March 29, 2024

VIOLENT ROAD and the Small Wages of Fear

Starring Brian Keith, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Merry Anders, Sean Garrison, Dick Foran, Arthur Batanides, Perry Lopez. Directed by Howard W. Koch. (85 min).


If you haven't seen Violent Road (which is quite likely), this essay contains a spoiler.

William Friedkin’s Sorcerer has been one of my favorite films since I was 13 and first caught it at the Southgate Quad as the bottom half of a double feature. Released at a time when the movie industry was increasingly focused on high concept blockbusters with wide audience appeal, the film was crushed under the wheels of the Star Wars juggernaut, coming and going nearly unnoticed by everyone except for the two studios (Universal and Paramount) who footed the bill for its bloated budget.  

With hindsight, it was easy to see why. Who the hell wanted to endure a grimy, depressing flick about criminals on a 10 mile-an-hour suicide mission for an $8000 payday when you could catch Luke Skywalker rescue a princess and defeat an empire? And trucks loaded with explosives certainly doesn’t sound as fun as the Bandit driving cases of Coors across the state line. Hell, the only reason I actually saw Sorcerer was because it was the only movie at the Southgate I hadn't yet watched. But I fell in love with every aspect of the film…the dark tone, stunning imagery, gritty aesthetic, nerve-jangling set-pieces, Tangerine Dream’s haunting score and a team of morally ambiguous characters played by a great international cast led by Roy Scheider. 

Best of all was the premise…four fugitives from various parts of the world who end up in a godforsaken poverty-ravaged South American village where escape means buying your way out. When an American oil platform explodes 200 miles away, the only way to kill the raging fire is to blow it out with dynamite. Unfortunately, the only cases available are so old and unstable that the slightest jolt will cause them to explode. Worse yet, the only way to get them there is to drive a couple of trucks through mountains, swamps and jungle. With nothing left to lose, these four desperate fugitives take the job.

Another meeting that could've been an email.
Sorcerer has been rediscovered and reassessed over the years, becoming something of a cult film. Though its initial failure exacerbated Friedkin’s career descent into mediocrity (from which he never truly recovered, in my opinion), it’s now widely considered one of his best. Today, there are cinephiles and critics worldwide who appreciate Sorcerer for the neglected masterpiece it really is. But I knew it all along.

What I didn’t know - for many years - was that my beloved Sorcerer was actually a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 French classic, The Wages of Fear. It’s an excellent film, similarly bleak with heaping helpings of cynicism thrown in. Still, it took some time for me to warm up to it and I still prefer Sorcerer’s aesthetic, tension and unsavory characters (perhaps because it’s the version I grew up on).

Another thing I didn’t know, until just recently, was that Sorcerer wasn’t even the first remake of The Wages of Fear. That honor actually goes to a little-seen film called Violent Road

Released in 1958 and directed by Howard W. Koch (probably best remembered for producing Airplane! and some Oscar broadcasts), Violent Road doesn’t officially acknowledge Clouzot’s film or Georges Arnaud’s original novel (just like Akira Kurosawa was never credited for inspiring The Magnificent Seven). However, it features the exact same premise and plot, though with less creative ambition and a lower budget. Based on the cast, perfunctory direction and conveniently commutable Southern California locations, it’s obvious Warner Brothers simply wanted a quick & dirty potboiler. 

There are a few minor differences between this one and The Wages of Fear. Instead of two trucks and four guys transporting unstable nitroglycerin, six people are hired by Cyclone Rockets to drive three trucks carrying explosive & corrosive fuel components to a new factory. Barred from using the main highways, they’re forced to make the two day trek over treacherous desert mountain backroads.

"No one goes shirtless but me."
Leading the team is Mitch Barton (Brian Keith), an experienced career trucker who needs the work after running afoul of his former boss. His crew includes down-and-out war veteran Frank ‘Sarge’ Miller (Dick Foran), reckless young race car driver Ken Farley (Sean Garrison), chronic gambler Ben (Arthur Batanides), resourceful mechanic Manuelo (Perry Lopez) and Cyclone’s rocket fuel expert George Lawrence (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). As with The Wages of Fear, there’s a beautiful woman waiting for Mitch when (and if) the job is done...Carrie (Merry Anders), with whom he recently had a whirlwind fling. With the possible exception of Sarge, none of these characters convey a similar sense of desperation to those in Wages and Sorcerer. There’s a big payday, for sure, but at no point does the job seem like a last option for any of them.

Nor does the overall journey feel as perilous. There are no scenes as tension-filled as the jaw-dropping bridge sequence in Sorcerer or the decaying turning platform in Wages. At no point does the trek seem utterly hopeless, with potentially insurmountable obstacles prompting the characters to consider giving up in despair. There’s danger, of course, but for much of the trip, these guys don’t even drive like their payload could blow them sky high at any moment. The only time Violent Road comes close to achieving the same level of suspense as Wages and Sorcerer is when the brakes in Mitch’s truck give out as he’s barrelling down the mountain. The movie even has the audacity to tack on an upbeat ending.

But while Violent Road is never particularly thrilling or memorable, it’s well made on a low budget and certainly watchable, with solid overall performances. Keith, in particular, is enjoyably stoic, studly and cynical. I think it might be especially interesting to those who’ve already seen The Wages of Fear or Sorcerer. This film never approaches the technical or thematic artistry of either - nor does it really try - but if nothing else, Violent Road earnestly adheres to the same basic premise and structure.

No comments: