DVD Review Of The Wages Of Fear
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/9/06
Think that space invaders, aliens, dinosaurs, cyborgs, or monsters of one sort or another are needed to make a film a thriller? If so, I recommend you watch Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 black and white masterpiece The Wages Of Fear (La Salaire De La Peur), about the evils of runaway greed and capitalism, all in the name of oil. It’ll change your mind. Over half a century later, and in light of the current American war folly for oil in the Middle East, the film is remarkably resonant and cogent- even down to the loudest criticism of American profiteering and imperialism coming from….the French. However, when they’re right they’re right. If one wants to know why ‘Ugly Americans’ are loathed in the Middle East it’s not because of the rhetorical claptrap about a ‘clash of cultures’, nor Evil vs. Freedom, but because of decades of exploitation where a select group of mainly American corporations, unanswerable to anyone, get rich off of exploiting the masses where they swoop in. It happened in the Middle East, as well as in Latin America- perhaps the only place in the world where anti-Americanism (really anti-American corporate imperialism) rivals or surpasses that in the Middle East. As a minor character in the film rails, ‘Wherever there’s oil, there’s always Americans.’ But, if all this film were was an anti-American screed it would still not grip viewers today. What it is, is a great portrait of the extremes that human beings- ok, men, will go to just to have things, and to what lengths their machismo will drive them.
The film’s screenplay was adapted by Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi (Clouzot’s brother Jean’s pseudonym) from a novel by Georges Arnaud, and, despite its nail-biting nature, as well as Clouzot’s reputation as ‘the French Hitchcock’- aka ‘The Master Of Suspense’, for such great thrillers as Diabolique (Les Diaboliques), this film is far beyond merely the technically great cinema that was Hitchcock’s stock in trade. That’s because it is not merely well made, but provokes deep questions about the fundamental nature of existence, human nature, and fraternity. It’s far closer to something like John Huston’s The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (although it’s a greater film), and its influence can be seen in many later films, such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch- in an opening shot of a naked child torturing cockroaches on a string, and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, when we experience a good few silent minutes of opening shots on the squalid Latin American town, Las Piedras, the film is set in, just to get ambience. Reputedly, the film was shot entirely over the course of a year, in southern France, in Camargue, with a few imported palm trees and cacti to give it a South American look, but one could not tell it from what is onscreen.
The film follows four main characters, who are being paid $2000 apiece to haul two trucks of nitroglycerine to an oil fire three hundred miles away, over rough terrain. One big bump and they’ll be blown sky high, but if they make it all of them, fortune-seeking immigrants who bottomed out, will be rich and can leave the little town in an unnamed country they’re stuck in. The first of the four is Mario (Yves Montand), a French Corsican. How he got there is never explained, except he was an adventurer, who ran out of money. There are no jobs in the town, save for those at an American conglomerate called the Southern Oil Company (SOC), a manifest acronymic stand-in for the then ubiquitous Standard Oil Company. The second character is his new pal, just flown into town, an older French conman who is also an adventurer. His name is Jo (Charles Vanel), and he bribes his way into the country. He is a braggart, but a coward at heart, even though he does stare down the third protagonist, Mario’s Italian roommate, Luigi (Folco Lulli)- a tubby baker and cement mixer who is dying because of his inhalation of cement dust, at a bar, when they quarrel over a radio, and Jo hands Luigi a gun to kill him. The fourth man hired to drive is a blond German named Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), who is the most brave of them all, and spent three years of forced labor in a Nazi salt mine for resisting that government. His is the least sketched of the quartet, but his character reminds me much off the following year’s great swordsman character Kyuzo, from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, who speaks little, but says and does the most.
Yet, none of the men are particularly appealing- even as they are understandable and realistic to care about, and the two hour and twenty-seven minute film does not really kick in to thriller high gear for over an hour, when the men begin their trek. Before that, however, we get an almost documentary feel of life in a squalid Latino town, where many poor people run about naked- one nude shot includes a small bottomless boy whose shriveled penis is seen onscreen- in 1953! This time is well spent, for in it we get to sense some of the desperation to move on that the four protagonists do. Yet, the camera is always detailing some aspect of the characters or town or SOC to hold our attention. We see the four main characters, here and there, get a sense of their lives, what may have brought them there, and what they do in their spare time, which is not much. There are scenes, such as the aforementioned confrontation between Jo and Luigi, scenes where Mario degrades his girlfriend Linda (Vera Clouzot), who is also ‘kept’ by her saloon employer, scenes of tension between the various ethnic groups of ‘tramps’, and the antagonism between all the locals and the exploitive gringos of the SOC.
