4 desperate men, who for one reason or another have had to flee their old lives are given a chance at redemption in the remote town of Porvenir in Latin America, when a nearby oil well is sabotaged by terrorists. In exchange for a generous fee and citizenship, they are to drive two trucks, loaded with dyamite, so old that it has become unstable and the slightest jolt could set off, to the well to put out the fire. There’s more than enough dynamite in one truck to put out the fire, the other is a backup. The drivers know that if any of the others don’t make it they will split their share of the money between them. However all the money in the world seems small compensation for the perilous journey ahead.
We conclude our short series of posts on underrated spin-offs, sequels, prequels and remakes with William Friedkin’s 1970s remake of the classic French film: The Wages Of Fear. Though, in a sense, “remake” is a little unfair as Friedkin uses only the basic premise of the original, creating new characters and with significant changes to the events in the storyline.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts, sometimes all it takes to pique my interest in a movie is one image. Such was the case with Sorcerer, which I first became aware of through seeing the cover of the soundtrack album by Tangerine Dream. I’d already become a fan of the band’s work when Virgin started re-issuing their albums in digitally-remastered versions, and began buying a few of them. This is amongst the best of their scores, easily up there with their work on Michael Mann’s Thief. Co-incidentally I became a fan of William Friedkin’s films around the same time – having seen and loved both The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. on tv and even managed to borrow someone’s old copy of The Exorcist (which was still banned on video in the U.K. at the time). The cover of the album with the film’s iconic image of the truck on the rickety bridge in the pouring rain looked cool and I resolved to try and track down the film, though it would be another 5 or 6 years before I managed to do so.
For those who’ve come of age in the era of Blu-rays, YouTube and Netflix it’s probably difficult to come to terms with the concept that there was a time when you had to ‘hunt’ or track down rare films. In my teens and 20s I would regularly check out 2nd hand Video shops (something that doesn’t exist anymore) or Record Fairs and second hand markets. to try and find rare or out of print films that were impossible to find otherwise. There was a special thrill in finding copies of movies (sometimes in the large oversized black plastic video cases – remember those?) long since banned after the video nasty clampdown of the early eighties with some fetching high prices. I once paid £30 for a quite worn copy of Straw Dogs, which was unobtainable otherwise at the time. If that failed, your only other option was get a shop, like the now sadly defunct Cinema Store in London’s Covent Garden, to order a U.S. video copy for you. It was expensive and it could take at least a month, but finally you were able to watch a film you’d wanted to see for ages. This is what I had to do in order to see Sorcerer for the first time.
The reason for telling you all this is give you some background into why this film was (and in many ways still is) vastly underrated and unappreciated even today. An expensive flop on its initial release, which Friedkin blames on Star Wars’ seismic shift in what drew audiences to the cinema. In one sense, he’s absolutely correct: Star Wars did fundamentally change mainstream cinema and almost overnight the pessimistic, downbeat tone of much of 70s American Cinema was no longer popular and the era of upbeat fantasies that would end up defining the majority of 80s Hollywood began. Sorcerer belongs to the former style and no doubt that did hurt the film’s chances at the box office. However, another major factor was the film’s spiraling budget. Originally intended to be, in Friedkin’s words, “a little 2.5 Million in-between movie”, the budget jumped during production from $15 million to $22 million (if you want to make a comparison, Star Wars was initially budgeted at $8 million and ended up costing $11 million) and only ended up making $9 million back – so it fell well short of covering its costs. As is so often the case with films that perform badly at the box office, this also later effected the movie’s availability on video and DVD. I have a Region 1 DVD which I bought to replace my U.S Video tape, but the quality was quite grainy in places and the film was presented in the square 4:3 ratio, rather than a widescreen one. It would take until 2014 for a Friedkin remastered Blu-Ray to arrive.
The arrival of the remastered version of the film was in response to a growing resurgence of interest in the film, with critics such as Mark Kermode ranking it up there with Friedkin’s greatest work. It’s also one of Friedkin’s favorites, calling it one of his most “personal and difficult” films. Detached from whatever expectations surrounded its initial release, what you have left is the last great 70s film from one of the most iconic directors of that era.
Friedkin’s films have often walked the tightrope of documentary realism on one hand and magic realism on the other. Whilst his early films such as Boys In The Band and The French Connection traded heavily on the skills Friedkin had learnt making documentaries, The Exorcist showed he could combine that naturalism with startling imagery and his most successful subsequent films: Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live And Die In L.A. and Rampage, manage to combine a little of both – even if they stayed firmly away from the supernatural. Both the fabulous bridge crossing scene and the final part of the journey, where the landscape takes on an alien, hallucinogenic quality, have incredible visuals and yet this remains a largely naturalistic, documentary-style film. In this way, Sorcerer feels closer to the work of Werner Herzog than other American films of the 70s. Name me another Hollywood movie from that decade that shows this sort of level of poverty. More importantly, name me another film that shows poverty dictated by American greed. It would take another decade for other filmmakers such as Roland Joffe and Hector Babenco to show this sort of world again and even longer, until the work of directors such as Alejandro Iñárritu to make this style of film – which deals with people in poverty stricken countries – have any real mainstream appeal.
The film features strong performances from its almost entirely male cast – make no mistake this is an extremely masculine (though not macho) movie with only 2 women in the entire film, which may also have limited its box office appeal – many of whom will probably be unknown to U.K. and U.S. audiences. One of the film’s great strengths is that we don’t have American Hollywood actors playing French or Palestinian characters, we actors who either are from those countries or look like they come from those countries. Aside from the ever brilliant Scheider, whose performance here is one of his very best, all the three other leads give excellent performances though special mention must go to Francisco Rabal (who had been Friedkin’s first choice to play Alain Charnier in The French Connection) as the largely silent assassin, Nilo. Ramon Bieri is also excellent as Corlette, the oil company representative.
Friedkin’s major narrative change from the original film was to show the reasons why the 4 main characters end up stranded in the little town of Porvenir , through a series of vignettes. This has an interesting effect on the film’s structure in that these introductions form most of the first 3rd of the film, making the eventual journey seem shorter in comparison. I’d often wondered if it wouldn’t have worked better telling shortened versions of these introductions in flashback, beginning the film with the 4 leads already in Porvenir . Clearly, I wasn’t alone in this opinion. Whilst researching this post, I discovered that Universal had created an edited version of the film which did just this, for European and Australian cinemas, that removed 28 minutes from the original cut and began the film with the drivers already in Porvenir.
There are many potential reasons why this superb movie failed to find it’s audience on its original release: the downbeat tone, clashing with a shift towards more populist and optimistic films; the title – many, including myself at first, assumed this to be another supernatural film after The Exorcist or the film’s daring use of foreign actors for 3 of the lead roles and having the first 14 minutes of the film in other languages that had to be subtitled. However, none of these should stop you from discovering or re-discovering this film, with its excellent cinematography and editing and superb electronic score, that hasn’t dated at all and that part of the reason it’s now being re-evaluated is that popular tastes have now finally caught up with Friedkin’s vision.