Posts Tagged ‘Flight Of the Phoenix’


One was fresh. One was re-warmed but still quite tasty. The third was rancid.

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***

Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes. ***

Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. *

Other Known VersionsNight Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version);  too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.

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Before we begin this one, we’ll note that we had an ulterior motive for placing this series of films so high up on the list of possible remake blog topics: the recent release of my own entry in this now-venerable and still growing subgenre, the gorily illustrated alphabet book Z Is For Zombie, by myself and dynamiting artist Johnny Atomic. That volume would not exist had an innocent nine-year-old with an interest in monster movies not wandered into a Saturday afternoon double-feature half some forgotten piece of crap I can no longer name and half the nightmare that warped him, and apparently, uncounted others, for life. Go ahead. Click the Amazon link above and buy a copy or twelve. We’ll still be here when you’re done.

Done? Now we can move on.

Zombies are everywhere. There are now several different postulated pathologies, including the brainless, slow zombies of the three films under discussion today, the various sequels directed by George Romero, and many of his imitators: slow, mindless, ambulatory meat, who eat flesh.

There are the sentient, somewhat faster zombies introduced in the competing  Return Of The Living Dead series, who crave and chant “Brains” for reasons too depressing to go into right now.

There are the fast-moving zombies of the 2004 Dawn Of the Dead remake, who are not “all messed up” and can run. There’s an entire suite of living “zombies” such as those postulated by 28 Days Later (2002) and, arguably, Zombieland (2009), who are better described as human beings who have come down with a virulent form of rabies.

There are the splatstick zombies of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992),  arguably the best zombie movie ever made, who remain animate even when chopped into little pieces; and there are the video-game zombies of the Resident Evil movie series, of which we shall only say, they suck. Nor are these the only variations. Even if you omit the traditional voodoo zombies which are , which another kettle of fish entirely, zombies come in more varieties than penguins. And then, on top of that, there are the variations postulated by the writers of horror novels, some of which are far removed from Romero’s blueprint. (Check out, among others, Walter Greatshell, Mira Grant, and Brian Keene.)

But the subgenre as we understand it today did all begin in 1968, with a little low-budget movie that didn’t even use the word “zombie” at any point. Its characters had never seen a zombie movie and were slow to understand the nature of the phenomenon they were dealing with. They called their shambling assailants “those things,” and they struggled with the evidence of their eyes and their sense, learning the new paradigm of their world even as the monsters loose in that world closed in around them.

Night Of the Living Dead is the seed of the myth.

And all three of the movies bearing the same title share much of the opening premise. All three open with a pair of bickering siblings, Johnny and Barbara, on a long and unpleasant trip road trip to a cemetery. In all three, Barbara is the good daughter, fulfilling a family obligation to the dead; in all three, Johnny is the obnoxiously contrary brother, vocal about finding the entire exercise hypocritical and ridiculous. In all three, Barbara initially believes in showing respect for the dead; in all three, Johnny argues that the dead won’t appreciate it. (He is correct about that, but obviously has no idea just how true that will soon turn out to be.) In all three, Johnny resorts to mocking his sister’s piety by chanting, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara;” in all three, the first of the ambulatory corpses shows up to prove him right. All three films proceed to quickly write Johnny out of the equation and send Barbara fleeing on foot to a nearby farmhouse, where she will soon find herself among a small group of survivors besieged by a growing crowd of hungry ghouls.

From that seed, though, the three versions head off into remarkably different directions.

The Iconic Classic: Night Of The Living Dead (1968) 

In the first film, Barbara arrives at the farmhouse in a state of shock that renders her functionally catatonic for most of the action to follow. She is childlike, petulant, withdrawn, detached, and unable to answer simple questions when Ben (Duane Jones) arrives, having already survived several encounters with “those things.” His understanding of what’s going on is no more advanced than hers, except that he knows survival depends on keeping the creatures out.

Much has been made of Romero’s genius in casting a black man as the hero, especially since subsequent events place him in opposition with another survivor who happens to be a loathsome white coward. In tumultuous 1968, when that kind of casting was practically unheard-of, Ben’s race and the race of his instant enemy Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) gave the film a contemporary resonance well beyond what one would expect of a silly little story about dead people who wander the countryside gnawing chunks off the living. It contributed to the film’s notoriety and no doubt to its immortality.

As it happens, the casting was no stroke of genius, but a stroke of luck. The screenplay made no reference to Ben’s race. Duane Jones was simply the best of the leading-men types who showed up to audition, and Romero’s genius amounted to being open-minded enough to say, “Why not?” As it is, Jones demanded substantial changes to the character of Ben, before agreeing to play the part. The original Ben was an unsophisticated blue-collar guy, with uneducated speech patterns. The Ben Jones agreed to play is a well-spoken hero wearing a white shirt and tie, who may show up driving a pickup truck but who seems to have picked it up elsewhere when he first encountered the madness abroad on this particular night.

