In an existential thriller the protagonist is doomed. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear is the archtype. “In a squalid South American village, men are hired to transport an urgent nitroglycerine shipment without the equipment that would make it safe.” You come to know these men and care about them, especially Yves Montand’s character. Yet you know their heroic efforts are futile. They know it too. You can see it in their faces.
William Friedkin followed The Exorcist with Sorceror, a remake of Wages of Fear. This is white-knuckle film-making at its best as the mismatched Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, and Francisco Rabal struggle with ancient trucks and harrowing rope bridges across bottomless chasms while transporting nitroglycerin to an out-of-control oil fire. Sorceror is red meat for socialists who can condemn not only capitalism, but racism and colonialism as they wait for the inevitable denouement.
The Naked Prey directed by and starring Cornel Wilde, is another great ET. The twist here is that he actually survives the movie, which you would never guess from the harrowing introduction. It’s difficult to believe he was allowed to get away with these scenes of African torture in 1965. These are not your father’s noble savages.
Sam Peckinpah directed two of the greatest existential thrillers, The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The Wild Bunch, like Ride the High Country and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, is a eulogy to the dying west, in this case a group of aging, over-the-hill train robbers looking for their last big score. Peckinpah eschewed pretty boys. The faces of William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are portraits of stubborn desperation, covered in sweat and bristles. Near the climax, when the scumbag general slits Angel’s throat and Holden automatically shoots him dead, all action freezes. Hundreds of the general’s cutthroat followers can’t believe what just happened and there’s a chance they’ll let the Wild Bunch walk out of town. Borgnine looks around, chuckles goofily, and they open up in one of the bloodiest shoot-outs in cinema history. They’re doomed, but they’re going down guns blazing.
Warren Oates makes a similar decision at the climax of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah’s cracked existential masterpiece. Alfredo knocked up the daughter of a rich man, who promises $50,000 to anyone who brings him Alfredo’s head, setting off a treasure hunt among such spectacular low-lifes as Gig Young and Kris Kristofferson. Oates’ seedy piano player plums the death of Mexico’s sewers on his way to collect but when the pay-off comes, Oates chooses to kill the fat cockroach who has caused so much heartache with his cynical offer.
The most recent truly great existential thriller is The Grey, in which Liam Neeson’s gang of oil field roughnecks crash lands in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. A pack of wolves gathers and starts picking them off one by one. The Grey has a unique beauty as well as a story that will pin you to your seat.