Hell is empty, and all the devils are in Porvenir. This impoverished and hopelessly remote South American village is where the world's most loathsome refuse seems to wash ashore. Newly arrived to Porvenir are the likes of Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), a wheelman whose gang knocked over a Catholic church and shot a dangerously connected priest. Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is an aristocratic Frenchman whose scheming drew all the wrong kinds of attention and torpedoed a century-old investment bank. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a dead silent hitman from Mexico...Kassem (Amidou) a terrorist from the Middle East. They fled to Porvenir, as so many others had before them, seeking an escape from imprisonment or death. Instead, they find something far worse. The only work available is with an American oil concern. The work is grueling, the poverty wages they're offered are often heavily skimmed by the local police, and there's no chance of amassing enough cash to fund an escape. Porvenir is where the damned suffer and die.
A terrorist bombing suddenly blasts open a window of opportunity. A critical oil well is engulfed in flames, and the only hope of extinguishing the fire and capping the well in time is through the well-placed use of nitroglycerin. The only available crates of dynamite, however, have been poorly cared for and are highly unstable. With more than 200 miles separating the nitro from the well fire, no rational helicopter pilot would risk his neck to transport it in these tumultuous skies. The oil company does have at its disposal men who are desperate enough to undertake such a journey on the ground. The promise of a small fortune awaits them: more enough to escape Porvenir and start a new life elsewhere. All they have to do is load the volatile nitroglycerin into their rickety trucks, carve a path through a couple hundred miles of largely untamed jungle, and make it to the oil
Nevermind that Sorcerer is often mentioned in the same breath as Heaven's Gate, scoffed at as another lavishly expensive boondoggle that rang the death knell of New Hollywood. Sorcerer is, simply put, a masterpiece. Having invested years into his first film following The Exorcist, William Friedkin directs with supreme confidence. The storytelling doesn't march in lockstep with convention, repeatedly bounding across the globe at the outset. The core of the story remains unclear throughout this lengthy series of prologues. The majority of these sequences are subtitled, not to mention oriented around exploitative and/or murderous characters whose plights engender no sympathy. The central figures of Sorcerer are introduced in the midst of committing unforgiveable acts, earning the revulsion of the audience from word one. They're given little-to-no backstory beyond what we glimpse in these early moments, and as this isn't the sort of film where characters stand around and talk about their feelings, characterization is driven largely by body language, facial expressions, and actions. The South American backdrop of Sorcerer is arguably the film's most central character. Friedkin and his team take tremendous advantage of the location photography, ensuring that Sorcerer feels as if it was lensed on a wholly unfamiliar world. The remoteness, the crushing poverty, the filth, and the unforgiving jungle lend the world of Sorcerer an astonishingly authentic quality, one into which viewers are readily immersed. In much the same way as Fitzcarraldo a few years later, that no doubt helps to shape the exhaustion seared across the faces of its cast.
Though it is smarter, more daring, and more artfully crafted than most, it can't be ignored that Sorcerer is, at its core, a hell of a thriller. The very premise of the movie -- transporting highly volatile crates of nitroglycerin across more than two hundred miles of punishing jungle -- ought to be an indication of how unnervingly and unrelentingly suspenseful it can be. Sorcerer is so intense that I couldn't possibly stay perched on my couch, releasing some of my nervous energy by pacing around the room as I watched. The standout sequences of Sorcerer are set on a rope bridge that seem as if they could barely support a 150 lb. man slowly crossing its expanse, let alone trucks weighing many tons and carrying such dangerous cargo. The sight of one of the trucks swinging perilously on the bridge as it sways during a torrential storm may be the most gruelingly intense I've witnessed in any film from any era.
Despite being better appreciated now than it was nearly four decades ago, Sorcerer remains a largely undiscovered treasure. It's beyond thrilling to at long last be able to experience such an exceptional, daring film with the sort of presentation it so richly deserves. As essential a release as is likely to arrive in 2014 and very Highly Recommended.
In a word...? Extraordinary.
Boasting a new 4K restoration, Sorcerer is achingly gorgeous on Blu-ray. I found myself consistently in awe of the clarity and detail on display, to the point that the screenshots featured here can't possibly do this world-class remaster the justice it deserves. There isn't the faintest trace of wear, damage, or speckling. Contrast remains impressively robust throughout, lending Sorcerer a pronounced sense of depth and dimensionality. Its filmic texture has been retained on Blu-ray, showing no signs of being smeared away by overzealous digital noise reduction. Despite the fact that Sorcerer's fortieth anniversary is looming not terribly far off on the horizon, this Blu-ray release belies the film's age by quite a number of years. Marvel at the lush foliage and the vivid, orange flames in the screenshot below, for instance:
Some complaints have been raised that Sorcerer's palette is at times oversaturated, but to my eyes, it's a natural, comfortable fit. This Blu-ray disc certainly doesn't skew orange and teal the way other revisionist remasters have, nor do the colors come across as jarringly experimental as they did throughout William Friedkin's poorly received re-envisioning of The French Connection. In fact, Sorcerer is so stunning on Blu-ray that it can be distracting. I repeatedly found myself so awestruck by its visuals that I'd have to rewind and focus on the storytelling instead.
