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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Mar. 12, 2005 | 2:45 PM

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What They Won’t Tell You in Your 1970s Film Appreciation Class

... from those wonderful people out there in the dark.
FILMRADAR presents a series of thoughts and essays by esteemed members of the film community.

What They Won’t Tell You in Your 1970s Film Appreciation Class by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

It?s been over 50 years since Clouzot?s nerve-shearing Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear) hit the screens for the first time and plenty has been written and said about this amazing film since. So I?m not going to tire you with well-worn perceptions on its existentialism or the usual comparisons to The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Seven Samurai.
I?m also not going to say much about William Friedken?s 1977 remake. Plenty has also been put forth as to why this film is as good, or not as good, or better than the Clouzot original.
What I am going to tell you about The Wages of Fear, however, is the one thing that none of the other critics ever tell you. Not The Chicago Sun-Times? Roger Ebert, not The Washington Post?s Rita Kempley, not Film Lounge?s Neil Young, not Jeff Shannon, not The Village Voice?s Andrew Sarris, and certainly not the late (and not a moment too soon) Pauline Kael ? not even in her colossal beast of a book, 50 Million Nights at the Movies (or whatever the hell she called it). In fact, what I?m about to tell you is something that even Hollywood maharishi Leonard Maltin doesn?t mention in his holy scroll of moviedom, Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
And that something is this: The Wages of Fear was first remade in 1958.
That?s right ? 1958. The same year that Vertigo and Touch of Evil were released (both of which, by the way, were not included on Andrew Sarris?s ?Top Six Films of the Year? list - although he did manage to somehow include Ronald Neame?s The Horse?s Mouth). Indeed, only three years after audiences tore the upholstery off their armrests watching The Wages of Fear, (the 1953 film wasn?t released in the U.S. until February of 1955) Warner Bros. got to work and began crafting the first ? and for a long time, only - adaptation of the French classic.
It should be noted that 1958 is also well over 15 years before Friedkin was given a budget twice that of a normal film to execute his version of the gut-splitting tale, which was also originally titled The Wages of Fear. That is, until some Einstein at Universal decided that the film should have a spooky-sounding name that somehow echoed the director?s previous Oscar-winning The Exorcist. Only no one at the studio had noticed that in the four years that had passed since The Exorcist, the market was flooded with third-rate supernatural thrillers and the public had had enough. So Sorcerer was the wildly inapt name that Universal christened their new 22-million-dollar ocean liner as they sent it out to sea to watch it sink straight to the very bottom.
Warner Bros. was a little smarter back in 1958, and while their title Hell?s Highway, is rather obvious, at least it’s appropriate. Hell’s Highway was also released with the tamer moniker of Violent Road for the Bible Belt markets, which is still infinitely superior to Universal?s lame-o Sorcerer title. But like Sorcerer, since Hell’s Highway is based on a terrific nail-biter, it is easily one of the better action films of its time.

