TajLV’s review published on Letterboxd:
Part of my 5 Directors x 5 Unseen Films (10) challenge.
Director William Friedkin certainly wasted no time getting into the action of this existential thriller. An assassin pulls off a hit in Vera Cruz during the first minute, followed almost immediately by a terrorist bombing in Jerusalam. Israeli commandos chase down a gang of four Arab insurgents, gunning down two and capturing a third while one manages to get away.
Then, the scene shifts to Paris, where a wealthy businessman commits suicide, rather than face charges of fraud and bribery, leaving his partner alone to be arrested or disappear. And in Elisabeth, NJ, a church heist nets four thieves $67,000 before a car accident upends their escape, with just one managing to elude the police. However, the brother of a mob boss was shot during the robbery, making the fugitive a man marked for extinction.
This is how four desperate criminals end up fleeing to the farthest corner of the globe, a remote jungle village in Nicaragua known as Porvenir. They each take new identities, with American Jackie Scanlon becoming Juan Dominguez (Roy Schneider), France's Victor Manzon as Serrano (Bruno Cremer), and Palestinian Kassem becoming Martinez (Amidou). The killer from Mexico who calls himself Nilo (Francisco Rabal) arrives somewhat later.
A fifth man called Marquez (Karl John) befriends Kassem, although it is apparent he's likely a Nazi war criminal in hiding. When a high-paying job becomes available hauling nitroglycerin by truck to an oil-drilling site to put out a well fire, all the men volunteer, seeing it as their only way out of the impoverished nowhere that has become their home. However, there's only work for four men, so somebody isn't going to make the cut. The journey of the two trucks is wonderfully filmed amid jungle landscape with falling rain, wobbly wooden bridges, mud bogs, fallen trees and the danger of a spontaneous explosion always present.
Friedkin denied that this film was a remake of 1953's Cannes Grand Prix winner "The Wages of Fear," which was also adapted from Georges Arnaud's 1950 French novel "Le Salaire de la peur." He insisted that his version was grittier and more documentary in style. Although this film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound, it bombed at the box office, earning only $5.9 million domestically and $9 million internationally against a budget of over $21 million. Apparently, the title confused movie-goers, who thought it was a horror film along the lines of Friedman's "The Exorcist" (1973).