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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Wages of Fear

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Country: France
Year: 1953

“You think that people are all good or all bad. You think that good means light and bad means night? But where does night end and light begin? Where is the borderline? Do you even know which side you belong on?”
Dr Vorzet, Le Corbeau

“Life has never been very kind to me. And when I say life, I mean people.”
Monsieur Colin, The Murderer Lives at Number 21

“Life’s no fun, that’s for sure.”
Hooker, Quai des Orfèvres

“You don’t know what fear is. But you’ll see. It’s catching. It’s catching like smallpox. And once you get it, it’s for life.”
Dick, The Wages of Fear

“…a cinema of total disenchantment.”
David Thomson, describing Clouzot’s filmography in A Biographical Dictionary of Film

Background

Henri-Georges Clouzot was born in Niort, France in 1907. Despite directing only eleven full-length films, Clouzot’s mastery of the suspense genre placed him in the pantheon right next to Hitchcock.

His father, a bookseller, instilled in him a love of reading and music. Henri-Georges was one of those irritating children playing piano recitals at the age of four and making the rest of us feel inadequate. At the age of 18, Henri-Georges moved to Paris to study political science, but was soon distracted by the theater and cinema. Contacts with magazine editors and film industry folk led to a move to Berlin and a full-time job translating screenplays for a German film studio.

While in Berlin, Clouzot was exposed to the dark, expressionist films of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. He was also exposed to the rise of Nazism. His friendships with Jewish film producers led to the eventual loss of his contract with UFA.

He spent the second half of the 1930’s bedridden with tuberculosis. According to Clouzot, this seeming reversal of fortune was a blessing in disguise: “I owe it all to the sanatorium. It was my school. While resident there I saw how human beings worked.”

It may have been great for his artistic vision in the long run, but by the time Clouzot got out of the sanatorium, all of his friends had fled France (this was during the Occupation – you knew that, right?). He returned to Paris in 1938, and spent several desperate years looking for work. In 1942, close to bankruptcy and despair, he was offered a job by another German-owned film studio: Continental. He had misgivings about his new bosses, but felt he had no choice, and reluctantly accepted the job.

Clouzot’s wicked screenwriting skillz led to speedy advancement at Continental, and he was soon allowed to direct his first full-length film: The Murderer Lives at Number 21. Actress Suzy Delair co-starred in the film, and remained Clouzot’s mistress for many years. Compared to his later work, The Murderer was a trifle, but a very successful trifle. As a result, Clouzot was given greater freedom to write and direct films that interested him. He seized the opportunity, and set to work on his first signature film: Le Corbeau (The Raven).

The Raven was supposedly based on a true story (just like Fargo!): A rash of poison pen letters exposed the sins of a small town (abortion, adultery, etc.) and gradually drove the residents apeshit (I’m summarizing). On the surface, The Raven is an effective thriller, but the subtext is what caused all the ruckus. After WWII was over, Clouzot was accused of collaborating with the Nazis (patently untrue!) and of directing a bleak, demoralizing film that portrayed the French people in a negative light (okay, guilty as charged). Many French intellectuals and artists came to his defense, including existential superstar Jean-Paul Sartre. François Truffaut later wrote that “…the film seemed to me to be a fairly accurate picture of what I had seen around me during the war and the post-war period – collaboration, denunciation, the black market, hustling.”

The film was condemned by the right-wing Vichy regime, the left-wing Resistance press, and (predictably) the Catholic church. Clouzot was fired by Continental, and banned by the French government from ever setting foot inside a film studio again. Ever. Later, they quietly reduced the punishment to two years.

When the probationary period ended, Clouzot gradually rebuilt his reputation with a series of (mostly) acclaimed films. Quai des Orfèvres, a clever, noir-ish police procedural (with a prominent lesbian character!), was released in 1947. Clouzot followed this up with two films that are now regarded as lesser entries in his filmography: Manon and the comedic Miquette et Sa Mère. The latter film was one of Clouzot’s rare flops, but he also met Véra Gibson-Amado during the shoot, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Véra’s father was Gilberto Amado, “…congressman, writer, journalist and lawyer, ex-President of the United Nations’ International Law Committee, and who, in 1915, shot to death fellow writer and poet Aníbal Teóphilo in an official ceremony at the Jornal do Commercio for disagreeing with his opinions on literature.” (Thank you, IMDb!)

Véra and Henri-Georges were married in 1950. Véra starred in only three films, all directed by her husband: The Wages of Fear, The Spies, and Diabolique. In Diabolique, Véra plays a long-suffering wife who plots to murder her husband with the assistance of his equally fed-up mistress. I won’t give away the biggest twist at the end, but Véra’s character is supposed to have a weak heart, and at the end, she dies of a heart attack.

