Henri-Georges Clouzot, the director of The Wages of Fear (1953), specialized in suspense thrillers and was even considered a rival of Alfred Hitchcock for a time, securing the rights to the source material for his most celebrated film, Diabolique (1955), just before Hitchcock was able to acquire them for himself. Though due to his ill health, and changing fortunes with the emergence of the French New Wave, he was far less prolific than the master. Both this film and William Friedkin’s remake Sorcerer (1977) are based on the Le Salaire De La Peur, the debut novel of George Arnaud, the pen name of Henri Girard, who in turn had developed it from his experiences in South America. Girard had spent nineteen months in prison and was tried for the 1941 murder of his father (a Vichy government official), an aunt, and a servant. He was acquitted in 1943 and proceeded in the following years to spend through a large inheritance before fleeing to South America in 1947 to escape his debtors and be forgotten. He returned to France and published the novel in 1950.
The film opens among among a community of expats in the dusty, isolated South American town of Las Piedras whose only employer is the American firm, SOC, the Southern Oil Company, and yes, Standard Oil Company is to be presumed. These opening scenes recall John Huston’s masterpiece The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) as we observe these down on their luck men, denied work as the company has settled in and brought skilled workers from home, and desperate for any chance to raise the money needed for a flight from the dusty airfield that is the only way out. They idle the boring hours away with infighting and petty insults, scrounging for drinks. This hodgepodge of men features dialogue in French, Spanish, Italian, English, German, and Russian, which gives it the appropriate international flavor. Where Huston’s film used the time to develop the character of the men who would soon find themselves tested by hard labour, loyalty, success, and greed, Clouzot gives little to no backstory to these men beyond Mario, a young Corsican charmer, who is involved with but callous towards Linda, a menial worker at the bar the men frequent. A rather strange, reactionary and sexist character choice, Linda, played by the director’s wife Vera, exists solely to bear abuse stoically and remain devoted to Mario, and despite the peasant drag, her beauty and bearing make her seem like she should be running the place, not scrubbing the floors. Into this mix arrives mysterious gangster, Jo.
Jo, Charles Vanel, descends in a plane and after bribing the customs official to enter the town, runs into and befriends Mario, explaining that he had to flee from somewhere unnamed, without time to even hit the bank and with only enough in pocket to make it there, and though clearly broke, his force of belligerent personality, and perhaps reputation, have the bar owner and the others both deferential, resentful, and fearful of him as he settles in and also tries to find a way out. It is difficult to watch Mario scrape and shuffle after Jo, trying to impress him, increasing his cruelty towards Linda and throwing aside his faithful friends one after the other as he curries favor with Jo, who eats it up and manipulates him. Mario’s naked desperation to tie himself to someone he sees as better than the others, like he likes to think himself, is ugly, but is in my experience sadly true to human nature.
When an oil well 300 miles further inland along the pipeline explodes and burns uncontrollably, the SOC foreman O’Brien, coincidentally an old running buddy of Jo, needs to deliver a ton of nitroglycerine overland to the oil field to blow back the fire. The locals, outraged by the deaths from the explosion and other recent accidents have begun to riot, and O’Brien, in a meeting with other company men, decides that he won’t risk any locals, or union men with their rights and families and financial liability when there is a town full of tramps who’ll volunteer and have noone to complain for them or seek compensation if they die. He does have the decency to reject a suggestion they lowball them and says they’ll be paid a fair price of $2000 apiece and be respected for having the courage to take the job. When the film initially premiered in the US it was trimmed ostensibly for time, it runs 148 minutes, but primarily to remove the perceived anti-American sentiment, (because the right wing corporatist snowflakes have always been with us,) and much of the hour long set up to the drive was trimmed and censored, including the preceding scene. The film was fully restored and finally played unabridged in American theaters back in 1992, the B/W cinematography is fantastic, and it’s in the Criterion Collection.
