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Critic’s notebook

Restoring the magic of Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’

Roy Scheider in a scene from William Friedkin’s 1977 film “Sorcerer,” finally being rereleased after years of litigation.
Roy Scheider in a scene from William Friedkin’s 1977 film “Sorcerer,” finally being rereleased after years of litigation.Universal /Paramount

Three strangers have escaped the consequences of their crimes and have fled to a squalid Latin American cesspit. They want to escape again, because their place of refuge is worse than what they are fleeing. To do so they must accomplish a deadly task — driving trucks full of explosives across 200 miles of jungle road.

That is the premise of Henri-George Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (1953) and of William Friedkin’s 1977 reinvention, “Sorcerer.” Most critics (many now repentant) dismissed the latter, indignant that Friedkin, director of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” dared tamper with Clouzot’s revered original. Audiences rejected it, too, put off perhaps by the misleading title (it doesn’t refer to the supernatural, but is the name of an all too mundane rust bucket truck). Or maybe it was the first 10 or so minutes of non-English dialogue with subtitles.

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More likely, though, the fact that it opened about a month after “Star Wars” was what doomed the project, a coincidence that symbolized the new blockbuster mode of moviemaking usurping the short-lived age of the auteur.

Since then, ‘Sorcerer’ has gained in stature. Far from imitating Clouzot, Friedkin’s film maudit shows the director at his most brilliant and original. Now, after years of litigation over the rights, the film can be seen again, restored to its original glory.

Like “The French Connection,” “Sorcerer” begins with disparate narratives occurring simultaneously in various exotic locations – a cheap hotel in Veracruz, a busy street in Tel Aviv, a posh banking house in Paris, and a bingo game in a Catholic church in Elizabeth, NJ. Each episode climaxes with abrupt acts of violence. In the aftermath of the New Jersey caper, getaway driver Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider; Steve McQueen was Friedkin’s first choice for the part, but Scheider brings to it the precise balance of resignation and determination) asks a friend for help. His friend provides him with a fake passport and a ticket to “somewhere nobody wants to go.”

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For good reason. Few towns have been depicted on the screen with such loving, aestheticized squalor as Porvenir; it makes the Devil’s Island accommodations in “Papillon” look like Club Med. Soon the quartet of refugees recognize their common situation, especially after the greasily venal local cops start shaking them down. When the American oil company that owns the town (corporations here are seen not as the cause of a fallen world, but a symptom) seeks drivers to transport the lethal cargo, the four volunteer.

The long torturous journey, like a slow-motion version of the car ride in 2013’s lauded “Locke,” allows plenty of time for bickering, soul-searching, begrudged solidarity, and harrowing performances. Unlike “Locke,” though, “Sorcerer” also includes moments of excruciating suspense and spectacular peril — a crossing over a collapsing rope bridge for example — that demonstrate the futility of trying to substitute 3-D for genius.

As the trek continues, torrential rain and increasingly diabolical obstacles obstruct their mission, and the four become identical in their mud-caked, troglodytic misery. Gradually a tingling sense of unreality overtakes this consummately realistic film. Perhaps the elusive, uncanny soundtrack of Tangerine Dream brings this about, or maybe it’s Friedkin’s juxtapositions of close-ups and stark long shots of the tiny trucks lost in jungle or desert landscapes, but “Sorcerer” eventually seems to be happening someplace not of this world. Not hell, exactly; maybe Limbo. How lucky for us that this great film has emerged from its own limbo and can be seen once again.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.