My father’s favourite film was Clouzot’s ‘The Wages of Fear’, but he had never seen it in its uncut form, with virtually another entire film placed at the start, explaining how the main characters ended up having to accept such a dangerous job – transporting a truckload of incredibly volatile nitro-glycerine through a series of hair-raising mountain passes. The scenes were removed because the US distributors said the film was too long, but according to French critics it was because they were anti-American.
The original 1953 film takes on a level of existential terror as the characters fight and die for an exploitative oil company with the same initials as a real one. The final cruelty that brings tragedy to the only survivor seems designed to crush the collective spirit of the audience. It was a huge hit in France and the UK, less well-known stateside, and the remake was a long time coming.
In 1977 William Friedkin’s version appeared, relocated to a South American jungle setting, and this too was hacked to bits for reasons of pacing. The film bombed. Fans of the near-perfect original missed the political implications and the razor-sharp director of Clouzot’s version. At the time, expectations of Friedkin were impossibly high, and for Yves Montand we got Roy Scheider.
And yet, the slow-burning opening establishes the all-or-nothing stakes, the jungle setting is more oppressive, the other-worldliness of the situation is accentuated by Tangerine Dream’s ethereal score, and when it comes, the film’s biggest set-piece – the truck crossing a patently lethal rope-and-plank bridge in a storm – is a total heart-stopper.
Saddled with a pointlessly mystical title that made it sound like a sequel to ‘The Exorcist’, the arrival of ‘Sorcerer’ was mistimed and the film felt already doomed. It didn’t help that Scheider was harder to care about than Montand, and the new version’s ending is weaker. But time has been kind; the film looks better than ever, partly because it was shot for real, not green-screened and computer generated, and with proper distancing from Clouzot’s masterpiece it has finally come into it own.