Posts Tagged ‘William Friedkin’


Can we just talk about this a little more? Please?

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes. ****

12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes. **

Others Mentioned Here But Not Discussed At Length: Twelve Angry Men (TV-movie directed by William Friedkin, 1997).

Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.

*

The boy is on trial for his life. He has been accused of the brutal stabbing death of his father, and though he maintains his innocence, almost no exculpatory evidence has been introduced, and he is almost certainly facing a trip upstate. It’s a foregone conclusion. For the most part, the all-male jury looks forward to a quick vote, an immediate return to the courtroom,  and from there a quick return to their everyday lives. But one juror isn’t so sure. He thinks that the matter is too serious for such casual disposal…and as he persuades his resentful fellow jurors to take a second look, more and more cracks appear in the prosecution’s case. It begins to look like the boy might be innocent after all. But some members of the jury are emotionally invested in a guilty verdict…and it becomes unclear whether justice, of any kind, is at all possible.

This was the premise of Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay Twelve Angry Men, and of the classic 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet. A financial disappointment for star and co-producer Henry Fonda, it built its reputation with later TV showings and is now considered a major, influential classic. It was also the first theatrical film of the towering Sidney Lumet, who was among other things one of the great New York City directors and who, over the next fifty years, managed the admirable feat of directing at least one, and sometimes more than one, capital-G Great film per decade. (That list of one great film per decade would, according to this lifelong admirer, include Twelve Angry Men in the 1950s, The Pawnbroker and The Hill in the 1960s, Serpico, Murder On the Orient Express,  Dog Day Afternoon, and Network in the 1970s, Prince of the City in the 1980s, Q & A in the 1990s, and his last movie Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead in the 2000s…and that’s before you start listing films that miss greatness by a hair or those like Fail-Safe or The Verdict that are merely very, very good.) It is part of our culture, and the latest word has it that it’s about to be remade again. We therefore take this opportunity to discuss both the original, which can be seen as a dramatization of what’s so great about America…and a recent version that can be seen as a dramatization of everything that’s gone wrong in Russia.

One point before we continue: readers of these essays always risk being exposed to plot spoilers, but this is especially true of what follows, and particularly in its coverage of the 2007 film. Beware.

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Movie fans who want to know the difference between what a screenwriter does and what a director does could be profitably directed to this film.

The story, essentially a two-hour argument where the jurors supporting a not guilty verdict gradually break down and overcome the opposition of those who want the kid to go to jail, was all on paper long before Sidney Lumet ever got involved; what he added in this, his very first theatrical film, was a superb mastery of the form that over the course of 96 grueling minutes gradually moves the POV of most shots closer and closer to table-level, increasing the tension and the sense that all of the jurors are stuck with one another. He’s the one who makes this an astonishingly fluid and stylish film for one largely set all in one room, and it manages the trick long before the days of queasy shakicams and swooping, spinning, 360 degree pans. That is all Lumet, with his cinematographer Boris Kaufman and his editor Carl Lerner. Please note that it is not showy direction; the average moviegoer will never be consciously aware of Lumet’s craft. But it’s there. It can be felt, and it ratchets up the suspense to the breaking point.

Similarly, movie fans who want a primo demonstration of the importance of star power need look no further than the introduction of Juror #8 (Fonda), initially the only one who even wants to subject the evidence to discussion. He is the last one whose face we see, after the jury files into the room and everybody else expends the next few minutes in idle conversation and joking around; at the moment when he’s called to the table for deliberation, having spent the last few minutes gazing out the window in silent contemplation, he turns around and reveals himself for the first time as Fonda, from The Grapes Of Wrath and The Ox-Bow Incident onward an icon of American rectitude, and instantly the guy the movie audience wants to win. (Jack Lemmon, who played the same role in William Friedkin’s 1997 TV version, played decent men as often as Fonda did, and for all his talent couldn’t match the impact of Fonda’s big turn-around.)

The movie also benefits from being superbly cast. Any list of who’s superb here will amount to a simple recitation of the entire jury, but special attention should be paid to Lee J. Cobb, as the bullying juror #3, who is just as quickly the guy the audience will want to see lose; and to E.G. Marshall, as Juror #4, another antagonist who happens to be the most level-headed, logically-driven person in the room; he never raises his voice and, until a memorable moment late in the film, never sweats. (There’s also Jack Klugman, who just a few years later played tribute to this movie with another deadlocked-jury story on an episode of his sitcom, The Odd Couple.)

