One of the great commercial disasters of the 1970s deserves a proper home video release.

By the middle of that decade director William Friedkin had already directed two of the major films of that decade.

The French Connection (1971) was a ground breaking crime drama, which won 5 Oscars (including Best Director and Best Picture) and ended up as the second highest grossing film of that year.

Whilst The Exorcist (1973) was a cultural sensation which was the highest grossing film of its year and ended up being nominated for 10 Oscars.

In career terms Friedkin was up there with Coppola as one of the princes of the New Hollywood era.

His follow up film was Sorcerer (1977), a thriller which reworked the basic premise of Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s The Wages of Fear (1953).

The premise sees four criminals from around the world (Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou) accept a highly dangerous job transporting explosives across Nicaragua.

What gives the journey extra tension is that the dynamite they are carrying is highly sensitive and can easily be detonated if subjected to shock or vibrations.

The production was an unusual collaboration between two major studios, with Universal taking domestic rights and Paramount international.

After an arduous shoot on location in the Dominican Republic, it died an absolute death at the US box office, grossing a measly $12m on a reported production budget of $24m.

Coming just a month after the release of Star Wars (1977), its failure seemed to symbolise the death of the New Hollywood era and the rise of the tent-pole blockbusters that would take over.

But how does Sorcerer hold up today?

Whilst not exactly a lost masterpiece, it still contains some brilliant set-pieces and is definitely worthy of a restored version.

The audacious opening is remarkable: taking in several countries it explores the backstory of the four leads and how they came to end up on the run in South America.

But the film really kicks into gear when the perilous truck journey begins.

Two sequences are outstanding: one involving two trucks on a suspension bridge is a master class in tension, whilst another involving a blocked road is a brilliantly assembled set-piece.

There are also other things to savour: a hypnotic electronic score by Tangerine Dream, great use of real locations, some fine, world-weary performances and a memorable ending.

Part of the ongoing mystery of this film is why it failed so badly: did the studios effectively kill it before it had a chance? Did Friedkin upset powerful people in Hollywood?

Perhaps its pessimistic view of mankind at odds with the elaborate fantasy George Lucas had just unleashed on the world.

Roger Ebert said at the time that it was one of his favourite films of 1977 and wondered why it didn’t get a better release.

One aspect that puts people off to this day is the bizarre title, which is especially strange given that Friedkin’s previous film was called The Exorcist.

Some audiences might have been forgiven for thinking that this was a film along similar lines, especially as the credits shared the same font and the opening of both films feature creepy stone carvings.

Friedkin has said that the title came from a scout visit to Ecuador (where he had originally planned to shoot), where he noticed that trucks that were given names, including Sorcier (French for ‘Sorcerer’) and Lazarus, which he wrestled with for the title.

Both were better than his his original choice of ‘Ballbreaker’, which prompted the head of Universal Lew Wasserman to say: “are you fucking crazy?!”

Perhaps rights issues have also got in the way of a decent home release, with neither Universal or Paramount willing to devote the necessary time or money for a restoration.

The last official DVD release is from 1998 and it is unfortunately cropped to 4:3, even though it was originally shot in 1:85.

This is a hangover from the VHS era where some directors – such as Friedkin – preferred their widescreen films to be shown ‘full-frame’.

Earlier this year in a Q and A at the American Cinematheque, Friedkin hinted that he might do a Blu-ray release after he’s finished working on his latest film Killer Joe (2011).

It certainly is a film which has its admirers, most notably Stephen King who wrote an Entertainment Weekly column in 2009 singing its praises:

“Desperate men with nothing to lose set out in a truck convoy through the South American jungle. Their cargo is rotting dynamite sweating nitro, stuff so unstable the least bump may set it off. The original, Wages of Fear, is considered one of the greatest movies of the modern age, but I have a sneaking preference for Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake. Roy Scheider had two great roles: Chief Brody in Jaws and Jackie Scanlon in Sorcerer. These films generate suspense through beautiful simplicity.”

Screenwriter Josh Olsen is also a big fan of the film, as he describes in this Trailers from Hell video and hosted the aforementioned Q and A with Friedkin back in January.

With widescreen now ubiquitous in the home, perhaps it is time for a proper release of Sorcerer.