Yet, underneath it all is the sense of a coiled serpent waiting to strike. Part of it is political and social, and part of it is personal, as exemplified in a brilliantly cross-cut sequence where Mario explains to Jo that the town is a seductive prison with no escape, as their conversation ranges over several locales and times. When the serpent strikes it comes in the form of the well accident, which has injured thirteen local villagers. They seem ready for rebellion, but soon lapse back into anomy when news comes that there are high paying jobs to be had. To haul the nitroglycerine, the company, led by a bigoted old apparatchik named Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs), is hiring locals because the work is too dangerous for union men. He callously assigns blame for the accident to the victims. And, despite all their talk of revolution, when the company offers money, all the men grovel for dangerous work. There is something revulsive about not only about the exploitive SOC, but the stupid men willing to risk their lives. The oil fire will burn itself out whether they make it or not, so they are only going to save the oil for profiteers. Thus, the film is not anti-American as it is anti-inhuman. It is not existential, but nihilistic, and this is not a semantic point. Were it existential we would not be so fascinated by all the repellent characters. Nihilism is that same tendency to watch buildings burn and see others suffer, thus the viewer is insinuated into voyeuring characters they resemble- a brilliant stroke by Clouzot. The mission, as it is, is not to save anything, but more of a nihilistic ride to nowhere, simply because the four men picked are embodiments of human anomy. Jo seems to be the worst of the lot, for he is initially rejected by O’Brien- who was an old partner in crime, as being too old, but is told that he’ll get the job if the fourth guy picked, Smerloff, does not show at three am for the job. He does not, and it’s implied that Jo either got the other fellow too drunk or maybe even did worse to him for the job.
The four men hired encounter all sorts of hazards, internal and external, which become almost Odyssean or Sisyphan, such as rotten wooden bridges that are half built, requiring the trucks to back up on them to make the hairpin mountain turn; roads called washboards that need to be driven over at certain speeds- fast or slow, to minimize bounce; their own recklessness; and a boulder that Bimba ingeniously blows up with some of the nitroglycerine. The most interesting and complex of the characters is Jo, who soon becomes a quivering mass of nerves. Initially, Mario looked up to him with awe, spurning his old friend Luigi for the slick talking newcomer. But, soon the old man breaks down. He was all bravado, and the only reason he was able to stare down Luigi at the bar was because he knew the man was not capable of murder. There was no real risk. But, driving these trucks entails great risk, and Mario soon grows contemptuous of his former idol.
After Bimba successfully blows up the rock, and he, Luigi, and Mario go take a celebratory piss together, not inviting Jo, we see from afar that Bimba’s and Luigi’s truck mysteriously explodes. We never learn why, but Bimba seems to know his death is near, because he shaves in the truck so he will be a ‘presentable corpse’, and utters such things as, ‘Even when they guillotine you, they dress you up first.’ When Mario and Jo arrive at the spot where the explosion took place, they see a severed oil pipeline that has created a slick puddle they will have difficulty crossing. Jo must guide the truck through, but it cannot stop or it willget stuck. Midway through Jo falls, but Mario cannot or will not stop the truck, and crushes Jo’s right leg. Thankfully, this is a black and white film, for scenes like that would have been excruciating in color. Eventually Mario saves Jo, and gets the truck out, but both men are covered in oil, and Jo bleeds to death, his leg gone gangrenous in a splint. In a great moment, Mario- who forgives Jo’s cowardice, which could have gotten them both killed, because he feels guilt over having run Jo over, tries to keep Jo awake, talking to him, and Jo recalls an old fence in his backyard in Paris. Mario asks what was behind the fence, and Jo answers ‘nothing’. Of course, it is at this symbolic recognition of no life after death that the old man expires as he lies in Mario’s arms, not far from their destination, which is in sight. Mario is cheered as a hero when he arrives at the fire. He passes out from exhaustion. The fire is put out, and the next morning, all cleaned up, he gets his money, and parts of the others’, then recklessly drives another truck back and forth, side to side, on a mountain road, and plunges off the side, to his own death, due to his lack of fear. The villagers have heard of the tale of his lone survival and imminent return, and start dancing to Richard Strauss’s The Blue Danube. The sight of the now cocky and almost mythically immortal Mario’s hubris and the death contrasted with the villagers’ dancing to the music has perhaps only been ironically bested as a closing by Stanley Kubrick’s usage of We’ll Meet Again at nuclear Armageddon in Dr. Strangelove. Still, all four men accomplish their goal of getting out of Las Piedras.
