Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 classic The Wages of Fear may have the most foolproof high concept ever devised for an action thriller, which can be distilled to four words: nitro truck, bumpy road. By the time director William Friedkin made his expensive 1977 retooling Sorcerer, in the wake of back-to-back blockbusters in The French Connection and The Exorcist, he'd earned enough bad karma to get his own shift behind the wheel. The subsequent smackdown “Hurricane Billy” got from critics, audiences and studio suits in the Summer of Star Wars prefigured the auteurist ass-paddling Michael Cimino would receive for Heaven's Gate — but as with that frequently astonishing film, a sizable cult has rallied around the movie.
In its new digital restoration, showing Friday through Sunday only at The Belcourt, it's easy to see why. Picture one of Werner Herzog's pitiless fuck-you-humans endurance tests amped up with major-studio muscle and a Tangerine Dream electronic score like an onslaught of angry bees, and you've got something close to the ultimate in sweaty, jittery, teeth-clenched machismo. Friedkin uses his background in documentary filmmaking to give backstory and action scenes alike an edge of barely tethered chaos.
The methodical first half lays out the transgressions that draw its four protagonists (Roy Scheider, Amidou, Francisco Rabal, Bruno Cremer) to a Latin American hellhole that makes your average Peckinpah cantina look like Kayne Prime. The second is Friedkin applying a cheese grater to your nerves as the “heroes” truck their temperamental cargo across a minefield rigged by nature itself: crumbling roads, fallen trees, treacherous hillsides — and in the justly famous suspense setpiece, a perilously swaying suspension bridge. With rotting ropes. And snapping timbers. Over a flooding river.
Capped by an ending that may even improve upon Clouzot's, this longtime cinephile wish-list item launches The Belcourt's summer-long “Best of Both Worlds” series of 4K and 35mm restorations. Click here for the whole list, which includes Billy Wilder's superlative noir Double Indemnity, Michael Roemer's remarkable Civil Rights-era drama Nothing But a Man, the beloved British comedy On Approval, Alain Resnais' science-fiction dazzler Je T'Aime! Je T'Aime!, and Luchino Visconti's Sandra.
Also, check out this 2012 interview with Friedkin where he discusses the troubles he had casting the movie, the shift in its reputation, and his struggle to get it restored.