I decided to watch a movie last night, but which movie? There are so many that I want to see! Instead of choosing something from my watchlist, though, I decided to browse the $5 sale movies at iTunes.
I feel like most of the $5 sale movies at iTunes are “junk” films, films I have zero interest in seeing. But every now and then, I find a gem. Last night, I found a gem: Sorcerer, the 1977 thriller from William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection).
I first read about Sorcerer last spring. It’s notable for two reasons.
- First, it had the unfortunate fate to open soon after Star Wars in 1977, meaning it was destined to be forgotten.
- Second, it’s a remake of the 1953 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, The Wages of Fear.
When I read about Sorcerer and Wages last spring, I vowed that someday I’d watch them as a double-header. Last night, I did that — watching the remake first, then the original.
Both films share the same basic story: Somewhere in Latin America, a group of colorful characters live and work in an impoverished oil town. Things are gritty. People have no money and are willing to do anything for work. The first 45 minutes of each film explores this set-up with no real plot progression. It’s basically “life in a squalid company town”. The Wages of Fear does this part much better than Sorcerer.
For some reason, Sorcerer finds it necessary to show us the back story for our four main characters. Why? Why do we care? We don’t, and these backgrounds play no real role in the story. The intro to Sorcerer comes off as disjointed and irrelevant.
The intro to The Wages of Fear, on the other hand, is much more effective at imparting its setting. The film is ostensibly French, but it shifts from French to English to Spanish to German in a fluid fashion. (It’s kind of like the way Everything Everywhere All at Once has an effortless blend of English and Chinese. It works.) This intro is low-key amazing. It’s interesting to see such a diverse cast of background characters (black, brown, white, what have you) all relating to each other in a natural way. Wouldn’t have happened in an American film from 1953!
In both films, the central crisis is this: An oil well has caught fire and the only way to extinguish the inferno is with a nitroglycerin-based explosion. The trouble? The nitro is hundreds of miles away across nearly impassable terrain. The company’s solution is to offer a large reward for whomever can make it through with the explosives. Sure, it’s probably a suicide mission. But if everyone dies, it doesn’t cost the company anything. If the mission succeeds, then the price was worth it.
The second half of the story is very different than the first. The first half is all getting to know the setting and the characters. The second half is all thriller as our four main characters travel in two trucks, trying to reach the distant oil town in order to collect the big bucks they so desperately need.
Here I feel like Sorcerer is far superior to The Wages of Fear. I know that critics adore the last half of the original, but I didn’t find it that compelling. This probably reflects the fact that I’m jaded by 50+ years of action-adventure films. My standards for this sort of thing are very high. The Wages of Fear seems pretty tame. Mostly.
Sorcerer, on the other hand, does a damn fine job of building and sustaining the tension. Here, for instance, is my favorite — eleven minutes featuring two harrowing bridge crossings above a raging (and rising) river. Remember: these trucks are loaded with nitroglycerin and they could explode at any moment if there are any sudden shocks.
I think one of the big reasons this is so effective is that we, the audience, know the film isn’t cheating. This is clearly all done on location with real actors and with practical special effects. Sure, there’s Hollywood magic going on, but it’s not the super-fake CGI stuff we get nowadays.
Today, scenes like this are much less exciting for me. We know they’re done digitally. They’re filmed against a green screen on a sound stage and there’s zero jeopardy involved. There’s no real sense of danger.
Anyhow, I enjoyed both The Wages of Fear and Sorcerer. They’re both good. They both could have potentially been great, but they have their flaws, including very strange sequences near the end of each film. So bizarre. In any event, either (or both) is worth seeking out simply to enjoy the quality of filmmaking during the good parts.
One final note: The story here isn’t overtly political or anti-capitalist, but the “bad guy” is pretty clearly the company. The company is willing to risk the lives of several employees in order to save a bunch of money. In this regard, the company reminds me of The Company in the Alien films.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to rewatch that bridge-crossing scene again.
p.s. I want to write this down so that I remember it. Just a couple of minutes before the bridge crossing, there’s a short bit where the Roy Scheider character reaches a fork in the road in the middle of the jungle. There’s a sign with an arrow, but it’s been knocked to the ground so it’s unclear which direction to go. That’s how they end up on “the wrong road”. Steven Spielberg clearly re-used this as a gag when Nedry is trying to smuggle the dinosaur eggs during the rainstorm in Jurassic Park. This is one reason I like watching older films. You find references you never noticed before. Cinema is full of in-jokes like this.