The two disk DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, lacks an English dubbed soundtrack on Disk One, with the movie, and is only subtitled. Surprisingly, there is no film commentary track, which should be standard, by now, with all DVD releases. It is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The second disk has features such as Censored, which details cuts to the American version, mostly of anti-American sentiment and ridiculously purported homosexuality. There is also a great documentary called Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant, which details his career, as well as the ridiculous claims that he was a Nazi collaborator, even as he made an anti-Nazi film called Le Corbeau (The Raven) under the auspices of the Vichy government. There are also interviews with Yves Montand, assistant director Michel Romanoff and Clouzot biographer Marc Godin. There are also several essays in the DVD insert.
The film does have some logical flaws, such as the fact that going at certain speeds does not minimize the effects of bumps nor potholes in the road. In fact, a higher speed would only increase the chances of a tire blowing out and blowing them up. Also, the idea of Bimba merely siphoning the nitroglycerine out of a container with his mouth is not plausible. But, these are minor negative points in a great film. Clouzot has not only been charged with anti-Americanism (Time magazine ridiculously called the film, in its 1955 U.S. release, ‘evil’), but misogyny, simply because the film is about men, and there’s a shot of Linda’s nice cleavage as she bends over to scrub a floor, and then she constantly supplicates herself to Mario. But, this is clearly shown to point out what a bastard he is, not to sympathize with his ill treatment of her. The music, by Georges Auric, is spare, and never intrudes on the action nor mood, which is primarily told visually. Cinematographer Armand Thirard especially ratchets up tension in the scenes of conversation at night, in the truck cabs, where the men’s faces are lit from below, and resemble skulls. Also, there is an early experiment in slow motion, as Mario jumps from atop the wooden bridge, down to the mountainside where he believes cowardly Jo has fallen. It is shot from below, and a great example of how Clouzot was innovating, for it maximizes his impact as he hits the dirt, suspends him aloft, just a fraction longer than he should be, and gives him an almost godlike presence.
But, Clouzot is at his very best when drawing out the suspense, which, by definition, is the time between big events, the possibility of danger or horror, not the thing itself, which is usually anticlimactic. What the viewer imagines will always be more frightening than the reality, which is why the best suspense or horror films are usually those that are the least action-packed, show little of the monster, or are not dependent upon mere special effects. Yet, even when we know what will occur, the scenes are filmed so well as to draw the viewer in. This is particularly effective and true when Mario is shown slowly pulling the truck up off the bridge, and a metal hook from its side catches the bridge cable, and as the truck gets fully on the road, the bridge breaks below him. This sort of scene has been done many times before. Will it or will it not break? In a film as great as this, where all four main characters end up dead, to expect the cable to last is, at best, a crapshoot, or wishful thinking.
It is the writing that sets the tenor of The Wages Of Fear, and what makes the suspense/thriller aspect of the film so great. Yet, what raises the film into the high art category is its blunt, simple, but never ham-handed, portrayal of the evils of corporate greed, and the sacrifice of human life so a select few can get rich, as well as the nihilistic despair that drives those who willingly play into their exploiters’ hands. As rough as Clouzot is on the exploiters, he’s even harsher on the meekly hypocritical exploited. Let Politically Correct Hollywood try that in one of their didactic screeds, and maybe there will be hope for American film. Till then, The Wages Of Fear should always find gainful employment in a cineaste’s library.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]
Return to Bylines Cinemension