After O’Brien amusingly tests the many, many volunteers’ driving skills, he selects Mario, along with Luigi, a friend and roommate Mario threw aside when Jo arrived, who has found out that the cement he’s been mixing for construction has filled his lungs and will kill him if he doesn’t stop; Bimba, a German, who when asked later why he is so calm driving on top of the unstable explosives, explains that the Nazis killed his family and worked him to near death for three years in the salt mines and this is easy; and Smerloff, another enigmatic German. Jo is angry he wasn’t chosen, but O’Brien, knowing the danger, tells him he is trying to spare his life, but relents and tells him that he will be the first choice if anyone backs out. When they gather early that next morning, Sperloff is a no show, and the others presume Jo has murdered him.
These four men, Mario and Jo in one truck, Bimba and Luigi in the other, begin their journey and the great extended suspense scenes on which the film’s reputation rest follow. The trucks are each loaded with perhaps two dozen jerry cans filled with nitro, far more than required, but the assumption is that at least one truck won’t make it. They face three main obstacles on their way. First they must cross a 20 mile stretch of road called the washboard, that though graded and finished, has a long portion where the prevailing winds have blown continually across it cutting furrows, and which must be crossed running either at a steady minimum of 40 mph from the start, which prevents hard jostling, or at a crawl of no more than 6 mph. These are mutually exclusive and can’t be exchanged mid run. They must then negotiate a hairpin turn up a mountainside that requires a reverse three point turn onto an unstable wooden platform built out over the hillside, and then further on they come across a 50 ton boulder that has slid down the mountain onto the road, which they ingeniously contrive to destroy with the nitroglycerin. These scenes are all incredibly nerve wracking as a viewer and are all daring impossible seeming stunt work, technically accomplished, and edited for maximum impact.
Beyond these obstacles, the drama is intensified as Jo is revealed early on to be a coward. Despite all the tough talk and posturing, before they even encounter the washboard while still on easy road, Jo pretends to have mechanical problems, and keeps trying to stop for a break. He and Mario are supposed to maintain a safe half hour distance in front as the lead vehicle, but are soon overtaken, which has consequences further along, in particular when portions of the hillside ramp’s rotted wood cracks and disintegrates when Bimba and Luigi negotiate the turn and leave a far more precarious and difficult turn for Mario. Mario struggles with his anger and disappointment as Jo repeatedly fails to be of help and endangers Mario’s life. And as much as Mario wants to abandon him on the hillside, it’s still a two man job to remove obstacles, and someone must exit the cab to provide eyeball guidance through the tough stretches, so he begrudgingly keeps him on with shame and threats of violence. They push on as a broken team, and must overcome one more complex obstacle in a bravura scene of perseverance and determination.
The existential threat of sudden death from the slightest misstep or twist of chance, independent from the driver’s caution or skill, hangs over the film, the unstable nitroglycerin and the unknown vagaries of the road are a metaphor for everyone’s perilous journey towards their own uncertain and perhaps predetermined fate. The ironic final destiny of these four men awaits us all one way or another, and it’s a great journey to take in this exhilarating classic film.
William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) was kind of a holy grail film for me for a long time. I was 11 in the summer of 1977 and saw probably more than two dozen films in the theater that year, our mid size town had two mall multiplexes and a half dozen standalones, including two drive-ins, and my parents were film fans and were cool in that as I was a smart, precocious kid, they took me to R rated films all the time or let me go with my friends and their older brothers, and Sorcerer was really high on my list. Even after I read a review and found out that it didn’t involve actual evil wizards, (in fact, the word is simply painted on one of the trucks,) I was still sure in my heart that some kind of sorcery was involved based on a preview clip, and it had Roy Scheider and was from the director of The Exorcist, and I had to see it. That was the summer of Star Wars though, which opened a month earlier, and Sorcerer came and went in a week before I had a chance to see it. I spent years afterwards occasionally trying to find the film, it was never on cable, and I tried dozens of video stores, and even the coolest video independents never had it. It could be a bitch to find stuff in the pre-internet days. (I did eventually acquire the VHS, which was finally released in 1990.) The film had gone way over budget and there were fights and recriminations and lawsuits and all sorts of drama after it flopped, and Wikipedia has an extensive and thoroughly researched page of incredible facts detailing the film’s casting, tortured production history, location shoots, and critical reevaluation and place in cinema history, if you are interested. Friedkin eventually won control of the film in 2013 and oversaw a digital restoration, and the film was featured at the Venice FF and was released on Blu-Ray in 2014 in the original aspect ratio, I watched that for the first time for this review.
