Wednesday, June 27, 2012

DVR Diary: VIOLENT ROAD (1958)

William Friedkin's Sorceror is the best-known American remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic road thriller The Wages of Fear, but Howard W. Koch's B-movie is the uncredited first. Don Martin didn't claim to base his story, nor Richard H. Landau his screenplay, on the French film from a few years earlier, but come on, people. A disparate group of drifters and losers haul explosive cargo across dangerous terrain. Please. This time it's rocket fuel, which has to move with a test base after a launch goes bad and the missile crashes into a school. If Violent Road is one part Wages of Fear, it's also part noir. The most noirish thing about it is that, unlike in Wages of Fear, the drifters and losers don't have to leave their own country to have their dangerous adventure. Noir is arguably a looking-inward after World War II closed off most of the possibilities for adventuresome exile in exotic parts. There's no going away to forget for Violent Road's protagonists. Probably the best adjusted of them is top-billed Brian Keith's hard-boiled drifter. Others include a broken-down veteran who never adjusted to civilian life, a young man hoping to redeem his alcoholic ex-football hero brother, and a rocket technician who lost his wife and daughter in the disaster. Tempers are nearly as combustible as the cargo, but Violent Road never really ignites the way a Wages knockoff should. The actors, including Dick Foran as the sarge and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as the rocket man, do what they can with their roles, but Koch (who got his start as a director collaborating with Edmond O'Brien on Shield For Murder) doesn't deliver the jolts. On the most literal level, to spoil things a bit, none of the trucks goes boom. I don't know if that's a Code-dictated copout or if Koch couldn't spring for an exploding truck. Instead, he offers perils in the form of minor rockslides -- one of the crew saves a truck by drop-kicking a boulder to change its course -- and an out-of-control school bus crossing the convoy's path. Not everyone makes it, I must admit, but when your one fatality results from chemical burns to someone's hand, you're not really operating on Wages's level of intensity. There's decent location work and stunt driving throughout, but someone unaware of Wages's influence on this film would probably feel very little sense of peril, since most of the suspense I felt came from expectations based on my awareness of the source material. No set piece in this picture comes close to the tension of the bridge scenes in either Wages or Sorceror. In fact, the Violent Road convoy never crosses a bridge with anything at stake. That may be another failure of budget or simply a failure of nerve. The first half hour of the picture seems to set up a worthy imitation of the original, but the talent runs out of gas long before the trucks reach their destination.

No comments: