The formidable William Friedkin appears to have been successful in his pitched battle fought against Paramount and Universal to re-release his widely-panned retelling of La Salaire de Peure. Sorcerer had sat in a borderzone of contested ownership after a joint Paramount Universal corporation had gone into administration. But corporate collapse was not enough to keep us safe from this mess and thousands of new viewers have been exposed to this terrible little film in the lord's year of 2017 because of Friedkin's powerful ego, and misguided attempt to preserve his own contested legacy. In his own words Friedkin even claims Sorcerer as his finest work (in a career such as his it is doubtful that even he believes himself on this occasion) and he provocatively asserts that he 'wouldn't change a frame in [Sorcerer]' and that his only hope is that more people would see it. In one interview in recent years (during his court case against Paramount and Universal) Friedkin even compared himself (specifically in reference to Sorcerer) to artists such as Van Gogh that went unappreciated in their own lifetimes. It seems that there's something in his protestations that goes beyond analysis by a film practitioner, even a trained critic, and would be more fitting for the psychotherapist, or exorcist. Friedkin's career dead, his ghost can only attempt to preserve the memory and guard against its betrayal. Sorcerer is an objectively bad film, made worse by comparison to the film it remade, one of the most cinematic.
The Wages of Fear is an oddball movie based in a purgatorial universe of crooks, outcasts and villains, a grimoire of lumpenproletariai hiding from their own crimes (and, implicitly, old world mass-murder- this was 1953 and well within the memory of total war) in a South American border town. The listless characters that we open the film with speak across Spanish, Italian, French and English with smatterings of German here and there; they are bored and screwing around in a local bar by frustrating the bar proprietor's business with their disreputable laziness and almost complete lack of interest in his commerce. It is this weird, exegesis heavy, opening scene and its extended first act in general that is precisely why Wages is such an immeasurably greater film then Sorcerer. Its worth comparing Clezio and Friedkin's two intros to understand what makes a film such as this function or fail. Both films, it is worth mentioning at this point, take place in the second and third acts within two trucks as they undergo a perilous journey through the rainforest to transport volatile explosives to an oil refinery of a failing American corporation. Any sudden movement, any bump or scrape threatens to detonate the explosives and cost the drivers their lives. Much is made of this in both films. The close ups of the sweating brow of the drivers are always in direct reference to their fear, a fear that is only matched by their desire for the handsome wages that await them if they are to make it to the refinery alive. But what is also at stake, in Clezio's edition at least, is the relationship between the men.
Instead of placing us into purgatory, Friedkin opts to put us into the backstory of the films central four characters. You can imagine the thinking behind this move. Film, as a visual medium, relies on the action taking place on the screen, not being recounted to us after the fact. A film makes for good cinema, electrifying the crowd with suspense, only when we see what happens. And so Friedkin throws us from Jerusalem to Paris to New Jersey and finally back to the jungle where a convoluted backstory for the final character is gestured too.
Friedkin opts here for camera moves instead of dialogue, and buys tickets to locations instead of sitting down with the writer to flesh out the dialogue. Unfortunately for him the photography itself, an internationally mobile camera, is a poor stand in for the smart, playful four languages of the original that simmer with mystery and suggestion. Where Clezio entangles and twists together the leads in romantic and quasi-romantic bonds of friendship and love Friedkin attempts to wow with gunfights, explosions and production design the result being that when the characters all collide together in the jungle, we know little about any of them, and nothing of their relations to one another. Each of the backstories seem to be lifted out of newspaper cuttings, they feel zeitgeisty and without a deeper meaning. It is a curiously impersonal effect that puts us at a bored distance from our subjects, they are the lives of others: A newspaper headline of a car crash instead of the experience of sitting in the car as the distractedly romantic newlyweds lose attention with the road just long enough to strike down the pregnant ex-girlfriend of the husband, for example. The dialogue of Wages, concerned as it was with existentialist philosophy (then middle-brow-popular) was obsessed, almost to the point of silliness, with character, being and non-being, linguistic apparatus of philosophy that is logocentric - word obsessed. But the dialogue isn't what makes Wages work, its that in delivering the silly dialogue Clezio's actors flesh out powerful fueds and romances, backstories and imagined futures. In place of this Friedkin has introduced... just nothing. And this isn't accusing him of any act of meaningful adaption- he totally overlooked the function of language in the original. But if we were being excruciatingly generous then we might try to find something in his photography.
Friedkin employed two cinematographers on this doomed production, the first he fired because they couldn't achieve the look that Friedkin hoped for on location, and the second didn't have much of a career; was not a great talent. Friedkin, it seems, an alumni of the film-school of hard knocks simply couldn't secure the talent for his shabby script, and couldn't understand the needs of the film enough to manage it appropriately with whom he had at hand. The cinematography is cackhanded. Long lenses, and countless inexplicable zooms, that were so popular (because new) in the 1970s. Their meaning dubious, they leave a sense of a film that has nothing to say, or that is purely aesthetic. Except in one characteristic, they compress the space of the frame so that the characters are tightly bound. This could be generously read as an attempt to produce claustrophobia, if it was such then it was too successful and leaves the audience dying to escape the frame if only to see some characters that we actually care about. By contrast the 4:3 Wages appears epic, magisterial, expansive, compared to the utterly suffocating Friedkin 23:5:1.
There's much more to be said of the comparison, I'm sure, but this is probably all that's very useful for me to contribute without being paid to make up some thoughts. If this seems unkind, then you probably haven't seen the two films.
Its interesting to film practitioners to consider Friedkin's madness a little. His is the madness of a stratospheric success and a meteoric fall. For a filmmaker; without funding, what is there? 'Nothing' in the words of the existentialist Mario and Luigi. And with genuinely great work in the past, I can only imagine the sense of nostalgia, pride and wounded ego that must have haunted Friedkin when he couldn't get his movies funded and became the premature ghost of his budding career. A sad story, but only a shabby little film to infer it from; now available on Blue Ray.