To be fair, Sorcerer's photography can be somewhat erratic. As dazzlingly crisp and overflowing with fine detail as the image so often is, a number of moments are hazy and swarming with film grain. This in no way should be considered a flaw with this Blu-ray release, and it's greatly appreciated that Warner Bros. and whoever else was involved in the restoration didn't see fit to fix something that wasn't a problem in the first place. I'd even argue that since the variable quality often comes at moments that are frenzied and disorienting that it's ultimately an asset, serving to ratchet up the intensity. Although I very much feel that this reflects the way Sorcerer ought to appear, the presence of such variations still ought to be noted in a review like this. One extreme case-in-point has been provided below:
There's really only one misstep made by this Blu-ray release of Sorcerer, and that would be its lackluster bitrate. The two hour film and its 24-bit lossless soundtrack have just under 20 gigs at their disposal. Limited to an average bitrate of 18 Mbps, it's remarkable how ably the AVC encode shoulders the challenging, filmic texture of Sorcerer. The strain is apparent at times, though, even if only those of us sensitive to this sort of thing are likely to notice:
Though I certainly would've traded the inessential digibook packaging in favor of a more substantial bitrate, this breathtaking presentation of Sorcerer otherwise leaves precious little room for complaint.
Sorcerer arrives on a single-layer Blu-ray disc. This is the first ever widescreen home video release of the film, offered here in proper high definition at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
Presented in DTS-HD Master Audio in 24-bit, 5.1 surround sound, Sorcerer is nearly as much of a feast for the ears as it is for the eyes. The sound design is wonderfully atmospheric, from the bustling streets of Jerusalem to the torrential South American downpours. Sorcerer's dialogue is rendered remarkably well, at its best sounding part of a film many years more recent than it actually is. The clarity of most every element in the mix is outstanding, not marred by any hiss, background noise, or the slightest flicker of distortion. The use of the surround channels is so comfortable that at no point does Sorcerer come across as just another remix, instead feeling natural and tremendously immersive. Even some of the pans across channels, such as city traffic tearing across the soundscape, never seem forced or gimmicky. Bursts of gunfire, one particularly violent car wreck, and a slew of explosions seize hold of the subwoofer to greatly varying extents, but the most intense of these are reinforced with an astonishingly resonant low-end.
There is a line between remastering and reimagining, though, and some have argued that Sorcerer crosses it. This is the first home video release of the film that I've owned, so I can't claim to have the same intimate familiarity that some of the Blu-ray disc's critics can. It's been said that some of the original sound effects throughout Sorcerer -- gunfire, in particular -- have been replaced. One entirely new sound effect has been introduced into the final moment of the film, latching onto an event heavily suggested offscreen but still somewhat ambiguous and making it far more explicit instead.
To my ears, the sound effects throughout Sorcerer don't strike me as sounding distractingly revisionist, and my limited familiarity with the film beforehand dulls the impact of the newly-introduced effect at the end. If I hadn't stumbled upon discussions about all of this on various message boards, I honestly don't think it would've occurred to me
A Dolby Digital 2.0 dub in Spanish (224kbps) has also been included. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.
There aren't any bonus features on the disc itself at all: not even so much as a theatrical trailer.
All of Sorcerer's extras are physical in nature. The digibook it's packaged in has been adapted from William Friedkin's memoir. Though it's not a substitute for a proper retrospective or feature-length audio commentary, it's candid, informative, and entertaining just the same. I especially enjoyed hearing about the collisions between fantasy and reality in the prologues as well as the execution of the unnervingly intense stunt sequences. A letter from Friedkin has also been tucked inside the digibook.
The Final Word
Initially dismissed by critics, ignored by audiences, and saddled with an indifferent shrug on home video till now, Sorcerer has at long last been lavished with the exceptional presentation it deserves. A more extensive special edition would've readily earned DVD Talk's highest rating. Despite the lack of extras, it's such a thrill to at long last have one of the most masterful and criminally overlooked films from the 1970s on Blu-ray that this release still comes very Highly Recommended.