A sheer dynamite of a movie made in 1953 “The Wages of Fear” (French: Le Salaire de la peur) a French-Italian thriller film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Yves Montand, and based on a 1950 novel by Georges Arnaud.
Clouzot established a very high note with “The Wages of Fear” and a place in world cinema, and later went on to make critical and economic clout in his Hitchcock-rivaling masterwork ‘Diabolique’. Like Hitchcock- Henri Clouzot has often been judged a cold, practical director, and it’s certainly true that “The Wages of Fear’” contains tension-fraught stretches of “pure cinema” that probably gave even the Master cold sweats, but darkly humorous political satire directed at incipient global capitalism and a ballsy existentialism also imbue Clouzot’s cinematic expressions. “Man is nothing else,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, arguing the necessity of political commitment, “than the sum of his actions.” Given the film’s bitterly ironic ending, it would seem that Clouzot, for his part, wasn’t so sure that the sum ever exceeds zero.
As zealously observant as Clouzot is to the narrative spine of the story in the raw form of the cinematic tension, nerve racking fears from the viewers could cause so much of screen to explode as four men drive two trucks of nitroglycerin three hundred miles across a hellish landscape of potholes, desiccated flora, rock-strewn passes, hairpin turns, and rickety bridges with crumbling beams to put out an oil fire raging on the other side of the mountain.
This is just as ferocious and brutal in the world of corporate imperialism, American exploitation of foreign cultures, the rape of the land, and the ridiculous folly of man. Critics at the time charged that ‘The Wages of Fear’ was repulsively anti-American (Time magazine, in 1955, called it “a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made”), but this is missing the ravaged forest for the blighted trees. As director Karel Reisz pointed out in a 1991 Film Comment article, the film is “anti-American,” but only insofar as it is “unselectively and impartially anti-everything.”
At the outset, this lethally loaded thriller looks as though it is taking off to be a nasty and caustic contemplation of the psychological problems of a group of men, stuck without hope of salvation in a fetid South American oil town. The way of getaway increasingly become difficult as as H. G. Clouzot’s screen play of Georges Arnaud’s novel goes wandering down slimy back alleys and opens up the raid of barbarism
The film’s initial scenes depict children torturing insects recreationally and the general public casseroling some drink, amusingly set the disillusioned tone and giving the way, in the midst of the South American sun, the godforsaken town of Las Piedras serves as a particularly hellish human cul-de-sac, where a motley band of multinational good-for-nothings has washed up like so much flotsam. The arrival of Jo (Charles Vanel), a fugitive from justice who blusters his way into a role as big spender at the local cantina, sets the story in motion when Mario (Yves Montand), a French Corsican ne’er-do-well, throws over his roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) to spend all his free time with Jo.
The rivalry for Mario’s warmth comes to a head when Luigi calls Jo to accounts in the middle of a raucous evening at the cantina. The cinematic expression from the ace photographer Armand Thirard’s is focused on the deep lighting thrown on the bold black bars across the crowded room and the camera pampers a la spaghetti western (one such inspiration for the 1968 movie ‘Once upon a time in the west’) shortest close-ups of the two men’s faces as they attempt to stare each other down. Violence hovers at the edge of the frame, ready to burst forth at a moment’s notice. When Jo pulls a gun on Luigi, the latter claims Jo wouldn’t act as tough without it, so Jo hands it over. Luigi crumbles; jealous and possessive as he may be, he lacks that killer instinct. Disgraced and disconsolate, Luigi beats a hasty retreat like a spurned lover. Truth be told, Clouzot often suggests there’s more than a homo-social affinity among the trio, and it’s hardly surprising that these implications kicked up more fuss among various censorial bodies than the film’s alleged anti-American content.
By all mean the female character are just for the adjuvant space to light up the machismo and centered to face overwhelming chances of pride and honor that rides an force on the individualism. The viewers are introduced to the lone lady of note, servant girl Linda (played by Clouzot’s wife Vera), scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees while the camera leers down her wide-open blouse, and showing off the goods for the delectation of the male audience. Clouzot reportedly did everything he could to make a star out of the Brazilian-born actress, granting her the put-upon, heartsick lead in Diabolique, but that doesn’t quite gloss her role here, in effect playing Mario’s lapdog, sidling up to him on all fours for a placatory pat on the head.
