Saturday, 6 August 2011

Remake, Remodel...Rank? Wages of Fear (1953) vs Sorcerer (1977)

Does anyone else get fed up with "best of" lists and the ceaseless ranking of modern culture? This week The Guardian music writer, Alexis Petridis listed Saturday Night Fever as his all time greatest album...yes, that'll be ahead of Kind of Blue, Revolver, Unknown Pleasures, Endtroducing and the rest. He may have a point (it is his personal choice after all) but it's like comparing apples with sausages or Tories with caring goes to the heart of classification and qualitative analysis.

So...I'm not really going to compare these two versions of George Arnaud's novel. I watched them back to back and they're both worthwhile: similar tales but vastly different in the telling.

Wages of Fear ( Le Salarie de la Pleur) is a major film from Henri-Georges Clouzot. It is split broadly into halves with the first section setting the scene as a variety of characters waste away in a small latin american town; miles from more structured civilisation and from the unknown consequences of the actions that drove them there. They are all trapped without the means or the funds to escape and perhaps they have no choice anyway.

The men include Yves Montand as Mario, all tense and taught in his first major feature, Charles Vanel as the villainous Jo on his uppers after a no doubt slightly superior life of crime, Peter van Eyck as Bimba and Folco Lulli as Luigi, the most likable of the crew. Véra Clouzot is the only prominent female character as Linda, almost chained to the bar they all frequent and seeing Mario as her only salvation.

The men are offered a highly risky chance to escape following an explosion and fire at the oil well. They are to drive two trucks of lethally unstable nitroglycerine through the jungle to blow the fire out. The nitro is too dangerous for the unionised drivers to take on and only the most desparate of men would take on the risk. How frightened would you have to be to take this chance?

The second half of the film shows the journey as the men attempt to forge their way to the well and to the big pay-off that will give them all a second chance.

It is almost unbearably tense and Clouzot expertly sets the tone through a series of obstacles and uncomfortable set pieces: there is no margin for error and, quite literally, the teams could be blown to bits in a split second at the slightest drop, bump or spark.
This was one of the first french movies I saw as a child and I vividly remember the trucks and the tension. I was also fascinated by the nitro, a strange liquid more explosive than dynamite.

Watching Wages of Fear 20 years down the line was similarly intriguing. A strange highly-combustible mixture of, largely unlikeable, characters all of whom want to return to the normality we take for granted. Clouzot piles on the pressure and with savage twists and turns we reach the journey's end reeling from the pace and with the nagging feeling that the choices made through fear drive us all.

I also go back a long way with Sorcerer but it's the soundtrack and not the film that I know. If Tangerine Dream's music for L'Inferno (covered elsewhere on this blog) is inappropriate, it works very well here. Written at the tail end of their most creatively successful period (just after Ricochet), Sorcerer is atmospheric and packed full of original, inventive, music. It's as if the discipline of writing 3-4 minute tracks let Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann express themselves more than their side-long soundscapes (LP fans!). It's a last gasp of Krautrock experimentation for the group before the vocals started and it became a Froese solo project.

The music is used sparingly in the film but it plays a major part in evoking the strange atmosphere director William Friedkin specialised in. The soundtrack is key to the best parts of the journey as Friedkin's drivers forge ahead with their deadly cargo.
Friedkin's film is similar in structure to Clouzot's but his first half gives us more specific details of the men's backgrounds. They are all different from in the earlier films but they are the same in terms of being in the only place they could be and incapable of escape. The always excellent Roy Scheider is Jackie Scanlon a small time New Jersey crook on the run from mob retribution whilst the brooding Bruno Cremer is Victor Manzon, a parisian businessman running from the consequences of bad deals gone horribly wrong. Francisco Rabal plays the hit man Nilo, whilst Amidou is Kassem a middle eastern terrorist (reminding us also how long the techniques of fear have stayed the same...).

The explosion this time is sabotage and the cargo dynamite that has degraded seeping nitroglycerine into boxes no less deadly than Wages of Fear's containers. The trucks set off to a different set of challenges from Clouzot's but the tension is maintained in similar fashion. There is a particularly memorable sequence when the trucks have to cross a wooden bridge as the rains pounds down. This is the image used for the soundtrack cover and it's the best bit of the action.
Sorcerer is the name of one of the trucks and Friedkin has argued that it also refers to the "evil wizard" of uncaring fate. We are none of us the masters of our own destiny and all make our choices based on circumstance and primeval reactions.

This is the consistent tone and message from both films. If I had to plump for a winner it'd be the french film but Sorcerer has an uncomfortable charm of its own and a cracking soundtrack to boot.

Wages of Fear is easier to find but you can also get both the Sorcerer DVD and the soundtrack from Amazon.


  1. Hi Paul

    Thanks for discovering this Friedkin did not know him, and looks good.

  2. Great review!

    I love the original Wages Of Fear and only recently learnt of the remake.

    Have the DVD but put off watching it as I just assumed I'd prefer the original and had other stuff I wanted to see.

    Now I will gladly give The Sorcerer a watch!

  3. Thanks Benjamin. Certainly worth watching, so different to the original version & Roy Scheider is superb as always.