Which I only mention because: Véra Clouzot actually did have a weak heart, and actually did die of a heart attack in 1960.

The Wages of Fear, based on the memoirs of a French expatriate living in South America, was adapted by Clouzot and his brother and released in 1953. It was hugely popular and recognized immediately as a masterful thriller and a sharp sociopolitical commentary. When it was shown in the U.S., however, every scene exposing the corruption of Big Oil was excised. American audiences saw a cut that was close to an hour shorter than the version released in Europe (we watched the long version for this review). As a result, The Wages of Fear was known here as a gritty thriller, but nothing more. Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times, wrote that “…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.” Pauline Kael called it “the most original and shocking French melodrama of the 50s.” U.S. audiences had to wait until 1991 to see the searingly bleak and politically charged uncut version.

Clouzot followed up his Nitro-Burning Funny Trucks! epic with the Hitchcockian Diabolique. In fact, the source novel for Diabolique was so goddamn Hitchcockian that Hitchcock himself was in the process of bidding for the rights when Clouzot stole it from under his jowls (and nose).

After Diabolique, the quality of Clouzot’s output declined sharply. A documentary about his friend Pablo Picasso (The Mystery of Picasso) is generally well-regarded but hardly known outside France (I happen to have an import copy on DVD, natch). La Vérité, starring Brigitte Bardot (and co-written by Véra Clouzot!), was a self-conscious attempt to recast himself as a member of the French New Wave. Though it was reviewed fairly well at the time, it has fallen out of favor in the intervening years, and is not currently available on R1 DVD. He wrote a script and began shooting a more experimental film, L’Enfer, but the project was a disaster; the lead actor quit, financing fell through, and Clouzot’s health deteriorated. The shoot had to be abandoned, though the script was later adapted and directed by Claude Chabrol (I’ve seen it; okay but nothing special).

As the French New Wave, with its jazzy, improvisatory style, took hold, Clouzot’s brand of bleak and elegant formalism came to be regarded with contempt. Clouzot directed a few filmed symphony performances for French television, and one more feature film, La Prisonnière, which was released in 1968. He made several attempts after La Prisonnière, but never got another film off the ground.

In 1976, Truffaut wrote a letter to Clouzot, begging him to return to film making: “Why not go back to work? Why not shout ‘Action’?”

One year later, Clouzot died, while listening to The Damnation of Faust. He is buried beside Véra.

Synopsis

We’re in a filthy South American village. The streets are mud, the buildings dilapidated. Cruel children lead cockroaches on strings, like fickle gods toying with hapless man. Symbolism? You bet. (Interesting side note: Sam Peckinpah paid homage to this scene at the beginning of The Wild Bunch.)

Suddenly, the relative calm is shattered by a convoy of jeeps careening through the town, apparently en route to Somewhere Important. The jeeps are emblazoned with the logo of the (U.S.-owned) Southern Oil Company. While the locals and the unemployed foreigners suffer starvation, leprosy, and cholera, the American oil company executives enjoy air-conditioned homes, cafeterias, and free medical treatment. The clear subtext of colonial imperialism and economic exploitation is the main reason that U.S. censors removed over 50 minutes of footage prior to its initial U.S. release.

Out-of-work losers and petty criminals gather at the local saloon. A sour-faced man with glasses throws rocks at a dog. “I hate mutts,” he grumbles, by way of explanation.

Inside, Linda (played by the director’s youthful wife, Vera Clouzot) scrubs the floors like Cinderella, her raven hair pulled back in girlish pigtails. Her raffish sometimes-lover Mario (played by full-time crooner, part-time actor Yves Montand) beckons.

Grinning, she crawls to his table and purrs while he pets her head. Sexy, and more than a little creepy. Also of note: When she crawls, you can totally see down her blouse.

Everyone here is hot, dirty, trapped and desperate to escape. Planes come and go, but our motley crew of characters can’t afford a ticket and don’t have the right paperwork. No trains pass through the village, and the highway stops at the oil fields. “It’s like prison here,” complains Mario. “Easy to get in… but there’s no way out, and if you don’t get out, you croak.”

Jo, a well-dressed, smooth-talking con man, arrives in town.

wages_jo

Mario, convinced that Jo is some kind of big shot, starts sucking up to him. There is a definite homoerotic element to the hero-worship/man-crush here, which might be another reason U.S. censors got all antsy back in 1955.

Jo discovers that the local SOC wells are run by an old contraband-running buddy, Bill O’Brien. Hoping to parlay their past friendship into current employment, Jo is sorely disappointed when Big Bill turns him down. “Listen, my friend,” Jo warns Bill, “I need money. And when I need money, I get mean.”

