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On Wages of Fear and Sorcerer

by Tim Applegate

Tim Applegate is a poet and freelance writer in western Oregon. His poems regularly appear in various national publications. He is also a frequent contributor to the online film journals Kamera and 24 Frames Per Second.

Begin with the brilliant cinematic premise: to extinguish a refinery fire, four desperate men stranded in a squalid South American town are hired by an oil company to transport two truckloads of nitroglycerine over three hundred miles of treacherous mountain terrain. If the men succeed - if, in other words, they manage to survive - they will be paid enough to escape the godforsaken country they find themselves in.

In 1953 the acclaimed French director Henri-Georges Clouzot used this premise, based on an original novel by Georges Arnaud, to craft a picture often hailed as one of the greatest suspense thrillers of all time. At the time of its release, Wages Of Fear was widely praised by worldwide critics and garnered numerous international awards, including the Grand Prize at Cannes. The movie greatly influenced future filmmakers - Peckinpah, for example, refers to it in both Straw Dogs (1971) and The Wild Bunch (1969) - and over time its reputation has, if anything, grown.

In 1977 William Friedkin, fresh off the critical- and box-office successes of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), remade Wages Of Fear as Sorcerer, a film panned by many leading reviewers and a resounding failure at the box office.

And yet in retrospect Sorcerer now seems unfairly maligned - it too is a visually dynamic thrill ride - while Wages Of Fear, for all its admirable qualities, is not without its detractors (Godard, for one, thought it inferior).

The flaws in both pictures are impossible to ignore, and yet each succeeds at the most elemental level of cinema: they ratchet up the tension to the snapping point.

The original U.S. print of Wages…clocked in at a succinct, tightly focused 127 minutes. Then in 1999 the Criterion Collection released the 148-minute director's cut on DVD. The extra twenty-one minutes take place early in the film, in the backwater town of Los Piedras. The four men who will eventually helm the two truckloads of explosives are introduced, as well as some of the townspeople.

Unfortunately, only a few of these early scenes - a confrontation in a tavern between two of the drivers, for instance - truly engage us. In similar fashion to Coppola's ill-advised Apocalypse Now Redux (2001), many of the restored scenes in Wages…simply feel unnecessary: instead of propelling the story forward, they slow it down. It takes an enormous ego - and prodigious talent - for filmmakers like Coppola and Clouzot to project their artistic visions onto the screen, and sometimes ego betrays judgment. In both of these pictures, less is arguably more.

The original version of Wages…was cut by a U.S. distributor who feared adverse reaction to its negative portrayal of a corrupt American oil company.. (How quaint, in the era of Iraq and Halliburton, that such a tame exercise in anti-Americanism would even raise a brow.) Ironically, the European distributor of Sorcerer also deleted, without Friedkin's permission, twenty-eight minutes from the original print, in the process destroying whatever narrative cohesion the picture may have had. Unlike Wages…, the first half of Sorcerer fills in the back-story of the four drivers: in separate, well paced vignettes, we discover why the four men are holed up in Los Piedras. Without this buildup, European viewers must have been mystified. No wonder the movie bombed.
In both films Los Piedras is a harrowing vision of poverty and squalor, Paradise Lost. A man without legs scrabbles across a dusty road. The workers are housed in filthy hovels. The heat is oppressive. When an oil refinery explodes, the townsmen who worked there are carried home in body bags. And when the lure of fast cash is dangled in front of the four expatriates, they grab at the chance, even if it ends up costing them their lives. Los Piedras is the existential end of the line, hell on earth, and the men will do anything to escape it.

In Wages…two of the drivers (Yves Montand and Charles Vanel) are French, and the script cleverly pits them against each other. Montand is the dashing, sensitive counterpart (more than once, he admits his mortal fear) to Vanel's macho posturing. When the journey through the mountains begins, though, Montand quickly proves his mettle while Vanel suffers a crippling loss of nerve. It's a classic treatise on the limits of physical bravery, and Vanel's portrait of a man overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom is extraordinary, easily the finest performance in either film.