This Ben is clearly a capable and brave man, and the protagonist we root for when the cowardly, selfish, angry me-first type Harry Cooper emerges from the cellar, where he and several other terrified survivors have been hiding. Some have said that the black man being in charge, over a white man who is at best ineffective and at worst a dangerous liability, increased the chills for contemporary viewers, given that it formed a microcosm of a society that actually did seem to be turning upside down. This is a valid interpretation even if, as the facts bear out, the resonance was an accident of casting. We note that the movie is deft enough to avoid underlining it. Harry may think Ben is “crazy,” but he never attacks him on racial grounds or questions the propriety of a black man being in charge – even though everything we know about Harry’s character would make a racist streak wholly unsurprising. Nor does Ben ever bring it up. Ben is only  the hero because he seems to know what he’s doing; Harry is the villain because he’s a loudmouth whose wife hates him, and because his strategy for survival consists of hiding.

There is an unfortunate, unwanted additional resonance in that hateful, white Harry actually turns out to be right; the first floor is a deathtrap, reinforcing the windows is a waste of time, and just about everything brave, black Ben does, to face the hordes of undead like a man, does lead this poor group of allies who trusted him to an early death. It’s a very good thing for posterity that Ben and Cooper never actually have the white/black argument, because if they did, the bloody conclusion could be read as a vindication of Harry’s position. As it is, Ben is so much more easier to admire than Harry that most viewers can see the movie multiple times and still fail to register that Harry’s plan for survival was in fact the correct one.

In any event, the original Night established the rule followed by most good zombie fiction since then (not just in the movies, but in prose as well): that since zombies as they’re usually imagined are inarticulate and unmotivated by anything but hunger, their mere presence cannot be the sole required story engine. It needs to be the motivating force that throws the interpersonal conflict of the living into sharp relief. This is true whether the issue at hand is rampant consumerism (Dawn Of the Dead), delayed adulthood (Shawn of the Dead),  a surprisingly sweet love story (Dead Alive), or, as in the original Night, the forces that alienate human beings from one another and keep them from cooperating for the common good. A zombie story that fails to reflect this, that is merely a catalogue of ways to dismember corpses, will likely be as soulless as the ghouls themselves.

The movie ends, of course, with sole survivor Ben staggering from the basement, only to be shot dead by sheriffs who spot him through an open window and mistake him for one of the walking dead. His color aside, his climactic death was shocking at the time, when most thrillers and horror films ended with a happy restoration of the status quo, and the happy escape of deserving people to a happy ending. (In 1969, when I saw it at age nine, I couldn’t believe that any movie would ever go there; today, of course, most mainstream horror movies go for that kind of closing shock, and the effect is not so much shocking as yawn-inducing.) Factor his color in and we get another accidental resonance, very vivid to those who first saw the film in those days of rural assassins taking up rifles against Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Workers Cheney, Shwermer, and Goodman.

The film itself still works, decades after zombies became commonplace on screen. The grainy black and white photography, the building tensions among the people in the house, the grinding unfairness of everything that happens, the inexorably worsening news on the radio, and the absolute dearth of any happy-ever-afters, still render it a powerful tour-de-force. There are some impressive non-performances, but Jones remains fine.

Alas for Romero, the distribution company never properly copyrighted it. The movie passed into the public domain almost immediately, and he no longer makes money from it.

Which was the key reason for the first of the two remakes.

The Unfairly Maligned First Remake: Night Of the Living Dead (1990)

By 1990, the very idea of remaking Night Of the Living Dead seemed so sacrilegious, to so many, that many critics who’d embraced the original (some retroactively) attacked this one as a blot on its memory.

It was, of course, impossible for any mere remake to have the impact or influence of the original. Among other things, the casting of a black lead was no longer shocking by then. But, largely, people who condemned this one condemned the very idea of it, rather than its execution. They hated that director Tom Savini chose to film this one in vivid color, instead of grainy black and white; they hated the sharp changes it made in the original story while simultaneously (and paradoxically) condemning it for going where Romero had gone before. In truth, consider it only as a film, without either the weight of an iconic original or the social background behind the initial release weighing it down, and it’s very much in the first film’s class, and can be sensibly defended as better.

Romero, who wrote the screenplay of this one as well, said at the time that he couldn’t just make a shot-by-shot remake; people knew the original so well by then that the remake would not be nearly as effective if everything just played out the same way. So he set up the same situation and the same conflicts and went elsewhere with them, starting just a few minutes in, when the first person to bump into Barbara (Patricia Tallman) is not a walking corpse, but a traumatized survivor of a prior massacre.

Barbara is just as traumatized, just as unresponsive, when she gets to the house as she was in the original film. When Ben (Tony Todd) shows up, she is just as unable to answer him. But circumstances soon force her to kill a zombie sneaking up behind her, and unlike the original Barbara she soon starts to (forgive us) rise to the occasion, stunningly becoming one of the strongest people in the house.