Friedkin dedicates the film to H-G Clouzot, though his adaptation of the novel takes a different approach initially. Rather than the principals being somewhat anonymous, Friedkin leads with vivid location filmed prologues of each of the four men who will become drivers. In Veracruz, Mexico, a man, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) enters an apartment and executes the man within and casually departs. In Jerusalem, Kassem (Amidou) a Palestinian terrorist disguised as a Jew, detonates a large explosive with three compatriots. The IDF hunts them down to their well armed hideout, kills two, captures another, and Kassem escapes. In Paris, Victor Manzon, (Bruno Cremer) a well to do businessman lives comfortably with his beautiful book editor wife. He is called into the Bourse offices and is told that there is a 15 million franc shortfall in his account and fraud has been discovered, and to avoid a scandal, he is given 24 hours to make good with the money or it goes public with criminal charges. His partner fails to secure the funds from his wealthy father and kills himself, Manzon then abandons his wife and Paris. In Elizabethtown, NJ, a four man crew rolls up to a church during a wedding, in the basement they rob a group of clergy tallying up bunches of cash, and bolt with the money while one man shoots a priest. During the getaway, the men argue and the car crashes spectacularly, killing all but Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) who limps away ahead of the cops. He finds out the church is mob controlled and the murdered priest was the chief mafioso’s brother. A hit is out and a friend who owes a favor gets him illegal passage out of the country to a destination unknown.
The camera then pans through Porvenir, a dilapidated, rotting village in the gray haze of a steady rain, the jungle hunches behind the buildings looking to reclaim the land it lost, a prison without walls, with a timeless sense of poverty and persecution, and every available surface is covered with campaign posters or spray painted stencils of a generalissimo type with a fascist black eagle and vague slogans of “unidas hacia el futuro” and “quattro mas anos.” Unlike Wages, we are in Central America rather than South this time, but the village contains the same mix of impoverished locals and desperate, displaced foreigners being treated with equal contempt by the corrupt local officials and the American oil concern. When a distant oil field experiences a massive explosion, beautifully imagined and filmed, a similar truck then returns with the charred remains of the dead and injured men to the angry locals. This time the accident is actually sabotage caused by rebels. The American in charge is informed that the generalissimo doesn’t want to acknowledge the existence of this resistance during the election and will provide no security or aid, further, if a tanker isn’t filled with oil by month’s end the contract will be voided. The American chief then choppers out with his local engineer and explosives expert to a remote site that has dynamite stored. The engineer enters the bunker and gingerly opens a case, pulling a stick free, he scratches at one end and finds dry powder. He inserts a hand carefully deep into the oilskin lining the box, and removes a wet hand and walking slowly outside, he shakes it dry and little explosions pepper the ground. If dynamite boxes aren’t regularly rotated he states, the liquid nitroglycerin leeches out, it will still do the job as is, but the boxes are extremely unstable and they can’t be flown, and with no time to procure fresh stock, they have no choice but to have it driven 200 miles to the burning well head.
At this point, I have to say, at risk of overusing the word, this film is a masterpiece. And with the digitally restored Blu-Ray release critics have finally recognized this, “it is perhaps the last undeclared one of the 70’s,” says Michael Atkinson of MOMA and the Film Forum. This is an astonishingly beautiful film, every shot is composed and filmed with absolute care from an abundance of angles, every directing choice is perfect and serves the story. The scenic panoramas and dense layered greens of the jungle and hills are awesome, the establishing shots of the desperate, decaying village detailed, but the little moments are never overlooked; the green of a fat snail as it’s pulled from its blue gray shell in a fancy chateau restaurant in Paris; the slow pan in from high overhead in the crowded church that shows the bride standing before the priest with a black eye; a monarch butterfly clinging to a chain link fence over Manzon’s window in his filthy one room squat during a driving rain; a walk through the local jail for a shakedown of Scanlon as he sees miserable men hunched on the filthy wet concrete floor of the cell, one man laying on his side naked, his dirty sad ass facing out defeated; Scanlon casually letting the bartender at the local dive know that he’s aware that he’s an escaped Nazi who is hiding out. Image after image chosen and filmed with thoughtful precision to present the story with a minimum of dialogue and exposition. Oh, and did I mention the score is by Tangerine Dream in their American debut?