Mario’s roommate – and the only really likable male character in the film – is Luigi, who has contracted emphysema from cement dust and looks like Mario (as in Super Mario).

It bears mentioning that, though Mario is sort of the lead character, he is also a misogynist jerkwad. He orders Linda to mend his clothing, he doesn’t seem to mind that she’s basically the sex slave of the repellent bar owner, and he slaps her when she gets too needy.

Luigi is jealous of Mario’s new friendship with Jo (I told you: HOMOEROTIC), which leads to a tense standoff and some spilled champagne. Luigi’s pride is hurt, and I feel certain there will be payback coming.

There has been a disaster at an oil well, and thirteen local men are dead. “We’re always the ones to suffer,” shouts a native woman in the town square. “We’re always the ones to die. The gringos never die!”

“That’s right!” shouts the crowd, until the impromptu protest rally is broken up by baton-wielding oil cops.

Fiery oil well disasters are always a bummer, of course, but they are also an opportunity for high-paying, no-questions-asked employment. The oil company bosses need four suckers to drive two shot-to-hell trucks loaded with highly unstable nitroglycerin over 300 miles of poorly-maintained roads to blow out the fire. “It’s murder!” one executive objects. “…the drivers haven’t got a fifty-fifty chance!” True, but Bill O’Brien has a brilliant idea: Why not just hire some unemployed illegal immigrants? “…those bums don’t have any union, nor any families, and if they blow up nobody’ll come around bothering me for any contributions!”

After a stern lecture by Big Bill and a brief driving test, Mario, Jo, Luigi, and Bimba (an Aryan-looking taxi driver) are recruited as the drivers, and thus the plot is set into motion!

The trucks are tuned up and loaded with the nitro. Just before dawn, our heroes drive slowly out of the SOC compound, bound for glory… or death!

Linda climbs on the running board, trying one last time to dissuade Mario from the suicide mission, but Mario tells her to get lost and shoves her into the mud.

The trucks proceed, agonizingly slowly, creeping through foot-deep potholes. Jo, formerly Mr. Smooth, is now sweating and shivering, clearly losing his nerve or else maybe coming down with the flu. Either way, he’s basically useless. His excessively slow driving and frequent vomit-stops cause tensions between the driving teams.

Next up: The Washboards! A badly-rutted road means that the trucks have to maintain a steady 40MPH to minimize vibrations! Kinda like the movie Speed, but with a city bus full of NITRO! Of course, the rickety trucks choose this moment to begin making ominous noises. “If it’s the engine, we’re fucked,” observes Bimba sagely.

Jo finally loses his nerve for good, and Mario takes over the driving of Truck #1. Truck #2 breaks down halfway across The Washboards, and is forced to slow down to 5 MPH, with Truck #1 bearing down from behind, trying to maintain a steady 40! Disaster is narrowly averted (I’ll be saying that a lot during this review) when Truck #2 reaches the end of The Washboards and puts the pedal to the metal milliseconds before Truck #1 overtakes them!

Whew!

Next comes the part where, to maneuver around a steep curve on a mountain road, the trucks must back onto a jury-rigged (jerry-rigged?) wooden platform overhanging a cliff!

Will the platform hold? Just barely, as it turns out! After several heart-stopping minutes of splintering wood and spinning tires, both trucks make it around the corner and continue up the hill.

By this time, nerves are frayed and relationships are breaking down.

Jo, previously the object of Mario’s affection, has shown himself to be a cowardly sham.

“I’ve got brains in my head!” Jo sputters.

“If only you had balls, too,” replies Mario with a sneer of contempt.

“Keep talking,” says Jo. “Yours’ll be hanging from a tree like a couple of cherries.”

Note: This movie was released in 1953!

Surely, after The Washboards and Suicide Curve, the worst is behind our intrepid drivers! Alas… it is not to be. Around the next turn? A giant boulder, blocking the road! The situation seems hopeless, until Bimba remembers that they’re hauling a truck full of motherfucking NITRO!

Luigi pounds a hole in the boulder with an iron rod, and Bimba makes a Rube Goldberg-esque nitro bomb. Much to my delight, the bomb works a treat and blows that boulder up like nobody’s business. BOOM!

Sadly, a couple of miles down the road, Truck #2 hits a pothole (or something; we only see it from a distance) and also blows up, leaving only Macho Mario and Jittery Jo. Adding insult to injury, the explosion severs a pipeline, leaving a deep pond of oil blocking the road. Jo is dispatched to check the depth of the pool with a stick, while Mario drives the truck. “It’s slick,” warns Jo. “If you stop, you’ll never get started again.”