By the time the Ben / Harry antagonism begins, Barbara begins to reveal herself as having more sense and more guts than the two of them put together. She is the one who sees that the walking dead are so slow that wasting energy on barricading the windows or hiding in the cellar amounts to defending a deathtrap. She is the one who, told she’s losing it, coldly shoots an approaching zombie in the face and then angrily addresses the others:   “Whatever I lost, I lost a long time ago, and I do not plan on losing anything else. You can talk to me about losing it when you stop screaming at each other like a bunch of two-year-olds. “  (Patricia Tallman was so very good in the part, especially in this scene,that I expected major stardom for her; that never materialized, alas, though she worked regularly and was a supporting player on Babylon 5.)

Ben’s fallibility is brought closer to the forefront. At one point, he tackles Harry, who’s bringing a television downstairs. The TV is smashed, leading Ben to assault Harry for trying to sneak the TV into the cellar. Harry’s response – that he was bringing the TV downstairs for everybody, that it wouldn’t have gotten any reception in the basement – is stunning. Much earlier in the story, it becomes clear that Ben is actually part of the problem.

Nothing plays out exactly the same as it does in the original. Tom and Judy, the boring young couple nobody could stand in the first film, who get themselves and Ben’s truck blown up in a failed attempt to fill the gas tank, are not quite as bland here, and while they get themselves blown up here as well, via a similar act of clumsy panic, the mistake they make is entirely different. Helen’s death plays out differently. The final invasion of the house leads to an entirely different final confrontation between Harry and Ben (as well as the revelation that the house did include a perfect hiding place that nobody bothered to consider: the attic).

Barbara escapes by walking right past the zombies, just as she’s always contended everybody could, and what she does when she returns with help – coldly shoot the surviving Harry right through the head, and telling her companions in zombie-killing that he’s ‘”another one for the fire” —  underlines the substantial changes the night has wrought in her. She’s dead inside: a perfect denizen of the new world.

There was some impressive non-acting in this film as well, but most of the performances were better, and the pacing more assured. Tony Todd was an effective Ben, Tom Towles was an effective Harry, and Patricia Tallman was a powerful Barbara. The color cinematography was not quite as artful, but it had the benefit of being transparent: it did not get in the way of the story.

In short, the 1990 film is everything a remake should be. Aside from the accidents of casting and the contemporary background that boosted the original’s impact, which could not be duplicated, it matches just about every narrative strength of that original while justifying its own existence with a startling different take. It didn’t deserve the drubbing it got, and has fortunately been appreciated more and more as the years have passed.

No, if you want to see everything a remake should not be, just look at the most recent version.

The Awful Second Remake: Night Of The Living Dead 3-D (2006)

The makers of this version had a number of big ideas, none of them good.

Indeed, it is rare to see a remake that fails on so many levels, that has so many fundamentally bad notions, that showed such a universal misunderstanding of what made the original story work. Next to this, the Paris Hilton House Of Wax was a masterpiece.

We can’t testify to the effectiveness of that much-maligned 3-D process here, since we saw a 2-D version. But we can say that it would have needed to transform the visual aspects of this version to something on the level of Avatar to counter even one-tenth of the damage their other big ideas did to the story.

The danger signs start very early. In both prior versions, the teasing Barbara’s brother Johnny subjects her to in the cemetery ends as soon as the first zombie attacks; then the first zombie attacks, he sees that the danger is real, and he rushes to protect his sister, at the cost of his own life. This makes psychological sense, as it’s what a big brother would do. In this film, he runs to their car and drives away, abandoning her to her fate. That is the act of an unbelievable asshole, which doesn’t ring true at all. Still…all right. Maybe this Johnny really is just an asshole. If the rest of the movie were not filled with terrible ideas, maybe we could let it pass.

Alas, it is.

The biggest and worst of those ideas is the apparent premise that all the conflict inside the house, that doomed both prior sets of survivors to their unlucky fates, was boring and needed to be jettisoned. The second worst is the apparent belief that all the characters needed to be rendered more bland. As a result, this movie’s Ben (Joshua Desroses) is just a generic white college student who helps distribute the product of this film’s married Coopers , (Greg Traviss and Johanna Black), marijuana farmers who own the farmhouse and are thus perfectly at home there when “Barb” (Brianna Brown) shows up to tell everybody that the dead have risen.

Yes. The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.

Chew on that. It deserves repetition.

The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.

Having trouble digesting that, aren’t you?

The third worst innovation is that the confusion over the nature of the phenomenon that faces everybody, so clearly delineated in the first two films, is here removed completely. In the first two films, the phenomenon was treated as something almost beyond comprehension. But this film’s Barb knows the word “zombie” from seeing zombie movies herself, and bursts in on Coopers who are getting stoned while watching the 1968 version. They know exactly what she’s talking about; they’re just skeptical and reluctant to call the police to their pot farm. The conflict is reduced to Barb’s increasing frustration at them for being so thick and stupid – which they greet with a compassionate equanimity that goes on for way too long. It’s deadly to any suspense the film might have, even as the zombies start to accumulate in the yard.