The volunteers are then shown in another amusing montage demonstrating their skill or lack thereof, and the four are chosen, or rather three. When they assemble pre-dawn, the fourth, Marquez, fails to show and Nilo stands having unambiguously murdered him. Kassem was his friend and goes after Nilo with a knife for the kill, while Manzon steps in the way, and as the American foreman prepares to call the police, Scheider interrupts and points out that they still need a fourth and have no time to waste. They decide to head out with Nilo, and Manzon renegotiates their compensation to $10,000 apiece, along with legal citizenship papers on completion. Whereas in Wages the men are given newer, fully serviced trucks with brand new tires and augmented suspension, these men are taken to a graveyard full of rusting battered hulks, which they have to mix and match parts to repair themselves, and enhance with better shock absorbers and front end winches.They then fill the truck beds with several inches of sand and gentry nestle three boxes of the degraded dynamite stick/nitroglycerin in each truck and head out, Scanlon and Nilo in one, Manzon and Kassem in the other, and throughout the film the actors do their own stunt driving without rear projection or any other trick photography.
The terrain this time is a narrow, muddy, rutted road carved barely out of the jungle and winding towards the hills, and the cargo is even more unstable. The centerpiece of the journey, and it is a mind boggling technical accomplishment of design and daring practical stunt work, is the river crossing. The men arrive in a pounding rain to find a swollen, raging river perhaps 200 feet wide, with a rope suspension bridge swaying a few feet above it, its bed is a series of heavy logs crossed with wooden planks, where they haven’t fallen off from rot, nailed atop to serve as tracks. The effort required to build a rope suspension bridge across a flooding river filled with rapids, that conveys the appearance of age and rot and disrepair, and that is also strong enough to actually allow two 10 ton trucks to cross it and appear as near continuous long takes in the pouring rain while they sway precariously from side to side, I just don’t have words to convey how awesome this scene is. How they managed this without a serious loss of life is astonishing, and this doubtless contributed to the budget overruns, but seeing is believing, it’s one of a kind, and would never be duplicated in our CGI world.
Further along, a gigantic downed kaoba tree blocks the road, instead of a boulder, and the men similarly come together with explosives expert Kassem contriving an ingenious solution, and as they head into the final stretch, they have achieved something like camaraderie and a measure of peace as they see the solution to their exile in sight. I’ll mention here a haunting scene ahead that’s filmed at night in a strange barren valley of forlorn stone monoliths that precedes the oil field. It’s cosmic and otherworldly and really wrings out the existential despair at the heart of the film, that we have no control over our destiny, our brief lives a speck of time on the vast earth. These four men face the same ironic fates as their predecessors in Clouzot’s film, but here the irony feels more logical and earned and for that reason stings a little more as we know these men in a somewhat deeper way.. This is a stunning and remarkable film, and I think 11 year old me had good instincts, it was a supreme pleasure to watch the restored Blu-Ray and I can’t recommend both films more enthusiastically. And, by the by, Stephen King places these films, as #1 Sorcerer, and #2 The Wages of Fear, on his list of film rentals that never disappoint.
As I look through the list of 1977 films, I’m amazed at how many great, interesting, and all time favorites of mine there are for the choosing, and I’m excited for rewatches that in some cases, as in the last couple articles, will span decades. I suppose that’s true for any year, but this one feels particularly dense to me with genre work. I don’t know for sure what I’ll do next, but I’m leaning towards Ridley Scott’s debut The Duelists, and, then maybe something else from Scott, or maybe another film about the Napoleonic era, I’ll have to see how the mood strikes me. Again, thanks for reading, Adieu.