The movie is filled with cheer-worthy moments. What audience doesn’t feel tremendous satisfaction when the old man changes his vote to support Juror #8?  What audience doesn’t cheer when  Juror #4 interrupts another’s bigoted rant by telling him to sit down and not open his mouth again?

One of the best shut-up moments in any movie, ever.

Really.  It’s like an action movie, with arguments instead of gunfights, so pleasurable with every frame that some viewers, this essayist included, can see it dozens of times with undiminished appreciation.

It’s so very terrific, in toto, that just making this next observation is extraordinarily painful.

It is also incredibly contrived.

It has to be. All courtroom dramas are. It’s one thing if they’re based on actual court cases, where the transcripts exist; but if concocted, they by necessity compress into an hour or two or at most three the high points of what is, in real life, often a mind-numbingly dull process, with testimony given in monotones and long stretches spent in wrangling over evidentiary minutiae. Creating an effective courtroom drama almost always depends on the careful concealment of, and timely unveiling of, straw men:  obstacles that seem fatal but aren’t, evidence that seems iron-clad but isn’t, a closing argument that seems to put the final nails in the opposing side’s coffin but nevertheless leaves room for a rhetorical flourish that makes everything before it seem flimsy and stupid. In Twelve Angry Men, it’s the pile of evidence implicating a kid in the stabbing-death of his father – a case that Reginald Rose carefully designed to look air-tight at first, but to which he also carefully attached serious reasons to doubt.

Everything depends on the writer’s deliberate placement of these straw men; if Henry Fonda’s character had not been able to buy an identical switchblade after the police failed, if the elderly witness had not been dragging a leg, if the woman across the street not rubbed the bridge of her nose in court, or even if the jurors had not changed their minds with the regularity that they did, the defendant would be on the first train upstate.  In that sense, at least, Twelve Angry Men functions not as  an indictment of our legal system, but as a fond tribute to the efficacy of having the case against you designed by an omnipotent screenwriter who wants it to fall apart at the first gust of strong wind. This has been discussed, at length, but Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who as an educator also characterized the independent investigation of Juror #8 as likely grounds for a mistrial. (And, by the way, if you want another case of a courtroom drama artfully hiding the fact that it all depends on a screenwriter carefully hiding straw men – in this case evidence that’s been squirreled away by the culprits, that the defense attorney protagonist uncovers at the last minute — look no further than that other Lumet drama, The Verdict.)

None of that matters all that much. The case may be designed to fall apart, but it’s designed to fall apart in a suspenseful manner, driven by the characters of the jurors; and it’s designed to fall apart in a manner than remains inconclusive at the end, leaving open the possibility that the kid might have killed his Dad after all.

William Friedkin’s 1997 version pretty much hits the same story points, with a just-as-impressive cast that included in addition to Lemmon such powerhouses as George C. Scott and Ossie Davis; it is effective enough, but lacks Lumet’s brilliant staging. On the plus side, we are no longer talking about Twelve Angry White Men, and indeed one of its more audacious touches is casting a young Black man, Mykelti Williamson, in the role of the film’s vengeful bigot. On the negative is the one reason we bring it up, the odd casting glitch that presents us with a large number of elderly men among the jurors, not just Lemmon and Scott but also Ossie Davis and Hume Cronyn. This is only an issue because, as in the original, much is made of Juror # 3 being scolded failing to show the proper amount of respect toward the frail and lonely retiree, Juror # 9. That makes a small degree of sense when Lee. J. Cobb, circa 1957, is being upbraided for the way he treats the “old man,” Joseph Sweeney;  less so when George C. Scott, circa 1997, is told off for the way he treats old men like Hume Cronyn. They’re both old men, and it’s downright surreal when another old man, Ossie Davis, makes noises that  seem to regard Cronyn, who’s admittedly somewhat older, as ancient by comparison. Look around you, people. If you count Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was 67 at the time and the youngest of this group by several years, almost half the jury is eligible for social security.

12 (2007)

This award-winning Russian remake, which intends to be not just an examination of the elusiveness of justice in a system that depends on the fairness of human beings serving on juries, but also a harsh examination of the current state of Russian society, is a full hour longer – and a slog even for those of us who normally have little problem with lengthy films. Things just take longer they need to, and many of the jurors stop everything in order to regale everybody with long, dramatic soliloquys about their backstories, a number of which end with the jaw-dropping conclusion, “And that’s why I’m changing my vote to Not Guilty.” (Really? You rip off mourners at the cemetery where you work, use the money to fund schools, and that’s why you’re changing your mind? Really? That’s…um….different.)