The fourth worst is the removal of the disaster’s scale. Any implication that the rising of the dead is afflicting anybody but this one small group of people is simply omitted. We don’t get the horror from the first two films of a widespread disaster and of the radio and television reports sending people to shelters that are then described as overrun or no longer accepting refugees. So we lose that, too.

The next worst is the reduction of this film’s doomed Tom and Judy to a standard horror movie couple who we see fucking so we can then still see them get killed. They are the worst incarnation of Tom and Judy, and that’s saying something.

The result of all of this is that there’s no subtext, either by accident or design. It’s just stupid boring people being attacked by zombies, none of whom do anything we haven’t seen zombies do before. Even a bad zombie movie, like Flight Of the Living Dead,  can be remarkable for the cleverness of its zombie gags. But no.  For the first time, a Night Of the Living Dead movie is exactly what the detractors of the series would say it always was: a stupid exploitation movie without any ideas.

All of that, which serves only to establish that nobody involved with this thing had any idea why this story ever worked, and completely remove the character issues that gave the first and second versions whatever weight they had, is just background to their greatest innovation: casting horror-movie veteran Sid Haig as a mad mortician whose funeral home is the source of the contagion. It all, eventually, becomes about Haig acting crazy.  And it must be said that he does give the proceedings what little energy they have. But the character is a stupid innovation and he isn’t good enough to overcome a story which, ironically enough, has had all its life sucked out of it.

The Final Respects

The 1968 version, a hugely influential and still terrifying horror film. The 1990 version, a worthy remake marked by a genuinely different take. The 2006 version, nothing but rotten meat.

Thanks to K.C. Locke, who provided us with the 1990 version.

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And now, the wife peers out through the barricaded window…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***1/2

Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes.***

Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. 0000000 NO!!!!!

Other Known VersionsNight Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version);  too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.

I thought that this comparison was going to be an easy-peasy job based on having seen and loved the original and seen and hated everything about the third, but damn the middle version made it rough.

Let me warn anyone who even slightly enjoyed the 1968 NOTLD, DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE!!  I REPEAT DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE!  That so called movie takes everything that was right and tosses it to the winds.  Why bother with character development and plot, when special effects and action are available. OK. so fine,  the makers wanted to cash in on the 3D craze, so they threw in a few hokey effects.  I could deal with those as long as the story made sense, but come on guys, using the original film in your own really bad interpretation was just plain stupid!  Why invite the comparison? Were you so sure of your own greatness or just too dumb to realize the end result?

Now, let me admit to something a bit shameful.  I didn’t see the 1968 original film until sometime in the late 1970’s, and that in a cut to shreds version on local TV.  Of course, I doubt my parents would have allowed me to see it much before then, but I had snuck in a few nightmarish childhood treasures by that time (The Birds remains a favorite pre teen scare).  However, even that ripped apart, commercial-ridden version left me wanting more undead fun. I even placed the film into my pantheon of classic horror to be rewatched and savored alongside the Universal classics I so adored.  High praise for a little black and white film.  I finally got to see the film uninterrupted by ads and hopefully uncensored in college and realized there was an art to pulling the guts out of a writhing body.  Wow, even more coolness!  I was hooked like the proverbial big fish.  And again, I begged and pleaded for more, but none came. 

Sure, there were the sequels, but they just didn’t have the oomph I got from the first.  The magnetic draw just never occurred. And, while I enjoyed the Evil Dead movies for the fun romps they were, I still didn’t find the walking dead I needed to tickle my thrill bone.

By this point I had given up on ever seeing NOTLD remade with the proper respect, but thanks to this blog, I got most of my wish.  The 1990 version directed by Tom Savini and written by dead master/creator George Romero  reworks the original into an updated story, tighter and tauter than the original.  The film follows the same opening premise, but from there, most of the character conventions shift slightly.  We no longer have just the tough hero, we get a useful, tough Barbara instead of the whimpering, nearly comatose girl from the original.  Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman are not just folks  that were picked for their availability, they can act and did.  The nods of respect to the original are there throughout the film for the people who need that, but the changes make for a better film overall.  Why then, did it leave me just slightly disappointed?

When a masterwork is created no revision, even by the originator, is ever going to give me the same feeling of wonder/chills/awe, that the original had.  Is a copy of the Mona Lisa as good as seeing the original?  Is Beatlemania the same as having seen the Beatles perform live?  That’s the problem I have here.  The 1968 film crept into my soul and warped me permanently.  The 1990 Savini vision, while really good and eminently watchable, just becomes a poor cousin despite the fixing of the original’s flaws.  So, yes, watch both films.  Enjoy both for the works they are. And, please, I beg of you, DON’T WATCH THE 2006 3D NOTLD!   Pretend it doesn’t exist.  It will poison you.  In the immortal words of Latka Gravis, “Thankyou very much.”