In Sorcerer, Roy Scheider plays Scanlon (a role originally conceived for Steve McQueen), a small-time gangster on the run from the Mob. Scheider has always been a workmanlike actor, a solid professional, and his laconic presence anchors the film. Yet only Scheider and Bruno Cremer, as a once-wealthy French businessman, register onscreen. The roles of the other two drivers are severely underwritten. When one of the trucks explodes, killing two of the men, the viewer's emotions are disconnected. In Wages…the same scene has much greater impact; not only is the sequence perfectly directed (the explosion occurs suddenly, unexpectedly, in a beautifully framed long-shot) but unlike in Sorcerer the viewer has an emotional attachment to these men. As one of the survivors, Montand puts a brave face on, but along with the audience, he too mourns.

Despite their narrative shortcomings, both films are models of white-knuckle suspense. In the last three decades the seminal German band Tangerine Dream has scripted a number of memorable film scores - listen, for instance, to their stunning accompaniment to Michael Mann's Thief (1981 ) - and Sorcerer benefits greatly from their insistent, synthesizer-driven rhythms. As the music builds to a crescendo, Scheider's truck arrives at a rickety bridge deep in the jungle in the middle of a tropical storm. By now, there is no turning back, and as the truck inches across the bridge, the tension is nearly unbearable.

It's an astounding technical sequence, a cinematic marriage of light, music, rain, camera movement and editing. Later, when he finally completes his journey across the mountains, Scheider - pale and ghostlike - staggers through a landscape Goya, or Colonel Kurtz, would have recognized. As every fatalist knows, the end of the road is not paradise, it's purgatory. And even though Scanlon has survived, he is still - and the final shot confirms this - among the walking dead.
By the late '70s Friedkin had access to film technology (not to mention an almost unlimited budget) Clouzot could only dream of. And yet nothing in Sorcerer can quite match the physical intensity of the second half of Wages… Proving that all the money in the world cannot replace solid filmmaking, Clouzot shot the mission through the mountains in long, straightforward takes, and half the fun is in knowing that the stunts we are seeing are real.

As one of the trucks teeters precariously on a wooden platform high above a dry canyon, the wood begins to buckle, and then one of the wheels smashes through the rotten planks. The fear on Montand's face at that moment is palpable, but he steadfastly holds onto the steering wheel, even as Vanel flees in shame. Midway through the journey Montrand and Vanel discover a broken pipe spewing oil across the road. When the truck loses traction, Vanel slides into the pool of oil to secure a chain to the chassis. And when the drivers encounter a huge boulder blocking the road, they devise an ingenious scheme to detonate the boulder with one of the containers of nitroglycerine. In a movie filled with heart-stopping set pieces, this may be the most stunning sequence of all.

Remaking classic movies is a slippery proposition, and Friedkin's decision to reinvent a film as good as Wages Of Fear may have seemed daft at the time - how do you improve such a powerful, inventive picture? The answer, of course, is you don't. But unlike many remakes whose only consideration is financial (if magic struck once, perhaps it will strike again), Sorcerer is an authentic homage to a movie Friedkin dearly loved. To gain Clouzot's permission to remake Wages…, Friedkin told the older director that Sorcerer would never be as good as the original, a self-fulfilling prophecy that nonetheless does not diminish Sorcerer's considerable strengths.

But in hindsight it now appears that Sorcerer was, on a smaller scale, Friedkin's Heaven's Gate (1980), a modestly conceived picture that grew into a financial behemoth (the movie's original 2.5 million budget ballooned, by the end, to 27 million, a gargantuan figure for the time). After Sorcerer, Friedkin would never again be given such singular control over a picture, and never again would he reach the artistic heights he scaled so effortlessly in the '70s.

Like Coppola, Friedkin took his camera crew to the jungle and never quite returned. The Golden Age of Hollywood in the '70s - the era that produced such dark masterworks as The Godfather (1972), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Taxi Driver (1976), and Badlands (1973) - was over. In its wake, Hollywood turned back to the type of escapist entertainment the auteurs of The Golden Age had so blatantly ushered out. Easy Rider (1969)) was replaced by Star Wars (1977), Raging Bull (1980) by Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981). The juvenilization of American movies had, once again, begun.