The Frenchman Henri Girard authored his debut novel Le salaire de la peur (literally translated as ‘The salary of fear’) under his pseudonym Georges Arnaud in 1950. The novel was a fiction inspired by his time spent in South America in the late 1940s and 1950s. Girard/Arnaud had an eventful life up until then having spent over a year and a half in prison for the murder of his father and aunt, which he was later acquitted for. He derived much disdain for the French judicial system and denounced the treatment of Algerians in his home country, thus supporting their side during a war for independence, which led to a suspended prison sentence in 1960. Le salaire de la peur was not a hugely successful novel in France upon its release, but unsurprisingly, it has grown in significance since. It concerned a number of unemployed multi-national characters stranded in a village in Guatemala. To make some money and perhaps get out of there, they reluctantly agree to drive two trucks full of nitroglycerin across mountainous terrain to help an oil company extinguish an oil-well fire.
The novel itself has sort of been overlooked over time, due mainly to the fanatical interest bestowed upon two of its most famous film adaptations – the 1953 French-Italian production called The Wages of Fear directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, and the 1977 Hollywood production called Sorcerer directed by William Friedkin (a largely forgettable ‘US remake’ of Clouzot’s film called Violent Road or Hell’s Highway was also released in 1958). The two films, in their own respective rights, are indelible classics of cinema history – Clouzot’s film because of its extraordinary representations of suspense and nihilism from the early 1950s, and Friedkin’s film because of its immense showpiece sequences as well as being the marking point for the end of free-rein New Hollywood film-making in the 1970s.
The story indeed is a fascinating one, albeit very male-orientated and macho-driven. Whereas the films were touted and sold to the public as exhilarant thrillers, the basis for the narrative is very much grounded in existentialist drama. In fact, the core subject of the material is very simple. It is all about fear and fate, and a man’s place in this world. The characters in both films are down-and-out in a foreign land. They are lost, afraid, unemployed and directionless. Their only road out is fraught with danger and potential annihilation, but they have no other choice. In many ways, they are only too happy to take the risk because it gives their wretched lives enough meaning to continue. Nihilistic indeed! The characters, as established in Arnaud’s novel, are all anti-heroes who are ‘hard to root for’, as Friedkin himself put it. At the back of it all, however, they are all very human. When put in a desperate position they will do anything to survive, including helping each other. The interactions between each of the men are what makes the novel and the subsequent films most engaging from the get-go.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Henri-Georges Clouzot had an eventful early life too. He had worked as a screenwriter for Continental Films in Nazi-occupied France throughout World War II, and after the country was liberated in 1944, he was tried in court and banned from film-work for two years due to his alleged collusion with the Germans. After the ban was lifted, his reputation for directing grew and eventually led to two of the biggest French films of the 1950s: The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. Not unlike Hollywood, French cinema was at a creative crossroads at the time. The eminence of poetic realism from notable directors like Julien Duvivier, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné had wavered, and the original film auteur Jean Renoir had finished establishing his great works, while the ground-breaking Nouvelle Vague works of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer and Chabrol was still several years away. Clouzot crossed that divide in the immediate post-War period with films that provided thrilling drama and entertainment for French audiences willing to forget the recent past. It is no surprise to find that many critics compare him to Hitchcock, as his films are equally dark and pessimistic as they are humanist and wholesome.
In 1950 along with his brother Jean, he began adapting Arnaud’s novel into a film script. Clouzot had spent time in Brazil on honeymoon with his wife Véra (who appears as the only woman in the film) and he became moved by the place, in particular the levels of poverty he witnessed. This likely led to his interest in Arnaud’s novel, and the sub-theme of money and desperation. The filming of The Wages of Fear, believe it or not, took place completely in the south of France. It was chosen over Spain as the location due to lead actor Yves Montand’s refusal to work in a country controlled by Franco’s fascists (his family had fled fascist Italy in the 1920s so that’s understandable). There were many issues with the production, mainly due to weather, and it took two years for the filming to be completed. When the film was eventually released in 1953, it was an instant hit with French audiences and won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Golden Bear at Berlin. This success in turn resulted in worldwide acclaim for both Clouzot and Montand (who was already a famous singer in France at the time), and prompted the film to sit proudly as an all-time classic. Its release in the US was not without controversy however. Somehow, the detail in the film about the evil oil company being American-owned was construed by the US censors as being anti-American, and consequently 21 minutes of footage was cut before it was shown in theatres there. Amazingly, the footage wasn’t restored to the subtitled version until 1999 – even Friedkin failed to get the film re-released when he was making Sorcerer in the 1970s.