Nobody in the film reacts to these extended personal monologues the way human beings would. Oh, sure, the other jurors ask leading questions like, “Why are you telling us this?”, but that just gives the speakers an excuse to continue talking. In real life, one or two of these might be tolerated, but as the tension level rose, somebody would react to the latest with an exasperated, “Oh, great. Now he’s starting.” Instead, everybody always freezes and allows the soliloquys to play out. I can’t be any clearer than this: in real life, eventually, they wouldn’t.

Also taking up time: a substantial number of flashbacks to the childhood of the young defendant, a Chechen orphan accused of killing his Russian stepfather.  It is a past that includes huddling in a dark basement filled with corpses, and for what it’s worth these war scenes are both horrific and well-staged…but even the best-staged scenes can be tiresome if they interrupt the story we care about, and these serve to dilute the overpowering narrative momentum of the original, which takes place in something resembling real time. In 12, we leave the jurors regularly to  catch up on some more images from the defendant’s tragic life, and return to clear indications that substantial time has passed for the members of the jury and that we’ve missed some of their deliberations. (If what we’ve missed amounted to more monologues, then this can be counted as a mercy.) As an extra added treat, we are shown a skirmish from the war in Chechnya, where many rounds of automatic weapons fire are exchanged between two buildings while the boy presses himself flat in the rubble-strewn street between them;  thus making this the last thing anybody ever expected in this universe, a somewhat defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.

That deserves repetition. This is a defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.

Not exactly claustrophobic.

That’s a remarkable achievement. I guess.

The sacrifice of the original’s claustrophobic setting extends to this film’s jury room, the gymnasium of a run-down high school. The jury members have plenty of room to move about, and sometimes wander far from the central table. This, surprisingly, works, and not just because the basketball tossed by one near the beginning, that refuses to fall through the netless rim and instead just lodges against the backboard, as clear a symbol of the belated verdict as anybody could have ever arranged. Much is made of the exposed heating pipe in the ceiling, and the broken window temporarily blocked off by a cement bag that, one juror discovers, has been there for decades. All around them sit manifestations of a nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and the widespread corruption that permits it. One juror, screwing around, discovers a hypodermic needle in a kid’s locker, while another discovers and oohs over an abandoned brassiere, and yes, both discoveries are part of it. There’s another nice touch involving the school’s upright piano, which is stored behind iron bars, and which a couple of the jurors manage to play anyway; you couldn’t buy more potent symbolism than that.

We must also give props to this film’s bailiff, who unlike the glorified prop of the original film is actually a living and breathing personality, who uses the jury’s confiscated cell phones to make his own calls, and reacts with open, comic, and a precisely modulated level of confusion to the antics going on in the jury room. We don’t get any more of the him than the film needs, just enough. And that is a plus.

The murder, and the means by which the various members of the jury poke holes in what had seemed an airtight case, are similar to the ones originally posited by Reginald Rose. We get the supposedly unique knife used in the crime, the limping old man from downstairs who says he witnessed the boy’s flight but couldn’t have, the unlikelihood of the boy blithely returning to the scene of the crime hours after the killing, and even the woman with compromised eyesight who claims to have witnessed the murder from across the street. There is no passing elevated train, but that’s a difficult story element to translate to Moscow and a loud construction site works just as well. The unlikelihood of a boy used to handling knives stabbing a much taller man with a downward thrust also comes up, and that scene is, here, wonderful; the proper method of knife-handling is demonstrated by a surgeon among the jurors who happens to be a Chechen himself and who turns out to be a frightening wizard with a blade. Some of the dramatics work identically, as well; for instance, the main antagonist is a bully of a juror who has issues involving his relationship with his own son, though the details are very different (and are related in the last and best of the film’s many extended monologues).

Some of the character stuff is genuinely hilarious. The cemetery guy is eager to get back to his hot 21 year old wife, who according to him looks like Angelina Jolie. He has had three wet dreams in three consecutive nights, thinking of her. He demands to know of his fellow jurors whether they still have wet dreams at their age. (To the film’s credit, this results in helpless laughter on the part of everybody.)  The film’s bully keeps attacking the film’s elderly Jew, who just takes it with a knowing amusement that would infuriate any bigot more than any tirade. This is good stuff.