The only ones having any luck in Las Piedras are the aloof American representatives of SOC (Southern Oil Company, conveniently generic nom de greed)—that is, until one of their distant oil rig explode. Needing to transport two tons of nitroglycerin 300 miles over shoddy unpaved roads and treacherous switchbacks, SOC takes their recruitment to the people, neatly bypassing the pesky constraints of union bylaws. “Dangerous work, high pay!” announces the want ad. Competition is stiff, as it were. Only real men, read drivers, need apply. Nerves and aptitude soon whittle the applicant pool down until only four remain. Divided into two teams by SOC rep Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs), Jo and Mario head out first, followed after a brief interval by Luigi and Dutch national Bimba (Peter van Eyck), an Aryan type whose father was hanged during the war by the Nazis. Gruff to the point of abruptness, O’Brien betrays a callous, eminently businesslike attitude to death and injury, though, on the other hand, he stands up for the drivers, having known Jo since their “contraband days” back in the ’30s. Less political than psychological, O’Brien is disenchanted, jaded. It’s not much to pin a full-scale, anti-imperialist indictment on.
Our ragtag quartet doesn’t hit the road until the film’s second hour, whereupon a series of breathtaking set pieces ensues, one more elaborate than the previous, as the trucks negotiate increasingly inhospitable terrain and Clouzot takes his time with every detail, tailgating at breakneck pace across uneven ground known as “the washboard,” navigating a partially constructed road extension that’s little more than rotten timber jutting out over a void, which quickly becomes a domino-fall of unintended consequences. Like the cantina confrontation, this sequence showcases Clouzot’s rapid-fire montage, breaking down a simple motion like Mario jumping from the platform onto the hillside into its constituent parts, a three-shot montage that ends with a knowing flourish as Mario kicks a spray of dirt into the camera lens.
More than the mechanics of their plight, Clouzot lavishes his attention on the always frangible equilibrium of the group dynamic, documenting with particularly pitiless clarity Jo’s devolution from swaggering man of the world to cringing coward, someone who hides behind a wall at a safe distance while Mario maneuvers the truck around the timber switchback. Jo’s breakdown continues when, overcoming the final obstacle, he must guide the truck with Mario behind the wheel across a widening pool of oil that resulted when Luigi and Bimba’s truck detonated. Jo’s exhortation “Whatever you do, don’t stop!” comes back to haunt him when he’s ensnared on submerged debris and then caught beneath the truck’s wheels, leaving his leg horribly mangled. The pain leaves him delirious. He fantasizes about his home in Paris, a locale Mario also knows well. “You remember that fence? What was on the other side?” Jo asks, to which Mario responds, “Nothing. A vacant lot.”
Already talk of boundaries and the beyond takes on loaded metaphorical weight. Rather than derive existential wisdom from actions that add up to something rational, Jo receives his terrible insight through subtraction, the elimination of everything that made him the man he once was. At the end, hallucinating outright, Jo sees his home again, the endless street, the fence, and the beyond. “There’s nothing!” he calls out as he dies, a singular refutation of one of humanity’s most abiding desires: that something of us survives this mortal coil.
The Wages of Fear was critically hailed upon its original release. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote “The excitement derives entirely from the awareness of nitroglycerine and the gingerly, breathless handling of it. You sit there waiting for the theatre to explode. The film was a super hit both in France, Italy and US too. This movie won BAFTA, Berlin Golden Bear and Cannes’ Grand Prize all sat proudly on Clouzot’s masterpiece…..
- Screenplay & Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
- Produced by Raymond Borderie
- Co-written by Jérome Geronim; Based on a novel ‘Le Salaire de la Peur’ by Georges Arnaud
- Cast: Yves Montand; Charles Vanel; Peter van Eyck & Folco Lulli
- Music by Georges Auric
- Cinematography by Armand Thirard
- Editing by Madeleine Gug; Etiennette Muse and Henri Rust
- Distributed by Distributors Corporation of America (US)
- Release dates on 22 April 1953 and Running time of 131 minutes
- Country: France and Italy
- Language: French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian