Monday, January 31, 2011

The Wages of Fear / Sorcerer

Henri-Georges Clouzot's THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953) tells the harrowing story of four down and out men stuck in a small South American town. Their only chance to make enough money to get out will in all likelihood cost them their lives. Their task is to drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerine across miles of rugged road and deliver it to an American oil company without jarring the volatile cargo and blowing themselves up. The trucks they use are not equipped with the safety equipment necessary to transport such dangerous material. This, after a rather long setup in which we get to know the characters, makes for some tense viewing. The second hour of the movie, in which the men are en route, is filled with a mounting dread. As one hazard is avoided, another more deadly looms on the horizon. The movie is sort of a modern-day myth, the nitroglycerine a sword of Damocles suspended over their heads, waiting to drop without warning.

William Friedkin's SORCERER (1977) is based on the same source material, the novel by Georges-Jean Arnaud. The plot is basically the same as THE WAGES OF FEAR, but the storytelling is handled somewhat differently. The driving scenes with the deadly cargo seem to be a bit more dynamic in this film. I do not know whether to chalk it up to technological advances in the film industry or Friedkin's manic vision. Some of the stunts in the film look downright dangerous, even if you take the unstable cargo out of the equation. This movie had a way of pulling me in slowly and before I knew it, I was practically squirming in my seat as the driving sequences became more and more harrowing.

The setup of SORCERER is different. It's scope is sweeping. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, we travel around the world, getting glimpses of the lives of four different criminals. We witness armed robbery, terrorism, assassination, and a French business man embroiled in a financial crime that is sure to land him in prison. These are the men who will all end up in that nowhere South American town and be charged with the task of transporting the explosives. Though we spend nearly the same amount of time with the men in THE WAGES OF FEAR, no solid background information is given. In fact, they seem like basically good guys. Likable, if a bid shady. This has an interesting effect in both films. In THE WAGES OF FEAR, as the tension mounts, the characters become less and less likable. They fight, the disregard each others' safety, they put the money and the job above all else. In SORCERER, the band of criminals become more human as the movie unfolds. When we see the fear that they carry we forget they are robbers and murderers.

Both are excellent and different enough to merit watching. The premise is great and filled with ready-made tension. There is a 1958 adaptation as well, called VIOLENT ROAD, but it seems to have been forgotten. Let's hope no remakes are in the works.

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