...ON FILM: Phil Mucci Examines WAGES OF FEAR/SORCERER

Sean Smithson, Contributor
We love opinions here at Twitch. Even more, we love educated opinions, to paraphrase writer Harlan Ellison. This is the first of occasional columns where working filmmakers get a chance to speak out on films that have influenced them, made them think, pissed them off, made them laugh...movies they feel something for.

So to jump right in, meet our first guest -

Writer/director Phil Mucci is an award winning film maker, with short films like The Listening Dead and Far Out under his belt. He is also a sought after rock photographer/video director whose past clients have included Green Day, Korn, My Chemical Romance, and Opeth.
First and foremost though, Mr. Mucci is a film addict of immeasurable proportions. He was kind enough to accept this invitation to write a guest essay on Clouzot's classic Wages Of Fear in relation to William Friedkin's remake Sorcerer. Insightful, enlightening, and above all entertaining. Enjoy!

Sometimes there's a damn good reason to remake a film. Like when your name is William Friedkin and it's the mid-seventies and you're a total badass.  After the one-two punch of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST, Friedkin could shoot the phonebook if he wanted.  When he approached French director Henri-George Clouzot (LE CORBEAU, DIABOLIQUE) to tell him he wanted to remake his film THE WAGES OF FEAR, Clouzot was surprised. "What do you want to do this tired old shit for?" Like an auteur George Mallory, Friedkin simply replied "I want to do it. It's a masterpiece."  Over the course of 10 months and 3 continents, Friedkin shot his WAGES remake, SORCERER. Opening on the heels of STAR WARS in 1977, the film was an enormously expensive box-office flop. With a budget more than twice that of STAR WARS, SORCERER barely made half its money back. Relegated to a pan-and-scan VHS and no frills DVD release, the film's reputation has, nevertheless, steadily grown over time. In an article for Entertainment Weekly in 2009, Stephen King rated both WAGES and SORCERER at the top of his list, but admitted to "a sneaking preference for SORCERER". I'm not going be to be nearly as coy. I think SORCERER kicks the freedom fries out of THE WAGES OF FEAR.  I'd even go Mr. King one better and say that it's the last, best version of the WAGES story ever to be told in the language of cinema.  It's a remake that can't be remade. 

"Scandaleux!"

Easy, Francophiles. Before you brain me with a baguette, uncork some Bordeaux and let me explain. I'm not saying WAGES is a bad film. Only a masterpiece would inspire Friedkin, at the top of his game, to kick its ass.  After all, WAGES is part of the Criterion Collection and SORCERER isn't (yet). It's been fawned over by critics for half a century. Its reputation is safe. But SORCERER, overlooked and underrated for years, deserves to be championed for the remarkable treasure it is.

Released in 1953, THE WAGES OF FEAR was both hailed as a top-notch thriller, and denounced as deeply anti-American.  Watching it now, neither of those two appraisals comes to mind.  It's thrilling in parts, and remarkably unsentimental for its time, that's true.  But its critique of American corporate imperialism seems almost quaint, and the desperation of the story is held comfortably in check by the filmmaking conventions of the day.  This isn't meant as criticism, it's just what happens.  Films are time capsules, after all, a record of not only the era in which they were made, but the compromises imposed on the production by the limitations of the time.  Watching WAGES now, it's easy to see why a filmmaker like Friedkin would want to remake it.

It's a story tailor-made for the 70's auteur style - an uncompromising rectal examination of mankind. Like John Huston's THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, it's a tale of desperate men in desperate times, bound together by fate and circumstance. Trapped in a squalid South American shithole, four men are offered a chance at escape: a suicidal drive across 300 miles of treacherous terrain in trucks loaded with highly sensitive nitroglycerine urgently needed to put out a raging oil fire. It's a grim, existential tale, taking place in a world ferociously divided between the exploited and the exploiters. 

But in hindsight, Clouzot's WAGES seems stylistically at odds with its bleak content.  Shot in sumptuous black and white, Clouzot's film casts a gauzy veneer of romanticism over the proceedings. Don't get me wrong - I love black and white as much as the next buff; but in WAGES it has the effect of softening the grimy South American setting, making it all the less severe and hellish. There is hope here, and when Vera Clouzot appears, pale skin glowing in soft diffusion, it doesn't look like such a bad place to be stuck. Combined with the pronounced acting and lighting styles of the day, the cinematography creates a safe distance to the harsh conditions the film strives to evoke.  During the tense second half journey, the interior truck scenes are especially problematic.  Here, a combination of poor man's process and rear screen projection, which works perfectly well in Hitchcock's glossier thrillers, adds an unwanted layer of fantasy.  Cutting dialogue scenes from kinetic location exteriors to static rear projection interiors, breaks the tension for a modern audience in ways it probably didn't at the time of the film's initial release.

