Posts Tagged ‘Wages of Fear’

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Total Recall (1990). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’ Bannon, and Gary Goldman, from a story by Shusett, O’Bannon and Jon Povill, itself based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick. Starring Arnold Shwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside. 113 minutes.** 1/2

Total Recall (2012). Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by  Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, from the 1990 screenplay and Philip K. Dick story. Starring Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, and Bill Nighy. (Produced by an outfit called “Original Film,” which got a huge laugh all by itself at the showing we saw). 121 minutes. ** 1/2



Okay. Let’s get this much out of the way, first.

The general disdain many people have for the very phenomenon of remakes is often centered on the movie made so perfectly the first time that it is unthinkable to imagine such perceived perfection ever being sullied by an inferior imitation.

And there’s something to be said for this: after all, we have the remake of PSYCHO, a failed attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

The reflexive disdain is so automatic that it has, in the past, condemned films that had something to go for them. We’ve discussed how one great movie, The Wages Of Fear, was remade as a pretty damn good one, Sorcerer, and how many critics of the time assaulted it just for the unwelcome presumption.

We have seen some rhetoric of the kind directed at the latest big remake to hit the multiplex, a second film called Total Recall.

The implication is that the original was such an unparalleled classic that just to even attempt to remake it was blasphemy.

But let’s be honest here. The original was not a capital-g great movie. Like the remake, it’s a rather dopey one, enjoyably kinetic in its setpieces and resonantly paranoid in its premise, but nevertheless a dopey one, driven by machine-guns and explosions and a McGuffin that fails to pass the bullshit test of anybody with even a passing familiarity with science. The remake is also a rather dopey film, also enjoyably kinetic in its setpieces and resonantly paranoid in its premise, but driven by machine-guns and explosions and…well, the rest of the sentence continues on as before, even though the McGuffin here is entirely different than the one in the original film and therefore requires an entirely different species of bullshit.

The films have many of the same strengths and many of the same flaws. It is possible to consider both absolute crap and it is possible to consider both enjoyable thrill rides. It really depends on how “hard” you prefer your science fiction. In either film, if you require your physics to obey the laws ogf the real world, you might as well not pay the price of admission.

In broad strokes, the setups are identical. Both films open in a near-future metropolis, where a happily-married menial worker named Quaid (Arnold Shwarzenegger in the first film, Colin Farrell in the second), who feels stifled by the same old grind of to-work-and-back, has been having dream-flashbacks of an adventurous life not his own. The dreams come complete with a woman not his wife, which disturbs that wife (Sharon Stone in the first film, Kate Beckinsale in the second), who is remarkably understanding about her man having erotic dreams about someone else.

Still driven by the sense that something in missing, Quaid goes to Rekall, a corporation that sells false memories of grand times the customer has never lived. He is talked into a dream involving himself as an unstoppable secret agent. But midway through the procedure, something seems to go wrong; it seems that he might actually be a secret agent named Hauser, who was only weeks ago mind-wiped and installed in his current life by the forces of a villain named Cohaagen (Ronny Cox in the first film, Bryan Cranston in the second). Now Hauser must flee ruthless assassins who include his own loving wife, while seeking out the answers to the mysteries behind his origins.

The films share a number of other dramatic beats in common, among them the major revelation regarding Hauser’s real agenda. But they are otherwise so different that neither really spoils the other. Let’s take a look at the differences.

The Futures

The key difference is in the science-fictional background.

The 1990 film presents us with a future where Mankind has started to colonize the solar system, where people on Earth live pretty much the same way they do today except with more gadgets and where people on Mars live under the heel of a corrupt local administrator whose pocket-lining ways has created a permanent oppressed underclass of mutants and other 99 percenters. Questions of harmful radiation, of life support, and of the stupidity of firing machine guns around glass in a pressurized environment – which is stupid, but clearly a joke the movie is aware of, given that Michael Ironside’s rather dim manhunter makes or tries to make that same mistake multiple times – all factor into it, but the overall impression given is that mankind’s horizons have expanded and that there are enough wonders to go along, if not for the few selfish and brutal people who insist on ruining it for anybody. It’s hard to imagine minding a life in this future, as long as you’re one of the privileged and all the shooting is safely in the past. It’s all rather familiar, really – it even has many of the same corporations.

Some of the new gadgets are particularly fun; I like the bored airhead receptionist, amusing herself by instantaneously changing the color of her sculpted fingernails. And some have actually entered our lives; i.e., the wall-sized television sets.

The 2012 film, more in line with the tone of author Philip K. Dick, presents us with a firmly Earthbound humanity, on a ruined planet that possesses only two habitable regions, one in what used to be Great Britain and one in what used to be Australia. Both regions, beset by wild overcrowding, have built their urban centers up vertically, in a form of architecture that involves laying one city entirely over another, and then another over that, for as high up as the superstructure will support.  Workers commute from Australia to Great Britain on a daily basis, via a kind of skyscraper commuter train that plummets through the core of the Earth, and somehow builds up enough momentum to make it all the way to the surface on the other side.  So it is, in a very real sense, a world that has lost all hope, and where all the machine gun battles and running around amount to a form of fighting over the crumbs. There are gadgets here, as well – Colin Farrell’s Quaid has a refrigerator that also functions as an I-Pad, and there’s a wondrous chase through a network of crisscrossing high-speed elevators, traveling both vertically and horizontally. But again, the impression given is that one world is a hopeful one, marred by corruption; the other is a terrible place where people can live their lives, but where their horizons are strictly proscribed.

The differences between these two milieus is further underlined by the visual palate. The 1990 world has some dark and/or undeveloped places, but is mostly a brightly-lit and colorful place, where even the sleazy hooker bar looks about as threatening as a McDonald’s at lunch hour. For the most part, the 2012 world is grimy, grungy, dimly-lit, often rainy, and in the Australian scenes populated by people who look like they’ve managed to eke out a few precious square meters for themselves and dress to let us know it. This extends to the look of the false-memory shop, Rekall. In 1990, it has stone walls, but is clearly an upscale business, with techs in white coats, a smiling high-pressure salesman, audio-visual presentations for the slower folks among the clientele. The model is a travel agency. The 2012 version is tucked away in an alley in the midst of a skeevy hooker neighborhood, is dimly lit, and is decorated for mood  – the impression given being that it’s more of a vice-driven enterprise.

(Both places have a three-breasted hooker, but 1990’s three-breasted hooker is implicitly one of the area’s mutants, and the 2012 specimen is a one-of-a-kind anomaly, possibly a new form of deliberate body-mod.)

Claims that the 2012 version is “just” a ripoff of the original are defeated by the change in design. Clearly, a lot of thought went into making the new version look different. The competition between them is frankly a wash. 1990 is brighter, more colorful, larger, more filled with visual humor; 2012 is more eye-popping, more dazzling visually, less hopeful and certainly more a world that anybody would mess with his mind to escape. 


The Performances

1990 star Arnold Shwarzenegger has often been accused of being utterly without acting talent. That is a canard. He is no grand thespian, and was indeed at his best in the first Terminator film where he was employed less as character than as living special effect, but any close examination to his accomplishments on screen reveals than he’s actually pretty good at expressing rage, fear, terror, pain, amusement, amiability, charm, uncertainty – not quite a full spectrum of human emotion, and certainly not enough to completely overcome his easily-parodied line readings, but certainly enough to function within the scenarios usually provided for him. He is a larger than life figure, and viewers never wanted him to be anything other than his usual screen persona, anyway. (Hence the frequent, jocular repetitions of “I’ll be back.”)

2012 star Colin Farrell is an actor of harder-to-deny talents, who has been very good indeed in character-based movies (two capital-g Great ones: The Way Back, In Bruges),  but one odd result of casting him in big-budget action films is that he tends to disappear in them even when he’s supposed to be the focus (see: Miami Vice, Daredevil).   In his Total Recall, he’s very good indeed as a hero who imagined himself an ordinary man and now finds out he’s not (or, in the other interpretation, as an ordinary man who is merely being made to imagine that he’s a hero), but much of his acting is subtle, inward, as far from over-the-top as possible. It’s a better performance, technically, but is it a better one for the material? This reviewer is honestly not sure. Call it a wash.

Bryan Cranston has recently made his bones playing a good guy who becomes a bad guy in Breaking Bad, which is why it’s so disappointing that his 2012 evil mastermind is not nearly as memorable as Ronny Cox’s 1990; he’s just not given the same level of emotion to play. On the other hand, Sharon Stone’s vicious undercover wife from 1990 is just a little bit more than competent and Kate Beckinsale’s equivalent in 2012 is a wonderment; she is an unstoppable force of nature, a frightening figure even when she just frowns with determination, from a distance. It is grand theft movie, first class, by far the best reason to see the remake.

