In 1974 William Friedkin, riding on the crest of a wave after the consecutive successes of critically-lauded THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and box office behemoth THE EXORCIST (1973), arranged himself an audience in a Paris restaurant with François Truffaut, Claude Berri and Henri-Georges Clouzot: the filmmaking heroes of his childhood. When Clouzot asked Friedkin what he planned to do next the American told him. “I want to do your picture. I want to do WAGES OF FEAR.” It was the height of the age of the Hollywood auteur. Young film school graduates who’d grown up in cinemas rather than theatres were directing films, and directors were calling the shots. At least for now. Over the next few years several high profile, big budget turkeys would signal the end of the film school generation. Friedkin’s promised remake SORCERER (1977) would be one of them. Whilst SORCERER isn’t a terrible film (it has become something of a cult classic, and a mythical director’s cut is said to exist which may never see the light of day), it’s informative to compare it to the original to try and see why only one of them is a masterpiece of suspense and tension.
THE WAGES OF FEAR (Le Salaire de la Peur) is built from a cinematically brilliant if realistically tenuous premise: four European men, down on their luck and stuck in a South American hellhole of a town, must drive two trucks packed with nitroglycerine over treacherous mountain roads to extinguish a fire that is blazing at a US-owned oil refinery. There are two different versions of the film: on its original release twenty minutes was cut, allegedly by US censors because of anti-American themes in its depiction of the unscrupulous oil men in the first hour of the film. When these scenes were restored in 1999 some critics claimed the film suffered, that the story took too long to cut to the edge-of-the-seat truck action. But for me, the first hour is essential for giving us a plausible explanation as to why anyone would undertake such a suicide mission in the first place. The town is like an oubliette sucking people in. No one can leave because the airfare at the town’s small airport is beyond the means of all its inhabitants.
It’s like prison here. Easy to get in. ‘Make yourself at home.’ But there’s no way out.
The film begins with a shot of a half-naked child torturing cockroaches by tying them together: an image that would be appropriated by Sam Peckinpah for the opening shot of THE WILD BUNCH (1969). As in all the best Westerns, every man has his price, and in Clouzot’s film that price is the relatively paltry sum of two thousand dollars. The extended first act gives Clouzot a chance to establish the characters who will accept this fool’s errand. Aging ex-gangster Jo (Charles Vanel) finds himself stranded in the town and sets about trying to make a name for himself by intimidating the locals. He is contrasted with Yves Montand’s Mario, who more than once admits his mortal fear of the job they are about to undertake, yet when it comes down to it proves to be by far the braver of the two, Jo’s macho posturing revealed to be exactly that. It’s the thought put into these establishing scenes and relationships that Friedkin’s SORCERER lacks.
The other thing SORCERER lacks is the pressure-cooker intensity of Clouzot’s truck scenes. This is real white knuckle stuff: we feel every bump and every pothole in the road, the claustrophobia in the cabs that can be cut with a knife and the unforgiving heat of the South American hills as they drag their deadly payload to its destination. A celebrated scene on a rickety wooden bridge provides a masterclass in directing and editing to create suspense which rivals Hitchcock. Indeed, with his next film LES DIABOLIQUES (1954), Clouzot managed to out-Hitch the Hitch, literally and figuratively, when he snatched the rights for the screenplay from under the red nose of Leytonstone’s finest.
Whilst there are undoubtedly political overtones to the piece (which if anything are even more prominent today: the climax of the film sees the two Frenchmen literally drowning in oil), Karel Reisz would later comment that “the film is anti-American, but only insofar as it is unselectively and impartially anti-everything.” LES DIABOLIQUES is often held up as Clouzot’s masterpiece, and it probably is the more important film, but for me THE WAGES OF FEAR is the one I return to again and again.