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Sorcerer (1977): one of the best thrillers of all time

I have always believed in the saying that ‘if you watch what everyone else is watching, you’ll think what everyone else is thinking.’ I’ve always been disgusted with intellectual stagnation, so I tried to avoid immersing myself in only what was popular. That philosophy allowed me to watch a film as old as Cavalcade, which was the Academy Award-winner for Best Picture back in 1933. (I don’t recommend watching that film: it’s a slog, and not even Noel Coward’s screenplay could save it. It’s probably among the worst Best Picture winners I’ve seen.) Most of the dated films I’ve seen were most definitely not as bad.

This scene was immaculately and painstakingly filmed. I was blown away with how it was executed - in 1977.

This scene was immaculately and painstakingly filmed. I was blown away with how it was executed – in 1977.

Casablanca still remains to be one of the most well-written and well-acted films I have seen, even though it was initially shown in 1942. Sorcerer also lies in the opposite spectrum from Cavalcade. It’s one of the best films I have seen. It was directed by William Friedkin, who is better known for his Best Picture-winning French Connection, and his seminal horror, The Exorcist. As I wasn’t and still am not into shock-horror films, I abstained from watching Exorcist. (I do watch films such as The Night of the Hunter and The Shining, however.) Because I was fond of thriller films, I watched The French Connection. It was merely a bonus that I saw the talented Gene Hackman play as an anti-hero instead of his later villainous roles. It was a good film then, and is a good film now.

Sorcerer, however, is a better film in my opinion than French Connection. Although Roy Scheider was never a notable a leading man as Gene Hackman was, Sorcerer had a more engaging and well-wrought story. It was a truly gritty, well-directed and well-acted thriller: Wikipedia even revealed that due to its close-quarters filming back in the 1970s, stuntmen were not utilized much: most of the stunts were performed by the leading actors themselves. The director contracted malaria after filming the movie. It was as manly as any film could get.

Despite its merits, however, few people know of the film nowadays. Why is that?

The answer is simple: it came out during the same year that Star Wars came out. The 1970s marked the period where people transitioned from enjoying films featuring earthly suspicion and paranoia toward the more iridescent space operas. I think Sorcerer was among the latest attempts by a talented and well-awarded film-maker to ground a picture in realistic cynicism and bleakness. We all know what happened to Star Wars: there’s even a movie coming out later this year! Sorcerer, on the other hand, was left in the lurch. Only fans of good thrillers or great cinema search for it: I only stumbled it when I had already seen most of the notable 1960 spy films.

The plot of the film is simple. Four down-and-out men belonging to the lower depths in different societies somehow end up in Nicaragua. They live sordid lives there, and wish to get out. There are almost no options left until an oil well explodes, and the oil company searches for four desperate, daring men to carry nitroglycerin to stop the fire. (This is probably where the saying ‘fight fire with fire’ came about.) Things don’t get any easier when these men have to traverse through the forests of Nicaragua with such terrible terrain: exaggerated vibrations can cause nitroglycerin to explode.

Though the film’s first hour may be slow to people used to watching Michael Bay films, the explication and build-up is worth it. By painting the four major characters with the desperation they need to tackle such a suicidal job, the gravity of their job is magnified. The second hour makes up for it with a number of suspenseful, taut sequences depicting their struggle to successfully deliver the goods. The four major characters certainly do not disappoint, and Roy Scheider was at his absolute best here.

I recommend this film to movie-watchers looking for a cerebral thriller with a dash of social commentary, as well as to those who are simply fond of well-made films. I am not exaggerating when I say this ranks among my top 5 films. To me, it really is THAT good.