The Wages of Fear

"Essential"

The Wages of Fear Review


"The best thriller ever made" is perhaps too much praise for the movie, while "best examination of the human condition" is too faint to be heard. Nevertheless, one can safely say that Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear is to film of the nail-biter variety what Raymond Chandler is to detective fiction: pretty damn essential. For pure thriller mechanics, it's a textbook in step-by-step screw-tightening, while those looking for something of more substance will find themselves swimming in the stuff.

The South American village of Las Piedras is located just past the edge of nowhere, baking in the sun and providing just the correctly seedy backdrop for a number of Europeans to wallow in their own misery, abusing the locals, and lazing about the saloon, to the pained chagrin of its hapless owner. There's no work, the road doesn't go anywhere, and a plane ticket out it too expensive. It's the kind of place where dead-enders show up after getting kicked out of the Last Chance Saloon, a hole to crawl in to die. The most dashing of the dead-enders is Frenchman Mario (Yves Montand), a dashing and immoral louse who sponges off his hardworking roommate, acts abusively towards his erstwhile girlfriend, the barmaid Linda (played with va-va-voom naïveté by the director's wife Vera Clouzot) and looks cooler than Humphrey Bogart through all of it.

Into this hotbed of atmospheric slack drops Jo (Charles Vanel), a former smuggler who had to light out fast from another town and washes up in Las Piedras. Sensing a kindred Gallic scoundrel in Mario, the two pair, desultorily look for the scam that will get them out of town. Where director/writer Clouzot starts really putting the screws to his characters is by providing them that break, but making it something that nobody without a death wish would ever consider. Southern Oil Company, an American-run concern (one character bleakly notes that wherever oil is, the Americans aren't far behind), has had a deadly accident at one of their nearby fields, which is still burning and thus unusable. The solution? Hire four men to drive two trucks full of nitroglycerine 300 miles to that field, where it will be used to stop the fire. These men would have to be suicidal, of course, as the road is rough and the nitro unstable enough that your average pothole could set it off. The payload packs enough wallop that the trucks are supposed to drive a half-hour apart, so that if one goes it doesn't take out the other. Calling the job a suicide run doesn't quite cut it.

Mario and Jo jump at the chance, while the other truck is manned by Mario's salt-of-the-earth roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), a walking skeleton of a fatalist. The drive itself an eye-clawing, gut-twisting exercise in tension. The trucks grind along at a painfully slow pace when the roads are good, and even slower when not. There's a stretch where the road is so rutted that the only way to not jostle the nitro is to floor it and fly over the ruts, and another spot where the only way around a corner is to back the trucks onto a rickety wood platform built over a deep ravine. Then it starts to get really hairy. As Jo puts it, "I've died 50 times since last night." Not surprisingly, it's all a litmus test for what kind of men these four are, a sort of reverse Treasure of the Sierra Madre (a glossier piece of work which this film nevertheless bears some relation to). The fuse is lit but the explosion waits, and waits, and even when it comes it hasn't really come, because there's something even worse just around the corner.

Clouzot has a view of mankind's time on the planet that could charitably be described as Hobbesian - solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short - but given extra gloom by some triple-espresso jolts of mid-century existential despair and sheer misanthropy. It all paints a bleak enough picture that that other cuddly filmmaker Sam Peckinpah was inspired to lift Clouzot's opening shot (a child torturing cockroaches) to kick off his comparably heartwarming The Wild Bunch. While Clouzot's film is suffused with rage at the evil things being done to the world (the oil company's rape of the countryside) and those done by mankind to each other, it's an impotent sort of rage, made hopeless by cold reality. Mario talks with Jo about how nice Luigi is to him, doing all the cooking and everything, only to gratuitously add - in the director's voice, one's tempted to think - "chump." A woman prays to the Virgin Mary only to see behind the statue a corpse hanging from a tree; one of the Europeans who'd given up trying to get out of Las Piedras. There's a critique of capitalism to be seen somewhere within the film's view of rapacious corporations and opportunistic scavengers, but also a human critique as well. Nobody and nothing gets off easy here. After all, what is one to do with men driving bombs-on-wheels over the worst roads in the world; the trucks come with signs that say, "No smoking within 50 feet," but these guys puff away in the cab.

The Wages of Fear is a frantic, vicious, existentialist howl that still manages to laugh; it goes grinning into the void.

The Criterion Collection package of the film is incomparable. The first disc has the restored high-def transfer of the film, which looks about as sharp as it probably did on screens back in 1953. The second has a swell package of goodies, including new video interviews with Yves Montand and the film's assistant director, as well as a couple of documentaries (one on Clouzot, the other on cuts made for the film's 1955 U.S. release).

Aka Le Salaire de la Peur.

Worse than fear itself.



The Wages of Fear

Facts and Figures

Run time: 131 mins

In Theaters: Wednesday 16th February 1955

Distributed by: Janus Films

Production compaines: Véra Films, Silver Films, CICC, Fono Roma

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 40

IMDB: 8.3 / 10

Cast & Crew

Starring: as Mario, as M. Jo, as Bimba, as Camp, as Linda, as Camp Chief, as Bernardo, Jo Dest as Smerloff, Darío Moreno as Hernandez, as Bill O'Brien

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