Yep, elegance and sweaty, heart stopping danger? In a move that must have surprised, William Friedkin remade an action classic to follow his brace of gamechanging genre pieces. He had reversed much of the goodwill won with the French Connection in the wake of the troubled and patience straining The Exorcist: did a cover of Wages of Fear feel like redemption it depicted?
Well, Friedkin worked with the writer of the source novel for this version. The setting was changed from the desert of a French colony and the characters were not prisoners. Important alterations as by removing the formal colonialism the neo-imperial order is emphasised by the very lack of overt subjection. Similarly, the men have done great ill but have yet gone unpunished. The potentially annihilating journey they embark upon, their strength tested to its limit and their nerves stretched to snapping will not just offer punishment enough but measure for measure retribution. There is even a moment worth of a medieval frieze in which doom awaits him who casts his mind back to earthly matters while in purgatory (no spoiling details but I had to mention it).
In old school style the set up takes half the screen time but this is William Friedkin at his finest so there isn't a moment we don't need. Recall how much time was spent in The Exorcist following Fr Merrin through the Iraqi streets and how little we mind as when the action settles on the main stage in DC we are primed for wrongness and tension. That's what happens here. We see serious crimes enacted or (in the banker's case, assume sin on a grand scale) and then we are introduced to a setting that would look very liveable were it not for the dark satanic mill outside the jungle village (is it Nicaragua? Managua keeps getting mentioned as an ideal/heavenly destination) with its chains of men near drowning to build a pipeline over a river or the wreckage of planes by the landing strip. If this is paradise on earth it's the same one that Coppola was busy filming in the Phillipines at the time. The air does not smell of exotic blooms but petrol and ripening mud. It's not prison but once there it's very hard to leave.
The chance at escape comes with an explosion and a hellish blaze and now is the time to mention how good the pyrotechnics are. This film is from 1977 and has not been tampered with (as the Ex so embarrassingly was). The explosions are real. They are made of debris, dust, smoke and violated air not bits and bytes. And they are extraordinary. Loud, gigantic and angry they burst with a shocking excitement and the ghastly beauty of the oilfield fire takes our breath as surely as it would if we stood beside it. They leave us wide eyed.
This screening is part of the Masters and Restorations stream where new celluloid prints of older films are given light and place again. It was pristine and delivered enough authentic grain in the low light scenes to please a regiment of cine-cork-sniffers. I appreciated this but have no great sentimentality for celluloid as I like the durable clarity of digital but this was pleasant to see so adroitly. Still, you can keep the film if I can have the film making.
Once the redemption trek has begun and we are constantly taking trucks over bridges swinging like vines in the rainstorm, bogged tyres and massive natural roadblocks we are in the land of nail biting and won't be free till the very end. And as each new stretch of strain gives way to more we are compelled to think of the moral furnace these characters are travelling through, how punishing the landscape and how it looks like the kind of National Geographic story you can stare at for hours. The purgatory is within and boy do you get to see it in these actors' faces.
Seeing this film plugs a gap in my understanding of this intriguing film maker who applied opposites to each other to create such powerful things. If French Connection's documentary style could break into its thrilling chase scene or that the similar reportage approach to the horror film could tighten us up so much in The Exorcist and a kind of horror approach to police procedural could compel us in Cruising what was this one like, so long obscured by box office failure and unsung for decades? Well, it's as good as all of those, that's what it's like. If it appeared now it would shame its competitors ... and probably still fail and for similar reasons. By 1977 the great technologically perfect voids of Star Wars and the Speilberg conglomerate had begun to fill cinema's veins with deadening soma which would take a spiky independent industry to shake awake. Contemporary US action films are similarly comatose. Sorcerer might well feel like a trailer to an audience weaned on Michael Bay.
Finally, Tangerine Dream provided a stunning electronic score for this film and Friedkin (who cut to music) honours it through spare employment. God I wish those two examples could find resurrection today. Perhaps the Astor will give us a week of this in its paradisical ambience. As for me, it's the blu-ray and invited initiates.