Have a Freudian Field Day With Spider Baby.” Video essays cover superimposition, The Grand Budapest Motel, and Amy Adams. The movie page for the site also allows you to browse through genres, a good way to make some new discoveries. I looked up the subgenre “martial arts” under “action/adventure” and found Master of the Flying Guillotine, Disco Godfather, Story in Temple Red Lily, and Kebab Connection.

Films Worth Talking About:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, Carrie, Providence, Fellini’s Casanova, Mr. Klein, Man of Marble, [One Sings, the Other Doesn’t], Annie Hall, The Lacemaker, Star Wars, A Special Day, That Obscure Object of Desire, Death is My Trade (Aus Einem Deutschen Leben), Outrageous, Cross of Iron, Eraserhead

The Bigger Picture

Films: Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) (1953), Runaway Train (1985)


Books: Harlan Ellison, “Along the Scenic Route”

The Word on the Street

“Sorcerer is a unique, brutal, brilliant film burdened underneath a terrible, wholly unappropriate title. Watching this film, it is not only easy to see why the film was both a huge financial and commercial disaster, it is downright obvious. This is the most un-american/ hollywood/ commercial film backed by a major studio I have ever seen. It is a tough, gruelling 126 minutes that goes nowhere fast, yet holds you firm in its tight grip and beats you senseless throughout. I was exhausted when the film finally arrived at it’s rather downbeat ending. The multi-national cast is faultless. Scheider is magnificent.”


“This film should be viewed by every CG-obsessed film maker to show what can be done in the real world to bring back real organic suspense.”


“There are a number of factors put forward on why Sorcerer failed at the box office. The title itself is a classic case of misdirection, the name given to one of the trucks in the story, it conjured up images of mystical and magical dalliances, it’s safe to say that the film is a million miles away from that sort of genre. It also went up against the box office monster that was Star Wars, in comparison, and Friedkin readily admits this, it’s dwarfed in production scope and cross demographic appeal. Then there is the matter of the “cut” version that did the rounds, where almost thirty minutes were chopped to allow more showings in theatres, without Friedkin’s permission, the resulting film was a travesty of Friedkin’s vision. Lead man Scheider, who is terrific, didn’t want to promote the film, such was his anger at Friedkin cutting a subplot involving his character being shown in a sympathetic light. Have to say the director was right in keeping it grim.
Also there’s the Clouzot’s factor and his version of the Arnaud novel released in 1953. Much beloved by many a critic as some sort of sacred cow of French cinema, Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear is a very good film, but hardly a masterpiece. Looking back at some of the reviews upon Sorcerer’s release, it seems that some big critics of the day wanted to appear cool by lauding from the roof tops about a foreign movie and how it shouldn’t be remade. Weird really since Sorcerer isn’t a remake, it’s an interpretation on Arnaud’s source. Inspired by Clouzot? Undoubtedly, but it’s not remaking his movie. They moaned about the good hour of build up, calling it slow, but I’m sure I remember it rightly that Clouzot’s movie does the same thing, and that didn’t have Friedkin’s fluid camera and Tangerine Dream laying hypnotic synthesisers all over it….we may hanker for deeper character interaction as they traverse the perilous terrain, but this isn’t about bonding, it’s about men risking their lives for freedom and redemption. It beats a black heart and never once cops out.”