> Sorcerer at the IMDB
> William Friedkin at Wikipedia and MUBi

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-ray: The Exorcist

William Friedkin’s classic 1973 film finally gets the Blu-ray treatment from Warner Bros with a disc filled with features.

One of the truly great films of the 1970s, it was adapted by William Peter Blatty from his bestselling novel about a young girl (Linda Blair) in Washington D.C. possessed by an evil spirit.

When her distraught mother (Ellen Burstyn) can find no answers from the medical profession, she turns to a local catholic priest (Jason Miller) and an ageing exorcist (Max Von Sydow).

A box office sensation at the time, it scored several Oscar nominations and became something of a pop-culture phenomenon.

In the UK it has a special aura, as Warner Bros decided to stop releasing it on home video after the ‘video nasties’ scare of the mid-1980s and it only got a re-issued years later in 1999.

A further special edition followed in 2000, with 11 minutes of extra footage trimmed from the original theatrical release.

The film is a victim of its own success, as some modern audiences find certain effects (notably the pea soup vomit) dated and that it doesn’t quite live up to its considerable reputation.

However, The Exorcist is much more than just a horror film. A disturbing drama about the breakdown of a family, the loss of faith and the presence of evil, it taps in to deep, universal fears which even the very best horrors don’t even touch.

Coming off the Oscar winning success of The French Connection, Friedkin was at his creative peak and the realistic approach to the material made for a visceral and riveting experience.

The lead performances are uniformly excellent: Burstyn embodies parental anguish; Blair is remarkable as the possessed youngster; Miller gives a quiet dignity to a priest haunted by guilt; and Van Sydow has tremendous presence in the title role.

For the Blu-ray, Warner Bros have included both versions in a two disc set.

I prefer the original theatrical cut, which feels tighter and more polished, but the additional sequences are interesting to compare.

The image quality of the transfer is excellent and certain scenes looks stunning for a film that is thirty-seven years old.

Friedkin attracted some serious criticism for the Blu-ray of The French Connection, where he altered the colour of the film, even prompting cinematographer Owen Roizman to label it as ‘atrocious’.

Here they seem to have made up and in the liner notes Friedkin states that this Blu-ray was:

”color-timed by the cinematographer Owen Roizman and myself and represents the very best print ever made of ‘The Exorcist”.

Certain sequences have a pristine clarity to them and it is a great showcase for Roizman’s cinematography, which is filled with memorable compositions and images.

Warner Bros Home Entertainment has been forging a reputation as the best studio when it comes to re-releasing classic films and the extras on this disc are plentiful.

It includes all the material from previous DVD versions, such as the audio commentaries and 1998 documentary The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist.

The most notable addition is the a 3-part documentary on the film’s production and legacy, featuring on-set footage shot by Owen Roizman, along with as ‘personal message statement’ from Friedkin and a 40-page digi-book with photos and essays.

The full list of extras breaks down like this:

Disc 1: – Extended Director’s Cut (2000) plus Special Features

  • Commentary by William Friedkin
  • Raising Hell: Filming the Exorcist – set footage produced and photographed by Owen Roizman, camera and makeup tests, and interviews with director William Friedkin, actress Linda Blair, author/screenwriter/producer William Peter Blatty and Owen Roizman (new; Blu-ray exclusive)
  • The Exorcist Locations: Georgetown Then and Now – Featuring a tour of the iconic locations where the film was shot (new; Blu-ray exclusive)
  • Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of The Exorcist – with director William Friedkin and author/screenwriter/producer William Peter Blatty discussing the different versions of the film and featuring outtakes from the film (new; Blu-ray exclusive)
  • Trailers, TV spots & radio spots from the film’s 2000 release

Disc 2 – Theatrical Cut (1973) plus Special Features

  • Introduction by William Friedkin
  • Commentaries: William Friedkin / William Peter Blatty with Special Sound Effects Tests
  • The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist [1998 BBC documentary]
  • Additional interviews with William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty
  • The Original Cut
  • Stairway to Heaven
  • The Final Reckoning
  • Original ending
  • Sketches & storyboards
  • Trailers & TV spots from the 1973 version

The Exorcist is out on Blu-ray from Warner Bros Home Entertainment on Monday 11th October

> The Exorcist at the IMDb
> Buy The Exorcist on Blu-ray from Amazon UK