In which men travel the long hard road from purgatory to hell

The town almost looks clean, doesn’t it?

 

Most Audiences will ask, “Yes, but what’s it about?”

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Wages of Fear (aka Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). Directed by Henri-George Clouzot. Screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jerome Geronomi, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Yves Montand and Charles Vanel. 131 minutes. ****

Sorcerer (1977). Directed by William Friedkin. Written by Walon Green, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Roy Scheider and Bruno Cremer.  121 minutes. *** 1/2

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, The Violent Road (1957),  directed by Howard W. Koch. Written by Richard H. Landau and Don Martin, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Brian Keith. 86 minutes.

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Your life has not gone well. You have made every catastrophic decision you possibly could, found your options eliminated one by one, and in the bleak fullness of time found that your foolishness has exiled you to an existence that might as well be considered a cage.  Now you’re a penniless man without future or hope, eking out a hardscrabble existence in a filthy, poverty-stricken town on the wrong side of nowhere. Staying amounts to a living death. Leaving would cost more money than you could ever possibly make here.

You are not just stuck. You define stuck.

Then one day word arrives of a job opportunity that only a man condemned to these circumstances could possibly consider a godsend. There has been an accident at an oil well, a couple of hundred miles away. The well is burning out of control, and explosives are desperately needed to put the fire out. But the only available explosives are at a storage facility near you, and they’re so dangerously unstable that the slightest vibration could set them off. They’re too unstable to fly in. Somebody’s going to have to get behind the  wheel of a truck and drive them to where they need to be, across roads that nobody would ever travel, if they didn’t have to; single-lane roads of the sort common in countries limited by their poverty, that are rutted with potholes, washed out along sheer cliffs, flooded in low places, blocked by debris in others, marked by visibly unreliable bridges and switchbacks, and in every conceivable way a series of deathtraps even for vehicles in danger of blowing up at the first rough bump in the road.

Two trucks will be sent, each manned by two drivers working in shifts. The two vehicles will leave half an hour apart in case one blows up on the way. Which is more likely than not.

The job is virtual suicide. But in this town, you have nothing to live for anyway. If you die, chances are that you’ll never know it. And if you do manage to defy the odds and deliver the explosives with your skin intact, the payment will be enough money to provide you with the fresh start you need, anywhere in the world but here.

This is the premise of two existential thrillers, made a quarter of a century apart (and that third version produced in the interim, which is not within our power to describe). The first is widely considered a classic. So is the second, though it was critically reviled and commercially ignored upon its release and the laudatory verdict is held by a much smaller group of film fanatics who express their admiration in what amounts to open defiance of its undeniable historical status as a major bomb. (You can count this essayist, though – spoiler – emphatically not his wife, as among those who subscribe to the “near-masterpiece” camp.) Both films are harrowing and both follow the same essential plot structure, sharing a number of sequences in common.

But as similar as the two versions are, they’re also very different films, that place their emphases on very different (but equally valid) forms of storytelling. One is the two is all about character interaction, the other is all about the iconography of desperation.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Though I’d seen both of these movies before, circumstances surrounding our efforts to watch them again for this essay led us to view Wages of Fear after Sorcerer, instead of before, which had a strange effect on the impact of the (very well made) original film: to wit, the opening circumstances of protagonist Mario (Montand) and his best friend Jo (Charles Vanel) are really not all that bad by comparison.

To be sure, both men are stuck in a tiny South American town where they live in poverty and work only intermittently, where it is next to impossible to earn the money they need to leave, but otherwise, they’re living lives. Mario has congenial conversations, friends, a bar he can sometimes trick into extending credit, a sexy local woman who adores him and comes to him on hands and knees despite the contempt he shows her in return; and days that may be boring but are otherwise not all that unpleasant.  The town is no tourist heaven, but neither is it the hellhole William Friedkin depicted a quarter-century later. It’s almost clean. Life seems bearable, if a little poor of options.

The main focus of the backstory is therefore not how awful the lives of these transient men have become, but on how men treat each other in general. When Jo arrives in town, a prosperous-looking individual with a criminal past who had to flee his prior home with little more than the clothes on his back, his big-shot demeanor and veneer of toughness immediately makes him a kind of father figure to Mario, who places their nascent friendship above the other local connections he’s forged. Jo is not above acting like a possessive and bullying wife to make Mario feel like spending time with anybody other than him – like his woman Linda (Vera Clouzot) or prior best friend Luigi (Folco Lulli) — like a betrayal. And Mario falls for it. The tug of war between his prior best friend and current best friend reaches such heights of petulance that it comes to resemble a clash between wife and mistress, a pattern the movie recognizes and exploits for comic effect.

