Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
Seeing as how the on-line course I’m taking on 70’s cinema was leading inexorably closer towards a lecture on a film by the Hollywood filmmaker who towers over all the other celebrated wunderkinds of that decade, not just in terms of pure cinematic craftsmanship, but in his unmatched consistently great output over the period (and, yes, I’m talking Coppola, Scorsese, Allen, Altman… you name any of them from that celebrated all-dude group and I’ll assert ‘Phhfftt! Better!’) — namely, that great modern existentialist William Friedkin — with the exclamation point on his existential mastery having to be that closing enigmatic gunshot in The French Connection, reinforcing the notion of the unrelenting Popeye Doyle’s film-long chase never concluding, with the character stuck forever in his obsessive purgatory (ignoring the not bad but decidedly inferior sequel by John Frankenheimer that continued the chase, a film that Friedkin understandably wanted nothing to do with) – and his intensely nail-biting, Sisyphean fable that finds four international characters on the run stuck in a different purgatory (reinforced by a flamboyantly trippy Tangerine Dream score, one of their greatest), a seething hot South American hellhole overrun by an American oil company horribly exploiting the locals, from 1977 named Sorcerer, that I decided – having seen the film already more than a dozen times (it’s the perfect film to present any guests to my home as a way to show off the impressiveness of my home-projection system), I decided instead why not take the opportunity to actually go back and re-watch the French classic that the Friedkin masterpiece is actually a direct remake of (and the one that not only actually did well at the box office, but was a huge critical hit as well).
I’ve only seen Wages of Fear once before, perhaps thirty plus years ago, on VHS (yep, back in those days), and I remember not being particularly taken by the film (perhaps due to the fact of how smitten I already was by “Sorcerer”, and was tired of all these French people at film festivals telling me how much better “Wages” was)… so I figured it was high time to finally give it its due on the same home-projection system upon which I’d wowed the relatives with Sorcerer. And I do have to say… my estimation has improved drastically. While the original might have more glamour with the presence of director Clouzot’s beautiful wife Véra Clouzot as the put-upon local girl Linda as the love interest of the film’s main star, French acting and singing superstar Yves Montand (replaced, with that deeply uncompromising flair that was Friedkin at the time, the power of his conviction enabled by the huge box office success attained by his previous two films, by a haggard, much-older, near-toothless local woman and a celebrated, yes, but more low-key performer in Roy Scheider), director Clouzot still manages to create a real sense of a purgatory, a desolate environment of sweat and dirt where bad fortune and shady actions have left our enigmatic protagonists stranded in jungle hell, with their only last hope being if they can survive transporting a truckload of nitroglycerine across the perilous, barely functional roadways to save a burning oil field, then given get-out-of-hell passes by the faceless monolothic oil company.
Even more than Sorcerer, the anti-corporate, anti-capitalist US message rings out pretty impressively, with things like condemning ‘Coca Cola’ ads dotted about the sweat and grime (then again, not a surprise as it’s a French film, a nation forever pretending a pose of finger-wagging contempt towards America, while actually being entirely obsessed with the seductive freak-show pomp of Trump/Biden land… while hypocritically being a country whose leadership is equally as exploitative of the world’s working class, and follow similarly destructive neo-liberal policies that their populace allows to happen).
I do have to almost sheepishly admit, being hit on this viewing of “Wages” with just how close of a remake Sorcerer is, that my estimation of the Friedkin film did – to my utter surprise (and resistance, as I’ve been selling it as one of, if not the, greatest film of the decade) – slightly go down (just a tad… let’s not get crazy here), while it jumped up quite substantially for “Wages”.
Watching “Wages”, jump right into the set-up of our shady group of international outcasts stuck in purgatory, with only hints provided of how they got there, foregoing the long disparate prologue segments for each of the characters, made me wonder if perhaps Friedkin wasn’t being a bit indulgent with these sequences; don’t get me wrong – all four are as captivatingly captured — veering, as Friedkin did so brilliantly in his heyday, between sublime cinematic formalism to then sudden gripping hand-held immediacy — it’s just, as an editor myself, I’m keenly aware that sometimes even the greatest of stand-alone scenes when taken out of a film, make the movie better (just ask Francis Ford Coppola, who announced ‘great scene, it’s just not gonna make it into the movie’ immediately after shooting the French colonist scene for Apocalypse Now, wisely recognizing that – as haunting and effective as the sequence was on its own, it just wasn’t gonna work, pacing-wise, within the context of the narrative) and having these earlier sequences that more clearly defining the specific plights of each character can’t help but take away from the sort of iconic existentialism that Friedkin (as well as Clouzot) is otherwise shooting for (while still being daring storytelling, though, with the audience having no answer for almost the first hour of the film how these initial four stories are going to link up)
Now, I’m not necessarily saying Friedkin should cut out those scenes… but it’s something to consider (my understanding is that the European theatrical cut of the film did cut out these segments and started right away with them hiding away in the impoverished town, soon to embark on their dangerous voyage together… I’d love to see a version like that, though I also understand that cut added some of it back in as flashbacks, which sounds like the worst of audience-pandering ideas).
Also, the big set-pieces of each film (like the huge log-blowing up moment, as well as that absolutely harrowing creaking-bridge-crossing sequence that excruciatingly never seems to end in Sorcerer, and the suspenseful crossing through the oil from the leaking pipe-line sequence in “Wages”) work magnificently… yet, again, as much as I have always been blown away by the pure gripping intensity manufactured by Friedkin with these moments in Sorcerer (and remain so, I say!), experiencing “Wages” again… I couldn’t help but be reminded… Clouzot’s efforts might be a bit more primitive in their execution, but… he was there first… and he did it pretty, pretty damn well.
While both films conclude on a tragic notes of existential bleakness for our two main surviving characters, they present them in far different ways… and here I’d say, while “Wages” ending is appropriately blackly ironic, it also screams THEME! (and we also sense it coming a mile away), while the final fate of the Scheider character after his journey through Hell feels more organically despairing – there could be no other way for him (it feels right) – and, in this case, I’d say it’s the clearest case for me of the Friedkin jaunt coming out on top.
And, hey, never forget… the Friedkin film has the Tangerine Dream score that will always keep it on top forever.