Wages of Fear: Clouzot’s Brilliant Thriller, Winner of Cannes Fest Top Award (Masterpieces of World Cinema)

I have not seen Wages of Fear in at least 25 years, and then one night, I caught it on TV, courtesy of TCM.  I found myself just as intrigued as I was when I first “discovered” this movie gem, upon the recommendation of a French friend.

Wages of Fear, which was the winner of the Palme d’or at the 1953 Cannes Film Fest, represents the very best of the late, great Gallic director Henri-Georges Clouzot.   Clouzot is better-known today for the brilliant and creepy thriller “Les Diaboliques,” which is the scariest thriller I have ever seen. But I think that Wages of Fear is a better and richer picture on several levels.

The backdrop of this existential suspenser, truly a nail-biter from first frame to last,  is fascinating.  A powerful oil company–American, needless to say– which controls the economy of  the poverty-stricken village of Las Piedras, is faced with a well-fire disaster some hundreds miles away.

After testing the driving skills of many applicants, four are men are chosen to drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerine over treacherous roads to the site of a distant well fire.

the_wages_of_fear_13_clouzotHeaded by the French-born Corsican Mario (Yves Montand), the group includes Luigi (Folco Lulli), Mario’s Italian roommate, Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), a detached and selfish German, and Jo (Charles Vanel), who had earlier got rid of the fourth chosen man.

The men drive amidst dire conditions of dust, heat, and vermin, through a landscape that threatens to explode their volatile cargo.

A road picture par excellence–with some strong metaphorical elements– the trip is full of various obstacles, such as a wooden platform suspended over a ravine, a boulder that blocks the road and thus must be demolished, a swamp of oil, and so on.  It seems that as soon as the men resolve one problem, another, bigger issue present itself.

the_wages_of_fear_12_clouzotAs co-writer and director Clouzot plays well the shifting group dynamics as a result of the physical obstacles and the men’s own anxieties, which some of them refuse or are unable to express openly, fearing the impact on their public image.

Once the psychology and relationships among the characters are established, Clouzot centers on the visual aspects of the journey.  No surprisingly, long sequences of the story (at times lastimg five or ten minutes) are devoid of any dialogue or words, letting the camera and sound take over to great cinematic effects.

The haunting opening sequence, courtesy to the great black-and-white atmospheric cinematography of Armand Thirad) is memorable: Four beetles are strung together by a nasty boy.  As is well known, imagery of mischievous children torturing animals and bugs is prevalent in the Westerns (“The Wild Bunch”) of Sam Peckinpah and other American helmers, who may have been inspired by Clouzot.

the_wages_of_fear_11_clouzotAt the time, the controversial elements of greedy American capitalism, interconnectedness of the global economy, and exploitation of Third World countries by the First World were glossed over by the critics since they were not part of the collective conscience and collective consciousness.

When the film was released in the U.S. (in 1955, two years after it was made), Pauline Kael and other critics praised the film as one of “the most original and shocking French melodramas.”

I am grateful to the Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, who introduced me to the work of Clouzot and other Gallic directors via his journalism and classes at Columbia University.

The French thrillers by Clouzot and Melville differ radical from American ones in their metaphysical-existential tones, which they accomplish without sounding pretentious or boring.

the_wages_of_fear_10_clouzotBoth a skillful craftsman and artist, Clouzot utilizes film vocabulary to an advantage, keeping you at the edge of your seat with primal (and primitive) sensory reactions, and humor too. His approach calls for a fascinating study with our Master of Suspense, Hitchcock, who greatly appreciated Clouzot’s work.

“Wages of Fear” was re-released in New York in 1992 in its full-length version, which restores several minutes censored at the time due to hints of homosexuality and for its portrayal of American corporate recklessness.

 

Detailed Plot: Narrative Structure (Spoilers Alert)

the_wages_of_fear_9_clouzotFrenchmen Mario and Jo, Dutchman Bimba and Italian Luigi are stuck in the isolated desert Southern Mexican town of Las Piedras.  The shabby town is connected to the outside world by a small airport, but airfare is unaffordable.  Worse, there are no work opportunities aside from an American corporation, Southern Oil Company (SOC), which operates the nearby oil fields and owns a walled compound.  SOC is known for exploiting local workers and for taking the law into its own hands.  However, most of the townspeople are dependent on it and are therefore afraid to criticize or even talk against its operations.