(Incidentally, the tragic/comic italian Luigi resembles a certain well-known video game character. It’s a damn good thing for the current impact of the film that he and Mario never work together as plumbers.)

The simmering conflict approaches violence in a tense barroom showdown between Jo and Luigi, which Jo is able to win because he’s used to being a big shot back home and can still carry off the gravitas necessary to intimidate other men into backing down. Were it not for the approaching intervention of fate, this is a power he would eventually lose, whether by increments as the others around him came to realize that he was fueled with nothing more than hot air, or suddenly, the first time he came up against someone his attitude failed to intimidate.  As it is, the emptiness of his tough veneer is exposed after the oil fire begins and he finagles a position as one of the four drivers – soon exposing a cowardice that rapidly shatters the admiration Mario feels for him.

The result is a French Treasure of The Sierra Madre, contrasting the desperation of the mission the four drivers undertake with the disintegration of the one character who seemed to be the toughest. As a thriller, it’s entirely character-based. The driving sequences are tense, especially one involving a difficult switchback turn that, when I saw it in a theatre many years ago, caused hysterics in the audience when the entire crowd found itself gasping and hoarding breath in unison.  But it’s still the rapid deterioration of the relationship of Mario and Jo – a deeply tragic male love story, ending in tears  – that drives the story, and the hopeless, arbitrary twists of fate that make the story resonate.  The remake, as we shall see, jettisons all of this. Its characters barely know one another and are not subject to feelings of affection, or hero-worship, or betrayal. They just want the payday.

Of the two movies, The Wages of Fear also possesses the superior sense of humor. In both, the drivers find the road ahead completely blocked by an object too heavy to be moved – a fallen boulder in this film, a massive fallen log in the remake. In both they feel utterly defeated by the obstacle, and are ready to give up until one of them realizes that they are, after all, carrying explosives. (Duh.) In both films, they improvise a bomb out of available materials and blow the barrier to smithereens. But there the similarity ends. In The Wages of Fear,  the utter disintegration of the boulder is not just triumphant but hilarious; and the reaction of the men to the blackened scorch-mark on the ground is pretty much in line with what men in this situation would just naturally want to do after bending the landscape to their will. They rush up and, in unison, unzip their flies to pee on it. It’s a party, of sorts (to which Jo is not invited). These men are not beyond the urge to celebrate their little victories. By contrast, the men in Sorcerer greet the clear evidence of their cargo’s destructive power with unnerved silence. Maybe they’re thinking that a similar explosion can just as easily obliterate them. Or maybe they’ve already left such concepts as joy and celebration behind.

There is another key moment which is superior in this film to its equivalent in the remake: the explosion that claims one of the trucks. In Sorcerer,  we see the tire blowout that forces one of the vehicles off the road, setting off the unstable dynamite. In The Wages of Fear, the drivers of one truck just hear a distant rumble, and see the plume of smoke in the distance. No explanation is ever provided. It’s just something that happened, that might have been set off by nothing at all. It’s profoundly anticlimactic…and for just that reason, profoundly terrifying.

The Commercial Failure of Sorcerer (1977) 

Sorcerer seemed to have everything going for it, notably the involvement of a director whose most recent films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, were critical and box-office sensations in their respective years. (Both are still considered classics.) There was also a storyline that had worked spectacularly at least once before, a star then on the rise, and a budget that allowed filming on three continents. But it was damned by the historical moment, elliptical publicity, and a crappy title.

Why was it called Sorcerer, anyway? Well, that happened to be translation of the name painted on one of the trucks. And there was a thematic reason as well. William Friedkin explained, “The Sorcerer is an evil wizard and in this case the evil wizard is fate. The fact that somebody can walk out of their front door and a hurricane can take them away, an earthquake or something falling through the roof. And the idea that we don’t really have control over our own fates, neither our births nor our deaths, it’s something that has haunted me since I was intelligent enough to contemplate something like it.” All of this is defensible in an artistic sense, but questionable when it leads audiences to a complete misunderstanding of what the film is about. (Nor was that the last time in his career Friedkin pulled something like this; see the widespread belief that his subsequent movie Bug was about icky monsters, when it was actually a literate, and stage-bound, psychological thriller about a lonely woman whose lover gradually infects her with his delusionally paranoid world-view.The terrifying but intelligent thriller turned off audiences who went to see the nonexistent mutant bugs and kept away those who might have appreciated the story it actually had.)

In Sorcerer’s case, the prominent reminders of The Exorcist in the ads, combined with a title and ad campaign that offered audiences little clue regarding what the film was about, led to a general misapprehension that this was another venture into the uncanny.  So many people who wanted that walked out upset that they hadn’t seen magic, just a bunch of disreputable men at hard labor, that the newspaper ads soon started including the risible and ill-advised line, “Not a Film About The Supernatural,” which is less a come-on than a desperate disclaimer. Of those who saw it, few were in the mood to endorse its grimy subject matter, its despairing tone, and its downbeat ending.

Remakes were also less common, then, than they are now, and the general thinking among many critics was that they were inherently suspect when based on great films. I recall actual reviews from the time from critics who venerated The Wages of Fear  enough to excoriate Friedkin for his hubris. This was expressed as an entirely separate sentiment than any judgments of the actual movie. In some reviews I saw, back then, he was assaulted for even trying, even before the movie was discussed.

(Not so incidentally, a number of critics also established with their reviews that once they were actually in the theatre, watching, they didn’t bother paying much attention to the action on screen. I recall one major critic for a major publication complaining that the hiring of truck drivers made no sense, as it would be so much easier to just fly the explosives in by helicopter. He must have been dozing or in the bathroom during the scene that makes a point of explaining at length – seriously, at length – that a helicopter would not be suitable, as the unstable dynamite would certainly be set off by the pounding of the rotors. Seriously. It’s perfectly acceptable to criticize a movie for its plot holes, less so to invent plot holes which have already been carefully plugged.) 

Then there was the timing. Sorcerer had the terrible misfortune to come out at the same time as Star Wars, which took its spot as The ONE! MOVIE! THAT! EVERYBODY! NEEDED! TO! SEE! MULTIPLE TIMES! and immediately obliterated everything in its path. You can love Star Wars and its sequels, though emphatically not the prequels, as I do, and still believe that this was not a good thing. Even those of us who like Star Wars well enough have to agree that its impact on the state of moviemaking in our country was an artistic disaster. Together with Jaws and Rocky, Star Wars pretty much ended the era of grownup subject matter, complex characterizations and artistic experimentation that made the early 1970s a second golden age of American moviemaking, and turned the attention of the studios to a time of feel-good stories and so-called rollercoaster rides that gradually weaned the generations that followed away from anything at all challenging or uncompromising, to the point that many find actual mental participation in the movies they’re watching more than should be required of them. Screenwriter Josh Olson, an Academy Award nominee for A History Of Violence,  spoke for many lovers of great movies when he recently sighed about this turning point, wishing that Star Wars had failed (or at least been a smaller hit) and that Sorcerer had been the hit it might have been only a couple of years previously. In an alternate world, he said, that might have led to decades of challenging grownup movies that in our plane of existence either died in development hell or were, worse yet, never even conceived.

He’s not wrong about that. In a very real sense, Sorcerer was the last major film of the artistically-ambitious 1970s, and Star Wars the film that ushered in the high-concept 1980s.

Which is not to say that Sorcerer doesn’t have problems, some of which are inextricably linked to its strengths.

A Talent For Filth

Unlike The Wages Of Fear, which centers on the friendship of two men and derives much of its dramatic spine from the deterioration of their relationship, Sorcerer is about four drivers who barely know one another. A couple of them have shared a civil conversation or two but they are, for the most part, strangers cocooned by the past crimes that have brought them to this time and place. They are entirely separate nations, forced into alliance by shared circumstances. The result can seem remote in dramatic terms, especially since, prior to their embarkation on their deadly road trip, the film replaces any substantive interaction between them with squalor: lots and lots of squalor, establishing with a wealth of local visual detail that this village where they find themselves is the armpit of the world, and a living death for all of them.

Their circumstances are really far worse than in The Wages of Fear, where the men were able to interact as friends and Mario was able to enjoy – or at least, resentfully tolerate – the company of an ardent, beautiful local woman. In Sorcerer, the only local woman is a weather-beaten hag. And when Scheider wakes up in a flophouse also occupied by a dozen other unwashed men, and shuffles to the sink where his morning hygiene consists of taking a mouthful of water and then spitting it out, you know everything you need to know about why this guy who once wore a presentable suit and was never more than a full day from a shower would now seize the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a truck bearing a cargo of unstable explosives. There’s a lot of this, from clothing soaked with sweat to dirty faces that go without soap for days or weeks on end. Truly, you’d have to pick a movie like the original  Flight of the Phoenix or even Quest For Fire to find a movie whose protagonists are probably more odiferous than these. It’s enough to make the sensitive viewer grateful that Smellorama never caught on.

And that palpable stench extends to the entire town around them, a muddy and ramshackle purgatory where people trudge about, ankle-deep in crap. There’s also local corruption, in the form of cops who hassle illegal-alien Scheider and demand one-third of his pitiful earnings in perpetuity. He will never escape this trap. Now, I personally think the squalor tells us everything we really need to know about the motivations of everybody involved – just as we can probably guess the backstory of the pretty young bride in the New Jersey section of the prologue, who stands at the altar before all her friends and family sporting a sizeable black eye. (It’s a splendid example of a throwaway character who sustains the premise that even the people we see in passing have lives we cannot know). I feel that we’re given more than enough information. But your mileage may vary. And if you don’t feel that the images communicate everything they should, if you wish we got to know the inner lives of these desperate men through dialogue and character interaction, then you’re going to prefer The Wages of Fear and have trouble giving a damn about anything that happens in this one.

