Trying to succeed an indisputable masterpiece is usually utter folly. Yet the Citroën CX turned out to be anything but.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear/Le salaire de la peur stands as one of the pillars of cinema history; a dark-hearted thriller, whose structure and pace set a standard for modern filmmaking. With this story about a bunch of ramshackle mercenaries who must transport crates of highly explosive nitroglycerin across the jungle, Clouzot and screenwriter, Jérome Geronimi, added an action component to film noir that would define kinetic storytelling and suspension building. Le salaire de la peur is therefore one of those few classics whose merits on behalf of the art of filmmaking must be considered beyond debate.
By the mid-1970s, director, William Friedkin, could rightfully consider himself ‘king of the world’. After two successive smash hits, The French Connection and The Exorcist - with the former garnering Friedkin a ‘best director’ Academy Award -, the collective film studios of Hollywood would probably have leapt at the chance to hire the abrasive director even for a filmic adaptation of the telephone directory of Poughkeepsie, NY. Instead, Friedkin opted for a remake of Le salaire de la peur.
Friedkin’s decision wasn’t an act of ignorance. Being a lover of French culture and films, Friedkin early on admitted that there was no way he’d be able to surpass Clouzot. He just wanted to pay homage and put his own stamp on this particular story - which he duly did.
Sorcerer, Friedkin’s take on Le salaries de la peur, became one of the more notorious cinematic failures. Its shooting process - mostly on location in the Dominican Republic, a country ‘owned’ by the Gulf & Western company, which financed the movie - was as excessive as it was painful, with Friedkin acting every bit the spoiled brat he’d been denounced as. To critics, Sorcerer was just a pointless exercise in artistic vanity. At the box office, it died a quick death, in no small part due to being released a week after some flick called Star Wars had started showing.
The fact that a version of Sorcerer’s story had been told before, coupled with its spectacular lack of success, has resulted in Friedkin’s movie being almost forgotten today. A fate it certainly doesn’t deserve, for it its a masterpiece in its own right.
It is in terms of its sheer deliriousness that Sorcerer can stake the claim to the status of a masterpiece. It’s a hellish delirium of a movie, on par with another New Hollywood jungle misadventure, Coppola’s rightfully adored Apocalypse Now. In terms of craft, Friedkin was clearly at the top of his game, as highlighted by the unbearably tense scene depicting the crossing of a creaky plank bridge with the lorries carrying the nitroglycerin.
Friedkin’s inordinate heart of darkness may have marred a great many of his later cinematic efforts, but Sorcerer thrives on thrills of the nihilistic kind and develops an indelible beat of its own, thanks to a most idiosyncratic music score that couples the (then) avant-garde tunes of German pioneers of electronic music, Tangerine Dream, with a live recording of pianist prodigy, Keith Jarrett, playing the famous pipe organ of Ottobeuren Abbey.
Compared to Le salaries de la peur, Sorcerer is an even darker (albeit shot in colour, rather than black & white) telling of the same story, whose almost surreal sense of desperation and depravity adds an altogether new layer to the more traditionalist film noir schemes of the original. Clouzot’s classic is a precise machinery, made of craftily staged tension and dilapidated morals, working together in relentless perfection. Friedkin’s effort is an angry, passionate, feverish expression of its director’s obsessions and abilities, served in undiluted form.
Two years after Henri-Georges Clouzot had redefined the thriller genre, Citroën did the same to the automotive sector with its DS model. This car - or more of a phenomenon, actually - didn’t just show Citroën at the height of its abilities, but France as a whole. Only a people bursting with confidence - both in itself and its future - could ever come up with as radical, as exalted a mass-market product as La Déesse.
Much of the immediate post-war vigour that had manifested in the DS may have waned by 1974, but France was still very much a forward-looking, vigorous country. The world’s longest passenger ship was still named SS France, the country’s youth was still watching French movies and listening to native music without being forced to do so. Even the oil crisis wasn’t enough to shatter the French ambition: Concorde was about to be put into supersonic service (even if heavily subsidised), just as the TGV high-speed train was being converted from the intended gas turbine to electric propulsion. With Paris Roissy’s Aérogarre 1, the French even managed to trump all other such aviation infrastructure projects of its time: next to Paul Andreu’s futuristic concrete UFO and its seven satellite buildings, even Meinhard von Gerkan & Volkwin Marg’s Berlin Tegel or Paul Schneider-Esleben’s Cologne-Bonn airports appear rather unimaginative and dull.
The car tasked with taking up the Déèsse’s mantle fitted right in with this slightly decelerated, but still perceivably bold Gallic Zeitgeist. Just as Friedkin had done with Le salaire de la peur, this new version of the large Citroën concept abided by the established rules, yet interpreted them in ever so slightly different ways.
Unlike Friedkin’s movie, this large Citroën, dubbed CX (the French formula symbol for drag coefficient), wasn’t an exercise in lunacy, but an outright necessity. As much as its conception and flair appeared otherworldly and timeless, there were certain elements of the DS that did age this most ethereal of automotive creations. Even a car of the future ultimately couldn’t stop the hands of time.
There were even more mundane reasons involved in the CX’s development process. For starters, it was supposed to be more profitable than the notoriously narrow-margined ‘Goddess’ - less complicated manufacture hence became a priority. In the beginning, this new, sober attitude was even intended to manifest itself stylistically, which resulted in chief designer, Robert Opron, being tasked with coming up with with a ‘sensible’ form for the new large Citroën. But in characteristically unconventional fashion, Opron and his band of stylists - most notably Jean Giret, Jacques Charreton and Michel Harmand - went about creation a véritable alternative proposal that was eventually given preference to the more orthodox design ordered by the management.
