Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Wages of Fear

(Le Salaire de la peur, French, 1953)

The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur) (France, 1953) and
Sorcerer (1977) We just saw the former film, me for the second time, Lee for the first. It’s been some years since I saw the latter, but I’ve seen it at least three times, so I remember it well. It struck me that it might be useful to review them both, to compare and contrast. For convenience, I will refer to one as W and the other as S.

William Friedkin’s original intent when he remade the classic W was to keep the title. Changing it, and changing it to what he changed it to, was the stupidest decision he ever made (see my review of Les Diaboliques). And believe me, he got lucky, because he had tried to make some other bad ones. His first choice of star was Steve McQueen, who I loved in some parts, but would have been all wrong for this. (McQueen demanded a part be written in for Ali MacGraw, which would have been utter disaster; luckily, Friedkin realized this, too.) Then he went after Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson. Wrong, wrong, wrong, Bill! So he cast Roy Scheider, who was perfect … and what did he have to say about that? Worst casting decision he ever made, he opined. Why? Because Scheider is only a “second or third banana, he’s not a star.” I guess the miracle is that this shithead ever made any good films … which he has, but not since 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A.(He recently made the perfectly awful The Hunted.)

W: The weakest part of the film is the first half hour or so. It establishes the characters, but takes a lot of fairly boring screen time to do so. Vera Clouzot takes what would have been the Ali MacGraw part, and she’s not really needed. Sorry, she’s just the love interest, she’s clichéd, she overacts. But I guess the great romantic Yves Montand needs somebody to adore his chest beneath his torn shirt, and the kerchief he keeps tied around his neck, and the stub of cigarette in the corner of his mouth (so French, so tres French!) that keeps him squinting most of the time, like Belmondo in Breathless. I’m not complaining; this it all great stuff.

S: Friedkin realized this movie didn’t need a female any more than The Great Escape did. It’s a pure action film, and while I love to see women in action films, there are times when you realize they were simply shoehorned in, and this is one of them. Friedkin also realized it made more sense to show these desperate men before they arrived in this asshole of the known planet, who they were before, what they did to get themselves there. So he gives us four vignettes at the beginning. Originally, they were meant to be interspersed through the story as flashbacks, but I think this works better.

Friedkin does a better job of portraying just how low, just how desperate these men have become. I myself would have leaped at the chance to drive a truck full of leaky dynamite (S) or nitroglycerin (W) to escape this place. What’s the worst that could happen? You get blown sky-high. Big deal, you’d never know it.

It turns out that the journey is much worse, of course, to the point that I might have hit a pothole just to get the suffering over. Once the trucks get moving, the movies are about equal in building unbearable suspense for a while. (Though S outdoes W in the process of making these trucks seem actual living beings, menacing and terrible, one of them being named Sorcerer … though we see the name in only one shot. Some time is spent preparing the trucks, adapting them, making sure everything works. They are ugly, and superb.) Each movie has a vertigo-inducing scene with the road collapsing beneath the tires.

In W the road is blocked by a rock. In S, it’s a huge fallen tree. In both, the man who knows about explosives uses some of the nitro they’re carrying to blow up the obstacle. I’d call these sequences a draw, in cinematic terms. Both are very, very tense.

Then S considerably raises the bar with one of the most spine-tingling suspense scenes I’ve ever witnessed: the famous crossing of the rotten wood-and-rope suspension bridge over a raging river in a howling storm. The good old IMDb informs me that the bridge cost a million dollars to build in the Dominican Republic … and then the river beneath it dried up, and the whole thing had to be moved to Mexico, at a cost of another million. And then that river started to dry up … Helicopters provided the wind, and huge rain machines provided the water. The bridge was a marvel of engineering with many safety devices, but trucks fell in the water five times. It took three months to film. It sounds as grueling as Fitzcarraldo, maybe even more.

S gets a bit over the top near the end, with hallucinations and stuff that I didn’t think fit in that well. W wins that part of the contest. But in the very end, W goes for ironic, foolish tragedy, where S’s tragic ending grows honestly from the story.

One area where S wins hands down is in the music, by Tangerine Dream. It is relentless and pulse-pounding, and enhances every scene where it is used.

All in all, I can’t think of an instance where a re-make has held its own so well. In my capacity of all-knowing God of the Cinema, I’m going to call it a draw. But I do know that, if I decide to see one of them again, it will be Sorcerer.