Monday, May 16, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #13 - The Wages Of Fear (1953, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot) / Sorcerer (1977, dir. William Friedkin)

Here’s a riddle: how could two films taken from the same novel, with the same basic plot and themes be so very different? The Wages of Fear, made in 1953 by French director Henri-Georges Clouzot and Sorcerer produced in 1977 by American William Friedkin have many things in common in a strict “this happens then that happens” kind of way, but when one starts to analyze the effect the movies have on the viewer they couldn’t be more different. Clouzot’s movie is subtle, lyrical and filled with an understated existentialism, while Sorcerer is brash and loud, full of American gung-hoism and bare-knuckled violence.
Both films follow the same turn of events; four ne’er-do-well criminals end up in some god-forsaken South American backwater hiding from the criminal acts of their recent past and finding themselves stuck in a hellish purgatory far from the lives they know. Events develop and they find their only ticket out of this hell is by volunteering for a suicide mission driving trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerin over impassable roads to help extinguish a raging oil-well fire. Both films essentially split into two parts, the first setting the scene and introducing the characters and the second following them on their harrowing truck trip through the primitive landscape of an indeterminate South American country. That is pretty much the end of the similarities.
The Wages Of Fear is a reserved morality play. The first half doesn’t bother much with how our criminals got where they are, but goes to fairly great lengths to show why main protagonist, Yves Montand, would want to leave. It is a stiflingly boring tropical desert with little hope of the happiness and romance that he feels are his due. When the truck journey starts the movie moves with alarming rapidity, sucking the viewer into the terror these guys face as they attempt the seemingly impossible. There are underlying themes of racial inequality and an overt hatred for the American oil company that caused the nightmarish fire they are trying to put out. In fact much of the thematic continuity of the movie is advanced by the growing realization that the oil company is the real bad guy here and that the men are just bit players in an environmental and cultural disaster far bigger than their petty lives. There are many memorable scenes in their journey, but none more than the steaming pit of oil one of the men sinks into and then rises out of like some perverse, black phoenix from the underworld. The ending also provides one of the great existential shocks in film. Utilizing some quick editing, a beautiful piece of music and the virtue of surprise, the movie ends suddenly, leaving us with our emotional jaws on the floor.
The passage of twenty-four years opened all kinds of doors for Exorcist director William Friedkin. The first thing apparent in Sorcerer is that technology has advanced the art of moviemaking dramatically since The Wages Of Fear used mood and innuendo to make an emotional impact. Sorcerer moves with the breakneck speed of a news camera using the first half hour of the movie to draw four sketches of crime that introduce us to our four truck drivers. The action is fast and violent and the result is that this movie is far more entertaining and less introspective than its predecessor. Friedkin is a skilled director, moving the action along quickly, getting us to the South American purgatory, which is depicted with far more gritty zeal than in Clouzot’s movie. Filled with every manner of human sewage, from Nazi war criminals to sick, addicted lowlifes who have crawled out from under rocks in every corner of this ugly earth. Escape from this place seems to be more motivated by fear than the boredom that motivates the men in The Wages Of Fear. The main protagonist in this film is a low level American hood played with the perfect mix of fear and bravado by Roy Scheider. Scheider’s angular features and haunted look are perfect for this role. He sets off on his journey with three other criminals and the movie really leaves reality behind. Thanks in part to an evocative and spooky soundtrack by German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream, but mainly due to the tight editing and non-stop action, the trip to the oil fire becomes a true journey into the levels of Dante’s Inferno. Thanks again to the improved technology and advanced special effects available to Friedkin, the movie is a physically draining experience. The scenes involving getting the trucks across a decaying rope bridge in the middle of a howling rainstorm are among the most nerve-wracking I have ever experienced.
The differences between these two movies are what make them such an interesting study in cinematic methodology. Both directors take the same source material and lead the viewer on very different journeys landing us to completely different places. In The Wages Of Fear we are gently but firmly led to an understanding that fate has a script for us and that nobody escapes a bet with the devil. There are bad and worse players in the earthly drama and none is perhaps worse than the American oil company that would place the lives of the innocent above the need for profit. Interestingly, the oil company is far more benign in the American made movie. It is portrayed as a benign, even virtuous force that represents competence and profitability in the midst of third-world chaos. Friedkin doesn’t leave us pondering the existential: instead he leaves us wanting a shower after two plus hours of the most nerve-jarring action imaginable. At the end of Sorcerer there is the numb realization that all is meaningless and people are scum, and there is no getting out of this world alive. I guess that is the conclusion that both of these masterful films leave us with - one does it subtly and with restraint while the other is a non-stop thrill ride. They are both engrossing and thought provoking.
- Paul Epstein

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