Beckinsale’s character, Lori, is actually the combination of two characters from the 1990 film, Lori and Richter. The loss of Richter (played in 1990 by Michael Ironside) is a major one, in that his character has more than one pressing reason to break orders and want Quaid dead. There’s a great exchange between him and another of Cohaagen’s men, regarding Lori’s undercover role as Quaid’s wife: “Are you saying she enjoyed it?” “No, I’m sure she hated every minute of it.” Ironside played him as a guy who adored his wife but wanted to erase her transgression by any means possible, to the point that it rendered him reckless and stupid. It was a performance that made it possible to feel sorry for him. As great as Beckinsale is in her performance as Lori, a female terminator, it’s a shame that the streamlining of the story deprived us of a subsidiary villain who could have had some equivalent fun with this dynamic. 

The Competing Species of Bullshit

In Total Recall 1990, the big secret is the discovery of a massive alien machine designed to melt a glacier in the core of Mars, and thus provide the planet with a breathable atmosphere.

This is a terrifically cosmic science fictional concept called “terraforming,” and it renders Cohaagen an even greater villain in that he refuses to turn it on, preferring to profit from a Mars where every citizen has to pay for every breath of air. (Oh, he provides some lip-service to fears over whether the machine is safe…but really, it’s clear; he just doesn’t want to destroy the Mars that enriches him.) In the climax, the erupting plumes of vapor shatter all external glass in the colony, but renders Mars a blue-skied paradise within minutes.

Umm. Sorry. The first bad news is that it can’t possibly work that way. Even if that much gas is created, all over Mars, it’s impossible to believe that the air would dissipate all over that globe in mere minutes, unless it creates a worldwide windstorm far stronger than the most violent terrestrial hurricane. And, frankly, just providing Mars with an atmosphere is not the problem. Finding a way for Mars to keep an atmosphere is the problem. There’s a reason why it barely has an atmosphere now; it simply doesn’t have the gravity to retain one. Even if the colonists could enjoy a few minutes of balmy weather in the aftermath of the machine’s activation, the same problem would face them a week or a month or a year later, after all that atmosphere was gone. It’s like giving money to a derelict with holes instead of pockets. He can’t hold on to it, that’s all.

There’s also the issue that Quaid and Melina are exposed to near-vacuum for long minutes as the atmosphere is created, and suffer explosive decompression, complete with eyes popping out of their heads. That they survive, to face a delightful blue sky and a happy ending, without any medical aftereffects, is unlikely in the extreme…but, hey, if we take the position that the entire adventure just survived is Quaid’s psychotic delusion, thanks to the malpractice of Rekall, then it’s fine in that it really doesn’t have to make sense. If it’s not part of Quaid’s real world, it’s dopey. If it’s part of his dream, it’s sneakily brilliant.

One major problem with Total Recall 2012 is that the nonsensical elements are part of Quaid’s waking world. It really is impossible to believe in the Fall, a skyscraper falling through the Earth’s core (and back up again), as the most practical form of mass transit in an nearly uninhabitable world. The physics of it don’t work and logic of it doesn’t work, and beyond that it’s downright ridiculous to posit one transport full of robot soldiers being enough to conquer a teeming city, when we’ve seen that those soldiers can pretty much be taken apart by anybody sufficiently good at martial arts. It can’t be written off as a dream because the same technology exists when Quaid is awake. It’s pretty enough…but fails to beat the common sense test.

Alas, so does the entire justification behind the amnesia storyline in the first place. Assuming you take the interpretation that everything that happens to Quaid is real and not a fantasy implanted at Rekall, it makes perfect retroactive sense, in the 1990 film, for his character to be working undercover with his memory erased. After all, he’s going after a rebel organization run by a telepath. He needs to believe in his own sincerity. There are no telepaths in the 2012 version. Hauser doesn’t have to believe a damn thing; he could accomplish the same thing by just believing real hard. There is no reason to place him in a position where he can run amuck, wholly out of the control of the people who hired him, killing their own men…except to obey the general plot outline that was such a hit in 1990. It doesn’t make sense, not even if you consider Quaid’s adventures a fantasy.

Another element of the 2012 version that makes less sense than the 1990 version: the robotic cops. In 1990, there are none; there’s just a bunch of thugs and a very powerful alien machine with the ability to change the world. 2012 presents us with a bunch of “invincible wimps” – an ultimate weapon killing machine so flawed that it is possible for an unarmed martial artist to take one down. This would not be a serious problem if they were just scenery. But we are made to believe that the plan is for one commuter-car of robot soldiers, to completely exterminate the entire population of the Australian zone. Not based on what we see. I think they’re in for a fight.

The 2012 version is also so fixated on propelling its story that it omits many of 1990’s grace notes. For instance, in 1990, when Quaid and Malena are captured, Cohaagen puts her in a reprogramming chair too, to make her a “respectful” and “obedient” bride for Hauser. It’s just a little terrifying. Not in 2012; she’s simply arrested.