Another problem linked to one of the film’s strengths is the long series of opening vignettes establishing the criminal pasts of the  drivers: the disgraced businessman from Paris, the terrorist from Jerusalem, the holdup man played by Scheider who gets on the wrong side of the Jersey mob. This very well-made combination of prologues makes extensive use of location filming – and no doubt ate up much of its budget. But it takes up fully a fourth of the film, and diffuses its focus, telling us little we would not be able to figure out for ourselves, namely that these men are stuck in this craphole town and have no means of moving on. Again, the sequences are defensible, even masterful. And again, they’re also distancing. Critics and audiences largely hated them.

Among the things that are clearly better in this film? The explanation for the instability of the explosives does make a hell of a lot more sense here. In The Wages Of Fear, the oil company just happens to have a supply of liquid nitroglycerin which it just happens to store far from the well, with no contingency in place for transporting it anywhere useful. Nobody even finds this odd. In Sorcerer, the explosives are sticks of dynamite, which is perfectly safe when maintained properly and which sweats nitro when not. (This is a lesson a future generation of viewers would re-learn watching the sad fate of Dr. Arzt on Lost.) So Sorcerer has an explanation that actually goes along with the ramshackle nature of the entire enterprise. The dynamite was stored in a central location, by a company that saw no reason why it couldn’t be transported if needed. But somebody screwed up and failed to maintain it properly. Now these poor bastards have to live with it (or not).

The actual journey is even more nerve-wracking here than in The Wages Of Fear, for a number of reasons. Among them: the trucks here are not the well-maintained vehicles of the original, but ambulatory wrecks, salvaged for the occasion, and marked with rusted-out craters big enough to see daylight through. Also, the trucks cross rickety bridges that start to crumble under their weight, and (at the action high point), thanks to a wrong turn find themselves faced with the absolute last river crossing you ever want to encounter with or without a cargo of high explosives.

What follows is one of the most exciting sequences of the decade, a tour-de-force that is one of the greatest achievements of Friedkin’s career and that, all by itself, eclipses anything in the classic original film. I hate to bring up Star Wars again, but, really, this sequence impresses me more than any of the heroic deeds of Luke Skywalker.

 

That’s one rickety-ass bridge!

The Weighing Station

Wages of Fear, a superior drama and a classic of world cinema. Sorcerer, ditto, another take on the same basic story from a worthwhile different angle, that deserved to be recognized in its time. The Wages Of Fear has the edge, but both are deeply recommended.

***

And now, the wife pokes her head out of the sleeper cab…

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Wages of Fear (aka Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). Directed by Henri-George Clouzot. Screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jerome Geronomi, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Yves Montand and Charles Vanel. 131 minutes. ***

Sorcerer (1977). Directed by William Friedkin. Written by Walon Green, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Roy Scheider and Bruno Cremer.  121 minutes. *1/2

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, The Violent Road (1957),  directed by Howard W. Koch. Written by Richard H. Landau and Don Martin, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Brian Keith, 86 minutes.

Okay, folks, so what we have here are two versions of desperate men in trucks.  Isn’t this a current reality series?

Sorcerer is the newer, grittier (by grit I imply filth),  American language version of the two films.  I’m hoping that the fact that the novel was translated from French is the sole reason for this piss poor excuse of a film.  You have all the elements for greatness packaged here; great director , who can handle both action and dialogue; a leading man, with charisma, screen presence and skills; landscapes both evocative and eerie; and a story that can be universally understood.  Why then did this turn out to be such a downer?

I’ll Tell you why.  They forgot that the story was about human beings.  Men trying to survive despite the conditions forced on them and the fallibilities of their own souls.  Friedkin focused on the dirt and fear and totally forgot that these were living men with pasts, trying for futures.   These men existed in a cocoon of self loathing, that made this film more than just uncomfortable, but outright unbearable to watch.

However, on viewing the earlier French film, I actually breathed a sigh of relief.  Here we have all the elements once again, but this time the human element was actually preserved.

While I don’t agree with the characters, I at least can see that they are not cardboard cutouts just waiting for the next event to blow up.   These are flesh and blood people, with wants and desires, desperate to return to a semblance of the lives they once knew.  They make the best of the meager subsistence they have achieved and try to enjoy the little they have.  What happened to that in the 70’s version?

To wrap all this up: I recently watched a few minutes of Ice Road Truckers:Most Dangerous Roads, andcouldn’t help but be amazed by the bravery and bravado of these men and women. They are doing a dangerous and often thankless job, under often nasty conditions, but I keep asking myself why?  Some for the money, but many do it for the adrenaline rush.  Surviving the impossible is sexy.  Is this part of what people remember when claiming that these films are classics?  Not me.

I won’t be re-watching either of these films again.  Neither film hit my “wow” button, but at least the 1953 version had characters that were close to real human beings.