By William Repass.
“You think they pay you to drive? They pay you to be terrified. That’s your division of labor.”
–The Wages of Fear (1953)
Let’s not overlook the attendant division, that of leisure. Supposing, for example, you’d rather pay to be terrified. In that case look no further than William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, re-released in April on Blu-ray. As the re-make of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear—itself an adaptation of Arnaud’s titular 1950 novel—Friedkin’s “existential thriller” lays claim to an imposing pedigree. It’s also terrifying in that knuckle-whitening way that modern blockbusters, for all their monumental budgets and digital filigree, can’t seem to replicate. The difference? In Sorcerer you can tell the filmmakers put themselves in as much mortal danger as the characters. Until recently the film garnered a black-sheep reputation, with most critics stating a preference for Clouzot’s classic. But Sorcerer does deserve the reappraisal. Considered as a standalone thriller it’s certainly an accomplishment. Considered as the spiritual successor, or even (dare I say it?) the unofficial sequel to Wages, it becomes a fascinating and rewarding piece of film.
In the original a foursome of foreign-nationals, unemployed and without purpose, find themselves trapped in an unidentified South American country. Under the pitiless entomological gaze of Clouzot’s camera they laze their lives away in El Corsario Negro, the local dive. When a distant oilwell catches fire and explodes, the oil company offers each of them a heap of cash to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerin, destined for the wellhead, through a dangerous mountain pass. It’s a contrived but simple narrative that serves as a vehicle for Clouzot’s own political and philosophical dynamite. Suffice it to say that the American release was rather shorter than the French. But rather than overhaul Couzot’s formula, Friedkin’s film expands on it.
Clouzot opens with a close-up of several cockroaches chained together with twine, then zooms out to reveal the half-naked child who plays their god, plopping the spectator down somewhere in South America. Friedkin, on the other hand, opens with a backstory vignette for each member of his international cast. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) coolly assassinates a man in Veracruz. In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Kassem (Hamidou Benmessaoud) plants a homemade bomb at the entrance of an official-looking building and escapes into the crowd. In Paris, Victor (Bruno Cremer) receives a wristwatch from his wife, is accused of stock-fraud by men only slightly wealthier than himself, and prepares to flee the country when his partner commits suicide. In New Jersey, Jackie (Roy Scheider) drives a getaway car for the Irish mob and ends up with price on his head. He hides out until a friend cashes in an old favor, handing him a fake passport and a ticket to somewhere in South America.
The prologue represents Friedkin’s most obvious expansion of the source material, which renounces context by design. It lacks the punch of Clouzot’s opening shot, but gains interest if we read it with the original in mind, as a closer, less disgusted treatment of Cluzout’s roaches. Friedkin slices each character from a different layer of the social cake but, in essence, they’re all the same: all chained together by a common fate. Assassin, terrorist, high-financier, and mobster: one way or another each of these “professions” anticipates an ugly end. Framing the narrative this way feels more sympathetic to the characters but, even so, it fails to provide any real characterization or political context. We’re not given access, for example, to Kassem’s motivations for the bombing, as we can’t determine the building’s function. And while Victor’s wife appears to be writing a book critical of the French-Algerian War—even as she surrounds herself with luxuries owed, no doubt, to colonial expansion—the film brushes her hypocrisy aside and promptly forgets her. But she does deliver one significant line, which sheds some light on the functioning of Friedkin’s prologue. When Victor describes the subject of her book as “just another soldier,” she replies: “No one is just anything.” Victor is just a fraud, Roy is just a getaway driver, and so on. But only for now.
With the transition to South America the film starts to pick up momentum. Friedkin’s camera luxuriates in the squalor and ennui of Porvenir. Images of the country’s current dictator, rendered like the dark side of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, plaster the city’s walls. Banners proclaiming “Unidos Hacia El Futuro!” (United Toward the Future) sag across muddy streets. El Corsario makes a shabby cameo and Linda, the servant-girl from Wages (played by Clouzot’s wife) reappears as well; in the older version she’s shot like a Hollywood starlet, in the softened light of a lens smeared with Vaseline, as she scrubs the floor and grovels at the feet of Yves Montand. Hereshe’s elderly and toothless, but dignified nonetheless, no longer the indulged-in centerfold. In a painting mounted above the the bar, a pin-up reaches through eternity for a sweating coca-cola. Meanwhile, the local economy is still slave to the Standard Oil Company from Wages—its logo now an eagle in Mayan hieroglyphic style. These images are a faithful restoration Clouzot’s anti-imperialist vision. So much so it’s as if the events of Wages were repeating themselves in the same country after thirty-odd years, in the wake of a “social revolution” which has eradicated the people’s memory, leaving the old power structures completely intact. Can Friedkin’s characters redeem Clouzot’s misanthropy?
Once again, a distant explosion at the wellhead sets the narrative into overdrive. The oil company’s American executive offers “exceptional wages” to anyone willing to be terrified who can also pass a driving test. Roy, Kassem, Victor, and Nilo are chosen. A montage sequence follows, set to the otherworldly synths of Tangerine Dream. Equal parts Eisenstein and Hollywood Musical, the sequence cuts back and forth between a raging flamespout and the drivers repairing their trucks. And the trucks have more personality this time around: they’re monstrous.
Soon enough the journey begins. It’s a harrowing hour and a half to say the least, but one set-piece stands out thematically. Here the drivers are forced to use a crate of nitro to clear the road of a massive fallen tree. All around them the jungle’s chaotic sprawl stands opposed to the straightforward drive of progress. And yet, however cynical or misanthropic the rest of film might be (not to mention its predecessors), the following depiction, four people working together to surmount an obstacle, is pure cinematic exhilaration. In this moment of extreme desperation “no one is just anything.” Even if payment is their sole motivation, even if “progress” is just an illusion, even if the men who employed them value the oil in their gas tanks more than the blood in their veins, in this moment of cooperation they transcend their past selves, and shed their collective degradation. Whether intentionally or no, the dignity of their labor shines through. The same set-piece occurs in Wages too, but its not as well-executed. Without the context offered by Friedkin’s prologue we don’t feel invested in the skills each character brings to the table. And the stakes are higher this time around: those who die will forfeit their wages to the remaining drivers; but instead of looking for ways to outlive each other, they look to each other for mutual survival. In this scene, Sorcerer ultimately proves itself worthy of shouldering Clouzot’s burden.
William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.