The so-called ‘evil’ portrayal of the American oil company, although a neat aside, is not the driver of the film. The focus is mainly on the internal strife of each of the main characters, all desperate to make enough money to get the hell out of dodge. The setting is a run-down desert village of Las Piedras, which languishes in the shadows of a walled compound owned by the flourishing SOC (Southern Oil Company). We are introduced to Parisians’ Mario (played by Montand) and Jo (played by award winner Charles Vanel), who are two rough-lined drifters stranded without enough money to catch a plane out of the nearby airport. They spend most of their time hanging out at the village cantina, and it is here where we are introduced to other similar destitute characters such as the Italian Luigi, and two Germans called Bimba and Smerloff. Mario also hooks up with a local woman called Linda (afore-mentioned Véra Clouzot), who genuinely adores him despite his disdainful treatment of her. After news arrives of a massive fire at the SOC oilfields 300 miles away, the American boss of the company decides to recruit four locals willing to transport two truckloads of nitroglycerin-filled jerry-cans to put out the fires. With little else to be doing and the lure of US$2,000, many of the men at the cantina volunteer for the job but in the end Mario, Bimba, the dying Luigi and Smerloff are chosen. On the morning of departure, Smerloff mysteriously does not show up and Jo gleefully takes his place. The adventurous scene is then set where Bimba and Luigi drive off in one truck, followed 30 minutes behind by Mario and Jo. What ensues is not just a buddy-movie adventure, but sheer and utter suspense.
The gritty, black and white cinematography by George Auric serves as a great accompaniment to the mindset of the characters as well as the action. The iconic Yves Montand illuminates the screen with his handsome and arrogant demeanour: his ragged all-white get-up with cravat tied around his exposed neck provides an enduring image. At the beginning, he appears clean and suave as he sips from a glass and sharpens his pen-knife, but near the end of his epic journey with Jo, his clothes are smeared with oil and he looks exhausted and defeated. The scenes of action are incredibly captured. The two trucks appear and sound monstrous as they roar across barely-seen tracks (something that Friedkin exploits further in Sorcerer) and every leg of the journey is fraught with one obstacle after another. With the possibility of the nitroglycerin exploding at any moment, the edginess for the viewer never lets up. The diversity of the characterisations, and the evolution of their humanity throughout their respective journeys, also lends itself to the build-up of suspense. The multi-culturalism of the picture consumes the viewer in a very powerful way. Of course I mean that in a respectful way. There are Spanish speakers, Italian speakers, English speakers, French speakers and German speakers, and the sun-drenched Latin American setting pours more exotica on top of this. You can’t help but think that the true tragedy for these stricken characters is that they do not belong in this place!
Like Clouzot, William Friedkin has had a very eventful career but doubtlessly he has been far more closely evaluated by the wider public. After making and winning many awards for The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), and having reached a peak of super-stardom in the heady days of 1970s Hollywood when the directors ran the roost, Friedkin sought out even more elaborate and extravagant film projects. As his competitor Francis Ford Coppola embarked for the jungles of the Philippines to make Apocalypse Now, Friedkin headed to the Dominican Republic to make an alternative version of Arnaud’s Le salaire de la peur. The results were mixed.
Whereas Sorcerer has now been rightly re-evaluated as a tremendous work of art, at the time of its release it was a major, major flop, both financially and with the critics. Unfortunately for Friedkin, his film opened on the same weekend as George Lucas’ Star Wars. Of course, at the time no one foresaw that Lucas would have had that much success with what was essentially a kid’s film with costumed characters but by jingo, they were wrong. Even despite this Friedkin had been on thin ice since he had started production on Sorcerer. He initially pitched it to the studios as a low-budgeted side project that was going to be followed by another sci-fi horror extravaganza called The Devil’s Triangle. This was side-lined once he got in thick with the filming of Sorcerer and started asking for more and more money from both Universal and Paramount (the budget eventually went over by US$7 million). Every big name actor and their dog were asked to star in the film (Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates and Marcello Mastroianni to name a few), but in the end Roy Scheider (who had garnered big fame with Jaws a few years previously) was the chosen lead. The rest of the main cast were made up of seasoned European actors, who very few in the US would have heard of – Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Hamidou Benmessaoud (Amidou), Ramon Bieri and Karl John.