However orthodox some of the ideas floated during the CX’s conception may have been, they certainly left little impression on the finished car. The mooted Wankel engine option may have turned out as yet another pie in the sky power unit, but - as with La Déèsse - the rest of the car more than made up for any disappointment hiding in the engine bay. In addition to refining its predecessor’s hydropneumatic suspension, the CX boasted the extremely direct, forcefully self-centering DIRAVI steering, which had been introduced with Citroën’s SM model. The intention to simplify manufacture and hence improve the bottom line became apparent through the CX’s fewer number of body panels, whose pressings were simpler to make, as well as use of cheaper materials - above all, of course, the ‘70s answer to any possible manufacturing needs: plastic. Even the CX’s drip rail may look like chrome, but is actually crude oil-based. Just like the canopies of the roller conveyors crossing the courtyard of Roissy Aérogarre 1, which may look like good old glass, but are actually made of plexiglas.
When dissecting the CX’s aesthetics, there is, of course, a Turin-bred elephant in the room: the Pininfarina 1800. It was this Paolo Martin-penned masterpiece that properly introduced the fastback saloon, and it did so eight years before the CX was unveiled. Describing the 1800 as the most influential saloon car design of its age is more of an understatement than hyperbole, as it wasn’t just Citroën’s GS and CX models that bore some resemblance to it, but the Lancia Gamma (another Pininfarina design that was actually intended to share components with the CX), too - not to mention Rover’s SD1 model.
Despite the Pininfarina 1800’s obvious precedent, Opron and his team clearly didn’t deliver an uninspired copycat in the CX. Its front wheel drive fastback profile is obviously quite similar (despite the Citroën being considerably bigger), as is the delicate, slim-pillared greenhouse, but the CX’s detailing betrays a Gallic flair that’s typical for Opron’s output of the time, The playfulness of the creases starting at the outer edges of the bonnet and rear respectively, which really ought to meet, but instead fade into the flanks in the most deliciously subtle manner, is the most prominent case in point. But there’s also the somewhat architectural appearance of the headlights’ cut-out, which could just as well be the shape of a pillar of some contemporary béton brut edifice, which complements the kind of three-dimensional grille treatment that’s only recently been rediscovered (most notably by Volkswagen). Not to mention the concave rear screen, which may have failed at rendering a rear wiper superfluous, but unquestionably exuded panache à la Citroën.
These joyful details are actually all the more refreshing, as they’re put in contrast with the blunt, solid geometry of the doorhandles and, to a lesser degree, the light units. Sobriety helps esprit to bounce off in full force.
However, it’s actually the CX’s interior where l’audace Citroën is most apparent, or, one could even claim: at its most uninhibited. Designer, Michel Harmand, didn’t completely disregard the ease-of-manufacture briefing though; an abundance of large plastic parts certainly suggests so. But contemporary manufacturing requirements seem to have spurred, rather than limited, the designer’s imagination. The elegantly sloped one-piece dashboard top certainly doesn’t come across like a lesson in cutting of corners, but possesses all the modernist flamboyance of a Michel Ducaroy sofa instead. And that’s before one gets to the ball-shaped ashtray at the very centre of the dashboard.
Flamboyance, modernism and functionality meet once again in the shape of the CX’s interior door handles. These consist of an interior-coloured plastic (of course!) grab handle, with a seemingly ill-placed, organically shaped black plastic release lever in front of it. Visually, this arrangement is a feast of cast shapes, but its functionality is even more impressive: for one needs to hold the handle and pull the lever like a trigger to open the door, which not only feels satisfyingly logical after a few attempts, but also acts as an effective child safety catch.
Of course, pièce de résistance honours are reserved for the CX’s most modernistic, most flamboyant and most outrageous item: its instrument binnacle. Unlike ‘normal’ cars, this Citroën doesn’t feature gauges of the usual kind - no round clock faces, not even a bar style design. Instead, the CX employs magnifying lenses to present the figures of a revolving drum in a legible way. Such an unusual arrangement wasn’t strictly necessary, but then again, Roissy's Aérogarre 1 didn’t really need customised public announcement sounds, either.
Less of a flight of fancy, but equally idiosyncratic is Citroën’s decision to incorporate the controls that others would spread across a few stalks and buttons into the instrument binnacle. Two protrusions can therefore be found bookending the gauges, that are within perfect reach of one’s hands from the CX’s single-spoke steering wheel, on which one finds indicator, wiper and light controls. These control satellites are a triumph of lateral thinking, as well as a painful reminder of what the automotive world lost when Citroën was eventually forced to start designing cars like everybody else. Sometimes, different simply is better.
As remakes go, the CX is certainly as good as it gets. It didn’t really try and compete with the DS head-on - no mere automobile ever could. A fact of which the Citroën’s creators obviously were aware. Instead, they incorporated change where they deemed it necessary or sensible. But they bravely didn’t hold onto any of La Déesse’s trademarks for purely sentimental/calculating reasons. They chose to make the CX a car of its own, without either undue reverence to or egregious ignorance towards its legendary predecessor.
So the lineage is obvious, but the CX stands for itself. Certain ideas and concepts simply are valuable enough to be used more than once. Just like that story about the lorries, the nitroglycerin and the jungle.
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