The Action

Both films have wild over-the-top action sequences, with stunning explosions of violence. The ones from 1990 are funnier, and confidently give some of the best bits to people other than the titular hero. For instance, there are precious few moments of junk-movie bliss more transcendent than the moment in that film when the dwarf hooker grabs a machine gun and starts mowing down thugs. She was a bit player, and people still cheered her. It was, I think, the loudest cheer the movie got, which is saying a lot in a film where Arnold Shwarzenegger gets to shoot or beat up dozens of people. The 2012 version is pretty much a four-character show. It’s a loss.

Give the 2012 version credit, though: it has three lengthy action set pieces that outgun and outclass anything in the original film, among them Quaid’s flight through the shadow streets of the Australian zone, a multi-level chase that runs on for miles and takes him through all strata of his society. That’s neat. So’s the hovercar chase, a scene that would have blown my mind, as a youngster. And so’s the wildest innovation of the whole film, an action scene unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any movie, an extended chase through vertical and horizontal elevators that is eye-popping, original, and downright thrilling. It’s great stuff, the main reason the 2012 version receives a grade equal to 1990’s.

The Memory Vault

1990 version: a campy thrill ride, that is science-fictionally richer, and happens to make just a little more sense,  than the 2012 follow-up. The 2012 version: darker and more despairing, better acted albeit (aside from Beckinsale) to lesser effect, and set in a future that makes no sense whatsoever, but with visuals and action sequences better than anything in the original film.

Life circumstances intruding, there will be no Remake Chronicles essay in September. We hope to be back in October, but those “life circumstances” will be continuing well into that month, so it might well be a 60-day break. We shall see you when we see you.


And now, the wife remembers it for you wholesale…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Total Recall (1990). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’ Bannon, and Gary Goldman, from a story by Shusett, O’Bannon and Jon Povill, itself based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick. Starring Arnold Shwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside. 113 minutes.**

Total Recall (2012). Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, from the 1990 screenplay and Philip K. Dick story. Starring Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, and Bill Nighy. (Produced by an outfit called “Original Film,” which got a huge laugh all by itself at the showing we saw). 121 minutes. ** *


One of these two films is better than the other, and its not the one the critics think.

I had fond memories of the 1990 Total Recall.  I mean the images of Mars were amazing and the mutant population was wonderfully varied.  The story had love, hate, war, rebellion, greedy land barons and sympathetic prossies, everything you need for a fun time in the old west right?  Only this wasn’t the old west, it was the future and having bulgy AHNOLD slinging throw away punch lines just doesn’t hold up.

In 1990, I believed a person could survive in a non atmosphere by holding their breath reallllllly long.  Ummm…chalk up one for the gullible.  But guess what?  The filmmakers wanted us to believe not only that, but no permanent damage would occur after  the incident.  Boy, is there egg on my face.

I could go on picking apart the pseudoscience in the original but why bother, its been done ad infinitum by those much better /knowledgeable than I.

Well, to prepare for the remake I decided to read the source material.  Boy, was I ever taken aback.  Where was all this Mars rebellion stuff? This story is all about a guy trying to search for his true identity and then deciding, he really doesn’t like himself too much.  That’s the film that I saw a few weeks ago.  That’s the story that I read.  That’s the reason so few folks liked it in comparison to the first take. 

Colin Farrell plays most of the film as a poor confused sap finding himself involved in things he doesn’t understand or care about.  Audiences don’t like their hunky leading men to play second fiddle to strong capable women. Audiences don’t like plots with more twists than their poor struggling minds can follow. Audiences today want the story spooned up and fed to them so they can run out to get another big gulp and still catch up in one sentence or less.  This is why the majority of folks prefer the first version. You don’t need to think, just cheer on the bruiser.

The remake has an infinitely better cast, better script , special effects and most importantly a set to make any Blade Runner fan drool in envy. 

To compare, Arnold does a quick bit of surgery and recovers pronto, Colin staggers with each bash and bruise.  Sharon Stone as wife in original is a B**ch, but not unstoppable, Kate Beckinsale as wife in remake is a force to reckon with.  Wife two made a more plausible baby sitter for the “dangerous spy/good guy/bad guy/ummm you name it.  Compare Ronny Cox to Bryan Cranston as the money grubbing baddy and it’s a close one.  Cox oozed menace, but couldn’t fight worth a bean.  Cranston oozed menace and proved a bit formidable too. 

So, throw it all into a pot and stir well and you get a tight SF film nearly true to the source material versus one that took the name and a few plot points and then decided to make an action comedy SF film.  You can choose for yourself. I already have.

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.