Without any real star power to sell the film in the US, everything about the project was risky, but this didn’t deter Friedkin. He had already met with Clouzot in France to obtain his blessing for the project and amazingly offered him a percentage of the shares. He also got consent from Arnaud to adapt the novel and hired Walon Green to write a screenplay. The screenplay was set up in a similar fashion to the novel in that it was staged in 4 parts, marked by a prologue and epilogue. The prologue consists of a series of backstories (set in Veracruz, Jerusalem, Paris and New Jersey respectively) that serve as an introduction to the four main characters, all of which are variants on the characters from Arnaud’s novel and Clouzot’s film. Rabal plays Nilo, a Mexican assassin; Amidou plays Kassem, a Palestinian terrorist; Cremer plays Victor, a French businessman on the run; Scheider plays Jackie, an Irish American getaway driver also on the run. They all end up in a remote village somewhere in Latin America called Porvenir, where the economy is heavily reliant on a resident American oil company. Sound familiar?
Friedkin was at this stage working with extreme freedom on the production and he actually went to each respective location above to shoot the 30 minute prologue. After failing to convince Universal that Ecuador was a good idea to shoot the rest of the film in, he instead opted for the jungles of Dominican Republic, somewhat closer to the US. The remote locations and the ego of Friedkin, however, proved too difficult for much of the crew. Over 50 people quit the set due to either injury, illness or personal conflicts with Friedkin (he also fired five production managers himself). Scheider could have packed it in too but he decided to hang around until the end despite resenting Friedkin’s hard-man style of directing, with his life having allegedly been put in threatening situations often. Another stubborn inclusion to the film was Friedkin’s insistence that the film be called ‘Sorcerer’, which was obscurely entitled after the name of one of the trucks. Probably one of the most misleading movie titles of all time. On opening night, cinema-goers actually believed they were going to see The Exorcist 2 – how wrong and disappointed they were. There is zero supernatural activity in this film. A great background to the making of Sorcerer can be found in Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Friedkin unsurprisingly does not come across very well in it.
But let’s be honest, Sorcerer is a gem of a film. Maybe not as good as The Wages of Fear, but still in its own dramatic way, it is a gem. Just like Clouzot’s adaptation, it has magnificent cinematography. When we are transported to the wet, foliage-rich surrounds of Porvenir, the colour tones are full and exotic. The jungle is presented as a more threatening character in Sorcerer than in The Wages of Fear, but let’s be fair, this is mainly due to the advancements in film technology (cameras etc.) in the 15 years between films. The acting is top notch too and the flavour of multi-culturalism as in the first one is played out very well. The prologue may be slightly overlong and convoluted but it provides a nice build-up to the main action of the film, i.e. the trucks’ journeys through the jungle.
The technical effects in Sorcerer are also staggering – the sequence where each of the trucks in turn struggles to make it across a swollen river along a wooden bridge during a vicious storm is something that captures you by the neck and does not let go for a good 11 minutes. As Friedkin recalls, it was the most arduous scene he has ever filmed – it cost $3 million alone to make and had to be re-located to Mexico because there wasn’t enough rain in the Dominican Republic at the time of shooting! The photography elevates the sequence beyond the norm: with a raging rainstorm causing all manners of mud on the track and dangerous debris to float in the river, the scenes are presented with a cold, dark blue hue against a green jungle backdrop. It is hard to fathom exactly how they actually managed to film this (apparently the trucks fell into the river several times). There are few special effects involved and Scheider, Cremer and co. appear genuinely manic and fearful. The awesome, menacing Tangerine Dream soundtrack also increases the suspense. It is pure unadulterated, tightly gripping and visceral drama – one of the most dramatic cinematic sequences of all time perhaps.
In the end, the story envisioned by Arnaud must be given the most credit. His mid-20th century story explores the depths of man’s character when faced with very real and unavoidable, life-threatening demands. This may have limited relevance in a world that strives for more sensitivity and inclusivity, but nevertheless, it gives an absorbing perspective. We can be thankful that the ambitious Clouzot and the generally unhinged Friedkin were on hand to provide us with two very different, but equally brilliant film adaptations of this work. From a post-WWII French viewpoint and from a post-Vietnam War Hollywood viewpoint respectively. They are in their own individual ways, essential viewing for any aspiring cinephiles out there.