But that’s all before we get to some of the strangest and most extreme departures from Reginald Rose’s original story.

You have already been provided with a spoiler warning. Proceed past this sentence at your own risk.

One juror puts together the evidence and comes up with an alternative theory that not only fits the facts, but seems to be the story’s objective truth: i.e. the father was murdered, the boy framed, and the elderly witness downstairs paid off, by the construction company working on the building next door, that wanted to force them all out of their homes. The police and the prosecution have been paid off to see to it that the boy is railroaded.

Again, that deserves repetition.

This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the jurors actually solve the crime.

Subsequently, the foreman, a retired ex-intelligence officer who has said almost nothing during the film, reveals that he put together this theory almost immediately and still intends to vote guilty, as the boy has nowhere to go and will certainly be assassinated by the true culprits if freed. In prison, at least, he will live longer. He asks the others if they’ll take responsibility for the boy’s future now, knowing what they know. They all demur, as they all have lives to live. He reluctantly joins them in a Not Guilty verdict. At the end, post-trial, he not only tells the defendant that he knows what really happened and that he will not rest until the true killers are exposed…he tells the kid to come home with him.

That also deserves repetition.

This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the foreman of the jury adopts the defendant.

I can’t be any clearer than this. 12 is a well-meaning and in many ways admirable version of the basic story, that tries to adapt the story skeleton for its own entirely defensible purposes. But  The film’s several cogent observations about life in modern-day Russia notwithstanding, these touches make 12 about as ludicrous a re-imagining as we’ve seen at any point, even in the age of remakes.

The Verdict

Twelve Angry Men: an incredibly contrived, but brilliantly told film. 12: a lumpy and ludicrous but frequently powerful report on the state of life in Russia today.

And now, the wife produces an identical switchblade from her jacket pocket and stabs it into the table…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes.****

12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes.**1’2

Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); the William Friedkin TV-movie remake (1997); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.

In my nearly 30 years working in and around court rooms and juries, I could never imagine a juror able to bring a weapon into the jury room.  That being said, I have seen many odd bits of evidence in both civil and criminal trials. (OK, for you dying to know, everything from a human leg to a 1960’s era VW Beetle, not to mention a life size replica of a male plaintiff’s genitalia with removable parts to demonstrate his injuries!)  But, after viewing these films, I wonder if screenwriters have a clue how juries really work.

I have seen the group who just want to get it over with, the group who want to sock it to the insurance company, the group who actually care and the jury that can’t understand a darn thing!  The twelve men in our tales all begin as the primary and in the 1957 actually come full circle back to that with only their verdict changed.  The jurists in the Russian film not only want the whole deal over with, they obviously also want group therapy.  It seems the 2007 theme was we can heal ourselves by freeing the boy.

The Lumet-directed piece plays tight and tense, the climate in the room mirroring the temperament and tenor of the deliberations.  The claustrophobic conditions only add to the exquisite morality play we witness.  But, alas, it feels like a play.  In my reality, the single hold out would have either been abused verbally and possibly physically, or requested to be excused before the abuse could begin.  Seldom will one person be persuasive enough to sway eleven others,  and in this case his opening gambit would never have been able to work.  This is an idealization of the jury process, not the truth of the fallibility of our justice system.

The Russian piece, while hitting all the salient points, doesn’t have the edge to make it work.  Again, we are dealing with prejudice and poverty, but this version needs to show us the depravity that the accused boy has lived through and the ongoing horror of his continued existence.  Ok, great, but that’s not the story of justice served.  The added sequences (including the repetition of the wet dog) do nothing to move the story forward and in my opinion bogs it down enough to cause serious  breaks in what should have been some decent dramatic scenes.  Yes, we are dealing with these twelve guys trying to work out their own problems through this deliberation, but the sense of urgency, the need to get this right, just doesn’t feel present here.  The very fact that life or death is not only based on the verdict, but what happens afterward, blows the premise of the play to shreds.

I have been the fool left “babysitting” the jury.  Hours spent sitting, running questions to the judge, getting evidence and meals. But, I have also been a juror. These idealized versions of courts and juries just don’t cut it, but then, truth is much more boring than fiction (in most cases).


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.

*

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.