To direct the American take, Warner Bros. hired Howard Koch, an accomplished assistant director who had recently on his own helmed other solid B-pictures as Big House U.S.A. and Shield for Murder (though many of us remember him more for his producing efforts and his relationship with Frank Sinatra ? in fact, Koch produced seven movies with Frankie, including The Manchurian Candidate and all of the numbered titles that came after Ocean?s 11: Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas, and Robin and the 7 Hoods).
Koch apparently approached this assignment as he did any other ? as a job. What both Clouzot and Friedken took over two leisurely hours to do, Koch packs snugly into 86 minutes.
No mention is made of Georges Arnaud?s original novel or scriptwriter J?r?me G?ronimi in the credits ? instead the Warner version is officially credited to the work of two writers of relatively little distinction: a script by Richard Landau from a ?story? by Don Martin. But that shouldn?t shock you - bald-faced plagiarism is fairly common in Hollywood even these days. Just ask Amy Heckerling, whose films Clueless and Loser offer no title credits to their sources of inspiration, namely Jane Austen and Billy Wilder. And the practice was certainly not unheard of in the 1950s.
Perhaps though, its refusal to legitimately acknowledge The Wages of Fear as its inspiration is what has kept Hell’s Highway from being mentioned by oh-so-smart critics in the past. Hey, in 2002, even smug know-it-all Roger Ebert failed to notice that Wayne Wang’s Maid in Manhattan and Andrew Niccol’s Simone were both direct rip-offs of the delightful 1935 Marion Davies comedy, Page Miss Glory.
At any rate, Koch set out to make an American version of the story and he did it well ? US audiences certainly didn’t need to sift through the five different languages spoken in Wages, so the action was moved from an unnamed town in South America to an unnamed town in the western United States (one that suspiciously resembles Lone Pine, California) and everyone speaks English. Instead of four guys in two trucks, we now have six guys in three trucks. Mario, Luigi, Jo and Bimba are now Mitch, Ken, Ben, George, Joe and Frank.
Unlike the Europeans in Wages, the five drivers in Hell’s Highway (Brian Keith, Sean Garrison, Arthur Batanides, Perry Lopez and Dick Foran) all possess the working-class husk that a real truck driver would need to operate a six-ton rig in the days before power steering. Skinny Efrem Zimbalist Jr. plays the sixth man, an expert egghead from the Company who’s along for the ride since he’s the only one who knows how to handle the volatile cargo.
Yes, volatile cargo ? not the nitro-glycerin of Wages, but instead three different, highly unstable chemicals: N2H4, H2O2, and RFNA. That’s hydrazine, concentrated hydrogen peroxide, and red fuming nitric acid to those of you who weren’t chemistry majors. The ‘Southern Oil Company’ with the out-of-control drilling fire seen in Wages is now the ‘Cyclone Rocket Company’ being forced to relocate after an accident. Seems one of their test missiles cracked up right in the middle of their own town and wiped out a bunch of moms and schoolkids. The last things to be moved are the explosive components of their own rocket fuel.
Of course, the men who are brave enough, or stupid enough, to haul the hazardous freight all the way to the new site will get a payoff of 10,000 bones.
The odds are also increased somewhat: No concrete roads here (the bulk of the journey is an unused dirt road that snakes through the mountains), and, since each of the three chemicals are dependent on the other to produce the fuel, all three trucks have to make it to their destination - or no deal.
The guys are quickly on the road 25 minutes into the film, but the story eschews the temptation to bombard you with action ? instead breaking it up with a few flashbacks for character development.
The violence has a different psychology as well. For example, which makes you cringe more ? a leg getting run over by a truck’s tires, or fingers crushed between the thick links of an iron chain? Yeah, you get the idea.
And so ancient trucks rumble, rocky cliffs crumble, and six ordinary men are given a chance for heroism - and forced to look their own mortality in the face.
The editing and cinematography are the standard quality expected from a lower-end Warner Bros. production, and writer Richard Landau peppers the script with some great trucker dialogue. Composer Leith Stevens, he of Pvt. Hell 36 and The Wild One fame, punches out a pretty good score and at one point even accompanies Sean Garrison’s impromptu rendition of Haven Gillespie’s “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze,” a good ol’ road song that Koch throws in as a na?ve contrast to the inevitable calamity to come. 
The Wages of Fear is film noir to be sure, and while Hell’s Highway is not as fatalistic, it’s still just as dark as its contemporaries like Plunder Road and The Midnight Story. Even with its (slightly) upbeat ending, the look and tone of Hell’s Highway qualifies it as a film noir in my book.
An interesting experiment would be to screen The Wages of Fear, Hell’s Highway and Sorcerer in chronological order over three nights and watch the evolution of the tale in progress - a classic French noir, an American B-movie version, and a glossy 70s remake. Each the same, and yet each different ? and all three fine films in their own right.