The protagonist, Mario (Montand) is a sarcastic Corsican playboy who treats his devoted lover, Linda, with disdain.  Jo is an aging ex-gangster recently stranded in the town. Bimba is an intensely quiet man whose father was murdered by the Nazis; he worked for three years in a salt mine. Luigi, Mario’s roommate, is a jovial hardworker, who has just learned he is dying from cement dust in his lungs.

Mario maintains friendly rapport with Jo due to their common Parisian background, but a rift develops between Jo and the other men because of his combatively arrogant personality.

the_wages_of_fear_8_clouzotWhen a massive fire erupts at one of the SOC oil fields, the only way to extinguish it is explosion by nitroglycerine.  With short notice and lack of equipment, the chem must be transported within jerrycans placed in two large trucks from the SOC headquarters, 300 miles away.  Due to the road’s poor conditions and the dangerously volatile nature of nitroglycerine, the job is considered too risky for the unionized SOC employees.

As a result, the company foreman Bill O’Brien recruits truck drivers from the local community. The locals volunteers are lured by the high pay of $2,000 per driver, which is a fortune to them.  The prospective  job also provides them the only avenue out of their otherwise dead-end lives.  During the selection process, the pool of applicants is narrowed down to four drivers: Mario, Bimba, and Luigi are chosen, along with Smerloff, a German.

When Smerloff fails to appear on the appointed day, Jo, who knows O’ Brien from his bootlegging days, replaces him. The other drivers suspect that Jo had murdered Smerloff in order to get hired.

the_wages_of_fear_7_clouzotJo and Mario transport the nitroglycerin in one vehicle; Luigi and Bimba in the other–only 30 minutes separate them to limit casualties.

During the journey, the drivers are forced to deal with physical and mental obstacles, a rough road called “the washboard,” a construction barricade that forces them to teeter around a rotten platform above a precipice, and a boulder blocking the road.

When Jo realizes that his nerves are not as strong as they used to be, the others confront Jo about his cowardice. Finally, Luigi and Bimba’s truck explodes without warning, killing them both.  Mario and Jo arrive at the scene only to find a large crater rapidly filling with oil from a pipeline ruptured in the blast. Jo exits the vehicle to help Mario navigate through the oil-filled crater. The truck, however, is in danger of becoming bogged down and during their frantic attempts to prevent it from getting stuck, Mario runs over Jo. Although the vehicle is ultimately freed from the muck, Jo is mortally wounded.

the_wages_of_fear_6_clouzotOn their arrival at the oil field, Mario and Jo are hailed as heroes, but Jo is dead and Mario collapses. Upon his recovery, Mario heads home in the same truck, now freed of its dangerous cargo. He collects the wages following his friends’ deaths, and refuses the appointed chauffeur offered by SOC.

Mario drives down a mountain road, while a party is being held at the cantina in town where Mario’s friends eagerly await for him. Mario swerves recklessly and intentionally, having faced death so many times on the same road.  He then takes one corner too fast, plunging through the guardrail to his death.

The film’s last image is particularly poignant. Clouzot intercuts between Linda, who begins dancing solo in the cantina, while the entire crowd joins her joyously, Mario, in a state of hysterical intoxication and arrogant disbelief, driving his truck recklessly, aiming to prove that he can cheat death.

I doubt that any American thriller, especially in the 1950s, would have had the courage to end the story on such ambiguous note.

Remake Alert

Please disregard William (“The French Connection”) Friedkin, who remade the film in 1977 under the title of “Sorcerer,” resulting in a critical and commercial flop.

Credits

Produced y Henri-George Clouzot
Director: Clouzot
Screenplay: Clouzot and Jerome Geronimi, based on Georges Arnaut’s novel
Camera: Armand Thirard
Editing: Henri Rust, Madeleine Gug, Etienette Muse
Music: Georges Auric
Production design: Rene Renoux
Running time: 156 minutes (also exists in its 140 minute version)

Cast

Mario (Yves Montand)
Jo (Charles Vanel)
Folco Lulli (Luigi)
Bimba (Peter Van Eyck)
Bill O’Brien (William Tubb)
Hernandez (Dario Moreno)
Smerloff (Jo Dest)
Camp Chief (Antonio Centa)
Bernardo (Luis de Lima)
Linda (Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife)