Steamrolled by Star Wars, the director's grim follow-up to The Exorcist remains an intense highlight of '70s American moviemaking.
y now, it's basically gospel that Star Wars ended the 1970s renaissance of American cinema, bringing to a close that miraculous decade of starkly unsentimental studio movies for adults. Whether it's ever been totally fair to place the sea change of a whole industry on the shoulders of one fluke hit (or two, if you want to put the blame on Jaws  as well), there's no denying that George Lucas' offbeat space opera did kill one movie that perfectly embodied the gritty, physical spirit of New Hollywood. Anyone seeking a sign that the glory days were numbered could find it in the total obliteration of William Friedkin's Sorcerer, which had the bad luck of hitting theaters right after Star Wars in the summer of '77.
Sorcerer replaced Star Wars at Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood; it lasted one contractually mandated week before they went ahead and brought Luke Skywalker back. The movie, a giant flop, must have looked to audiences like the anti-Star Wars: a pitiless thriller, terrestrial in both the human scale of its drama and in the way terrain itself becomes the enemy. There's little hope, new or otherwise, in the veritable suicide mission it depicts. And while Lucas crossed whole star systems in a blip, Sorcerer followed heavy, monstrous trucks rumbling through the jungle as slowly as possible, lest they jostle the unstable explosives they carried.
The premise comes from a French novel previously adapted into the 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller The Wages of Fear. That movie is a classic, and hard to top, but Friedkin, coming off the one-two punch of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) —(consecutive hits whose success he'd parlay into an expensive international shoot)—, made the material his own. Its malarial intensity begins with the exhilarating prologues, plural, which leap across the globe via vignettes that efficiently introduce the main characters: a Mexican assassin (Francisco Rabal) laying low after a hit; a Palestinian militant (Amidou) narrowly escaping arrest after a terrorist attack; a French businessman (Bruno Cremer) facing fraud charges; and a Jersey gangster (Roy Scheider) on the run from a rival crime family.
The men all converge in a remote Colombian village, drawn together less by destiny than mutual desperation. Sorcerer unfolds a bit like a heist movie where the motive is pure back-against-the-wall survival, set against a 1970s capitalistic world both literally and figuratively on fire. The first half of the film establishes the conditions, economic and existential, under which any reasonable person would ever agree to the big job at hand: transporting several boxes of unstably stored dynamite, all "sweating" highly volatile nitroglycerin, across nearly 300 miles of inconsistently paved land. Hit one bump in the road and the cargo goes spectacularly "boom."
Friedkin—who kept making interesting, intense movies up until his death this past August (his final film is set to posthumously premiere at the Venice Film Festival)—always knew how to wire characters and audiences alike to an explosive scenario. Sorcerer literalizes that gift: By its second half, every inch the plot moves could result in calamity. Friedkin dabbles in pure visual storytelling, counting on his images and the sweaty faces of his actors to convey more than dialogue. He tracks the action with a procedural attention to detail, lingering on the labor of banging together a truck from spare parts, clearing a path through foliage, carefully hauling combustible crates using ropes and rocks. On the continuum of men-at-work movies, Sorcerer bridges the camaraderie of Howard Hawks with the sinewy professionalism of Michael Mann (whose own thrillers the film anticipates via the very first Tangerine Dream soundtrack).
Cluzot arguably got more, well, mileage out of the premise than Friedkin does. The Wages of Fear compounded the logistical challenges, showing how going too slow might be as fatal as going too fast, and making the trucks' proximity to each other another source of potential doom. But Sorcerer has its own stomach-churning power: Friedkin emphasizes the looming size and weight of those trucks as they barrel precariously along. The sequence involving the crossing of a rotting rope bridge, immortalized on the original poster, is an all-time spectacle of nail-biting suspense: You feel every fray and sway in your bones—maybe because the director did it for real, in a safety-be-damned stunt that ended up costing the production $3 million.
Expenses and location changes added up as crew members left or were fired. Costly reshoots took Friedkin off schedule, over budget, and into the self-proclaimed domain of Herzogian folly. Sorcerer, along with Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven's Gate (1980), put a budget-busting punctuation on the '70s heyday of daring, uncompromising American movies. Going forward, Hollywood would chase the lucrative popcorn appeal of Star Wars and show less inclination to fund ambitious, adventurous visions; the collision of these two movies in June of '77 could be seen as one turning point for studio priorities.
After Sorcerer, Friedkin's days as a hot commodity in Hollywood were over. The film caught bad reviews and worse box office, prompting Universal to void its contract with him. The misleading title, which promised more supernatural thrills from the director of The Exorcist, left some feeling hoodwinked. So did that opening stretch of on-the-lam introductions, which featured little dialogue in English; some ticket buyers reportedly demanded refunds, believing they'd been tricked into going to see a foreign film. Mostly, though, Sorcerer was probably just a victim of bad timing—it had the misfortune of landing in the blast radius of a phenomenon. It wasn't just that everyone was going back to see the same big movie, it’s that Star Wars may have rewired their very expectations of what a movie could give them.
Yet Sorcerer remains a brilliantly infernal machine, a nerve-wracking epic of death and destruction. It pushed the rough-and-tumble cynicism of the era's big crime pictures to a new extreme of apocalyptic urgency. If so much of '70s American cinema was defined by the life-and-death maneuvers of anti-heroes, Sorcerer took that fatalism to an elemental endpoint: four bad men creeping forever forward on a dangerous road, death always one wrong turn or blown tire away. In their precarious predicament, Friedkin conveyed the tension of a whole world in danger of exploding. No wonder audiences preferred Star Wars: It took their minds off a still-burning fuse.
Sorcerer is available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Apple TV, and Vudu.
A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor based in Chicago. His work has appeared in such publications as The A.V. Club, Vulture, and Rolling Stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.