Clouzot's version also adheres more closely to the notion of film as literature, rather than "pure cinema". Based on the novel by George Arnaud, WAGES spends the first hour in lengthy exposition of the main characters.  Jo and Luigi are cast as opposite sides of the moral spectrum, with protagonist Mario hovering somewhere in the middle.  These distinctions may be clearer today, since it was apparently considered quite amoral at the time. In 1955, Time magazine called it "a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made."  Keep in mind, this was a full 66 years before THE SMURFS 3D, so you can forgive them the hyperbole. It doesn't seem remotely as nasty today. Despite its nihilistic trappings, WAGES is, at heart, a morality play.  Mario learns to appreciate the honor and courage of Luigi in the face of Jo's arrogance and cowardice. The relationship of these three characters is the central strength of Clouzot's film. It's what makes THE WAGES OF FEAR simultaneously more complex and more cumbersome than SORCERER. For me, these character dynamics are the main reason to re-watch WAGES.

But it wouldn't be the main reason I'd want to remake it, and it clearly wasn't why Friedkin wanted to either.  He jettisoned that entire story, stripping the film down to its brutal core. Friedkin's version is all about pure cinema, and not just because more shit gets blown up. In developing the project with screenwriter Walon Green (The Wild Bunch), Friedkin "suggested we make the film with as little dialogue as possible." It infuses SORCERER with a cold existential dread, feeding into the zeitgeist of moral uncertainty in post-Nixon America. In the documentary A DECADE UNDER THE INFLUENCE, Friedkin explains "if you were looking for the single defining phrase that motivated the filmmakers at that time, it would probably be moral ambiguity." By abandoning the morality of Clouzot's WAGES, Friedkin cut to the meat of the story, exposing the gnarled web of fate connecting the chaos of the modern world.  You're not so much watching SORCERER as living it. "It really is about the world situation today," Friedkin commented at a screening of the film in Santa Monica earlier this year. "You have all of these different countries that hate each other, but they have to cooperate otherwise they're all gonna get blown up, and I thought the film was a metaphor for that."

Friedkin paces SORCERER like a bullet train. By the end of the first reel, we've been to four countries, witnessed an assassination, a terrorist attack, two gunfights, a suicide, a church robbery (during a black-eyed bride's wedding no less), and a fatal car crash. If SORCERER had played to audiences in 1953, their heads would've exploded like trucks full of nitro. Friedkin's frantic version owes as much to the French New Wave and Pontecorvo's seminal THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS as it does to Clouzot's film. Propelled by Tangerine Dream's first (and best utilized) film score, SORCERER never stops to explain itself. We scarcely notice the unlikely coincidences that fly by - like the investment banker who happens to be an ace mechanic, truck driver, and oil rig worker. The notion that these men have to rebuild their own trucks from rusting heaps is patently absurd, and a complete departure from Clouzot's film, but it's a gamble that pays off like a loose slot machine. Friedkin constructs a thrilling montage that inextricably connects the men to their vehicles. The trucks become more than modes of transportation; they embody the discarded dregs of society called upon to do a corporation's dirty work. These trucks have faces as furrowed with meaning as the desperate men who drive them. 

Under Friedkin's direction, production designer John Box (ROLLERBALL, THE KEEP) does his best work, creating a world so tangible it gets under your fingernails. SORCERER's South American village is a teeming cesspool of mud and blood.  You get pink eye just looking at it. When Roy Scheider steps into frame, sweat-soaked in a rancid flophouse, shuffling through flies and tramps, you can practically smell the man-funk.

While WAGES explores the theme of deadly corporate exploitation through the Luigi sub-plot, Friedkin goes for the throat, visually amplifying the inhuman conditions imposed by the mercenary oil company. Collapsing pipelines sever limbs. Oil rigs explode, burning locals to cinders. When their charred corpses are returned to the village, a bloody riot erupts. This is a world pushed to the brink. In a few crucial scenes, Friedkin conveys Clouzot's themes in a fraction of the time, with an economical style of filmmaking that never skimps on visual details. You can't look away or you'll miss something.  And there's some truly amazing shit in this movie.

The central action sequence in which the nitro-loaded trucks cross a dilapidated rope bridge suspended over a raging river during a violent monsoon, is even more intense than it sounds. I've never been able to watch it with my mouth closed. No CGI, no green screen, not even miniatures. Friedkin shot it all for real.  Even knowing it's a movie doesn't make it any less terrifying. Once again, Friedkin inspires career-best work from his crew, and DP John Stephens (BILLY JACK, BOXCAR BERTHA), rises to the ferocious challenge. "Everything we did in this was life threatening," Friedkin recalls, "almost every shot; and there were 50 people who had to leave the film for either injury or gangrene". At the risk of sounding like the heartless bastard that I am, I gotta say it was worth it. Not only is it the most riveting scene in the film, it's one of the most riveting scenes in the history of cinema. And it always will be.

Because unlike WAGES, SORCERER represents a style of filmmaking we're unlikely to see again.  "It would've been very difficult to put over - even get made - a lot of the films of the 70's, if it wasn't for a prevalent attitude in the country that was receptive to this cynicism," Friedkin says in DECADE. "Filmmakers and the studio heads were basically in sync - they were basically on the same page. The only conflicts that generally arose were over costs, but not content".  All that has changed, and an impenetrably dark film like SORCERER, with a downbeat ending and no big stars (Scheider wasn't, despite his success), would have an extremely hard time getting made, especially with a budget of around 90 million in adjusted dollars (much more if you include the A-listers needed to get it financed in the first place). "A lot of what's at stake now, even though it's to some extent unstated, is that a film has to serve the greater good of the corporation in order to get made," Friedkin comments in DECADE. "It, number one, cannot be subversive in nature.  It, number two, has to have the broadest possible appeal, today, so that it will help other divisions of the corporation." It's hard to imagine a film about four criminals on a suicide mission for an evil oil company ever getting the green light from an American studio, let alone today.

Even if it somehow did, and Friedkin was attached to direct, he would probably make a very different film now.  Throughout its development, Friedkin saw SORCERER as a star vehicle. He originally wanted Steve McQueen in the Jackie Scanlon part played by Roy Scheider.  Big international stars like Marcello Mastroianni were attached if McQueen agreed. But when Friedkin refused to write a part for McQueen's girlfriend, Ali McGraw (can you imagine?), or sign her on as a nominal producer, McQueen walked.  While Friedkin lamented the loss of a bankable star and the cast he would have brought with him, it actually turned out to be great for the film. In one of his best performances, Roy Scheider is the audience surrogate - a not-so-decent everyman who finds himself in situations that go from bad to bonkers. Without his performance, and the excellent Bruno Cremer as Victor, the whole thing would fall apart.  An A-list cast headed by Steve McQueen would have polished the sordid material, turning the visceral "experience" of SORCERER into more of a star-driven "event" movie.

When asked how much he would rely on modern CGI if he were making SORCERER today, Friedkin answered "totally... I would take whatever tools there were."  Call me naïve, but I find this incredibly disheartening coming from a director I admire so much. I want my action thrillers to be dangerous. I want to know that, even though precautions were taken, there was a very real possibility that Roy Scheider could've been pulverized by twenty tons of mean-looking truck. It's something you can feel when you're watching it. I get a kick out of pre-CGI movies for that very reason. Part of the tension comes from knowing physical bodies were set in dangerous opposition - just to get the shot. There's an appreciation of "how'd they do that?" - that I find utterly lacking in CGI-heavy films. Since we know anything "can" be done with the computer, we tend to assume that everything "is". We don't believe anything we see anymore. But I've never felt that way watching SORCERER. The central irony here is that they really don't make them like they used to when it comes to SORCERER, but in a way, they make them almost exactly like they used to when it comes to WAGES.  Replace rear-screen projection with green screen and it's basically the same thing. There's more artifice than reality in big budget action thrillers today. That's why no modern remake, however unlikely, could ever have the power of Friedkin's SORCERER.

SORCERER is a rare jewel, a black diamond formed from the pressures of its time and the circumstances of its production. Even the compromises Friedkin had to make contributed to its greatness. The cold indifference of fate, such a central theme in the film, played its own part in making SORCERER the masterpiece that it is. It's a relic of a lost style of filmmaking, and proudly stands as one of the last of its kind, a remake that can't be remade - not even by the same filmmaker.

That's why, at long last, there's reason to rejoice.  During the Q&A in Santa Monica, Friedkin confirmed that, YES, a SORCERER Blu-ray is in the works. Restored to it's full 1.85:1 aspect ratio with its original monaural soundtrack remixed for surround, the Blu-ray will mark the first time since its original theatrical release that audiences will finally be able to see the film as Friedkin intended. We can only hope the long overdue Criterion Collection version isn't far behind.

Thank you, Mr. Friedkin!


References/links:

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind

Stephen King's Reliable Rentals, by Stephen King

The Wages of Fear: No Exit, by Dennis Lehane, Criterion Collection, 2005

A Decade Under the Influence, directed by Ted Demme, 2003


Check below the break for the trailers to Wages Of Fear and Sorcerer.  William Friedkin Q&A which took place at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, CA, on January 23, 2011 at a screening for Sorcerer (in 5 parts)

Also, be sure to go check out the work of our essayist, Phil Mucci at his OFFICIAL WEBSITE HERE, where you can watch his amazing video work and shorts for yourself. Take a minute, and know you are going to be awhile!







Around the Internet:
blog comments powered by Disqus
​​