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,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.