Directed by William Friedkin
Shown as part of the current BFI’s Thriller series, this film, more or less a flop on its debut in 1977, is a revelation. Following the Friedkin glory days of The French Connection and The Exorcist, maybe its poor showing at the box office was the coincidence of the release of Star Wars, or its particularly oppressive dark and nihilistic tone. Or even the slow-burn, run-of-the-mill opening of the film as it sets the scene for its four protagonists and takes a while to let us get a hold on what it is all leading to. Friedkin tells of the gruelling filming, and like other somewhat maudit films made in overwhelmingly difficult conditions and locations, it takes its particular intensity from that physical tension.
Four, unconnected, fugitives from the law, a small-time American gangster, Jackie (Roy Scheider), a Palestinian terrorist, Kassem (Amidou) , a crooked French financier, Victor (Bruno Cremer) and a Mexican professional assassin, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) are holed up in a squalid village in Central America. We’ve seen the reasons for their situations in the four vignettes which start the film. There’s an ex-Nazi too. It’s Graham Greene territory (there’s probably a whiskey priest nursing his liquor in some corner of that seedy bar), where lonely single men with secrets sleep in sweaty flop houses, and the locals depend for employment on the American oilfield in the heart of the jungle, exchanging their labour for rags, thrown-up housing and utter filth for their children to play in. It’s on the edge.
When there’s an explosion at the oilfield, the resulting fire requires dynamiting to be extinguished. Problem is, the supplies of explosives they have, which need to be conveyed along 200 miles of rough jungle track to the fire, are unstable, and any slight jarring could set them off. Step forward three of our miscreants, ready to risk driving it there in return for residence permits and a large wad of money, escape from this non-existence. The fourth volunteer, the Nazi, is soon bumped off by Nilo, who takes his place, accompanying Jackie in one ancient truck, Sorcerer, while Kassem and Victor take the other.
What follows is an engrossing nightmare of nail-biting suspense, as the jungle landscape throws up every kind of danger: collapsing bridges, violent storms, potholes, bogs, dangerously playful natives, a massive fallen tree and homegrown guerrillas – in the end even the battered trucks themselves. Fundamental suspicion and enmities between the men settle down into collaboration, as, rain lashed, shattered and exhausted they drive themselves on in a kind of fevered madness that seems to have forgotten what their final aim is. Only to carry on. But, as Friedkin said when asked what the film was about ‘No matter how you struggle, you get blown up’, and we know that not all will survive.
It’s Jackie whom we most identify with. Scheider’s always been an interesting actor. Never the full Hollywood leading man material with his bashed-looking boxer’s face (he actually was a successful boxer during his youth), that intriguing profile, reminiscent of Belmondo, has always given him a look that has more in common with European than American movie actors, and that’s maybe why this adaptation of Clouzot’s classic existential thriller The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur) is so suited to him. Apparently he was difficult on set, moody and argumentative, which maybe enhanced the pessimistic and doomed nature of his character.
The final astonishing sequences of his journey show him out of the jungle and into a dream-like landscape of rounded dry rock cliffs, reminiscent of the barren Anatolian landscapes of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, so suddenly different that you really suspect they are in his own mind, as he struggles through the dark towards the gleam of the burning oilfield.
And then afterwards, miraculously, Friedkin pulls off the perfect ending – a tender moment of melancholy sweetness in the middle of all the squalor of the village, to the sound of Charlie Parker’s ‘I’ll remember April’. Meanwhile fate awaits in the wings.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, November 2017