The truck creeps through the pool, sinking deeper and deeper into the stygian muck. Jo walks ahead, testing the depth, up to his chest in the oil. Jo’s leg gets trapped under an unseen branch halfway across. “I’m stuck!” he screams.

“Move out of the way!” responds Mario. Refusing to stop, Mario drives over his friend’s legs. Slowly.

The truck gets stuck anyway, and Mario has to swim into the oil beneath the truck and attach a winch cable to the axle. Eventually, both truck and Jo are rescued from an oily death.

The truck is okay, but Jo’s leg is… well… not okay. Not at all. I mean… holy crap.

Truck #1 is on the final stretch of road. Jo, drifting in and out of consciousness, reclines against Mario.

Day turns into night, and still they have not reached the fire. Both men are exhausted and befouled with oil.

Just ahead, the fire looms up, lancing the darkness. Jo is dead. Mario stops the truck and weeps. “What happened to the others?” asks the foreman. “They’re all dead,” answers Mario, as he collapses in the dirt, unconscious.

Next morning, Mario is given his reward and a truck to drive back to the village. Linda hears the news and dances with joy.

Giddy with success and his impending freedom, Mario happily swerves the truck all over the road, and…

FIN

What I Liked

I’ve seen The Wages of Fear at least three times now, and you’ll definitely see it in my Top 5 list when we finish this series. How do I love The Wages of Fear? Let me count the ways…

First of all, it’s just unrelentingly, unapologetically nasty. From the opening scenes of kids torturing cockroaches to the callousness of the oil executives to the nihilistic “everybody dies!” ending, The Wages of Fear is one bracingly bleak trip. And yes, I’m counting that as one of the reasons I love the film. There is no phony romance in The Wages of Fear, no false happy ending, no final act redemption, nothing to take the edge off the sour taste of failure and pointless death. I’m all for romance and happy endings when they’re appropriate, but when you set out to make a film about the pettiness and desperation bred by economic exploitation… I want to taste that poison, brother, straight up. The Wages of Fear delivers in spades.

Next, the cinematography is excellent. During the scenes in the squalid village at the beginning, I actually started to feel dirty, hot, and uncomfortable. The movie fairly reeks of sweat, dust, and unrefined oil.

The sustained tension during the drive, particularly during the scene on the rickety platform and the scene with the lake of oil blocking the road, is a thing of beauty. Clouzot masterfully ratchets up the tension during these sequences without ever making us feel manipulated. We always believe in the situations presented, and the solutions devised by the drivers always seem logical… and then something goes wrong… and then something else… and pretty soon we’re gripping the arms of the chair and shouting at the screen: “No! Over there! Look out! For God’s sake, stop!”

I should also mention the performances, which are excellent, almost without exception (see next section).

What I Didn’t Like So Much

There are several scenes where Clouzot resorts to rear-screen projection behind the drivers. The rest of the movie is so viscerally REAL that those scenes took me out of the action.

Some critics don’t like Véra Clouzot, but I do. I think she’s got a marvelously expressive face and a sexy physicality; I find her magnetic and very likable. Sadly, her husband gave her a role where she has to embarrass herself as the sex slave of the bar owner and the pathetically devoted lover of a man who treats her with contempt. It’s hard to say whether Clouzot is endorsing or merely depicting misogyny, but it’s still hard to watch. Véra deserves much better.

William Tubbs as Bill O’Brien isn’t bad, exactly, but his very American performance doesn’t fit in this film. I suppose that might be exactly the point. He is the classic Ugly American – loud, crude, and callous. I get it. Still, I’m going to stand my ground here: He sticks out like a sore thumb among these fantastic European character actors, and every time he came on-screen, I was watching the movie from the outside.

Should You See It?

Yes, yes, a thousand times YES! The Wages of Fear is terrifically exciting, sometimes very funny, and manages to slip in a bit of pungent political commentary without ever being preachy. Above all, it’s a precisely calibrated and tough-minded action thriller; one of the finest ever made.

Next: The White Sheik

2 Comments

  1. As of this writing, “Sorcerer” is still not available as a widescreen R1 DVD, which is a shame. It may be a remake, but it’s got a nihilistic sizzle all its own, not to mention a cool Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Last year, I read that Friedkin or Scheider had recorded a commentary track in preparation for a “Special Edition” release, but that has come to nada. Keeping my fingers crossed…

  2. There are certain locations that, I’m sure, are just created for Hollywood films. I’m not talking outer space or places like that, I’m talking about locations that ONLY seem to show up in Hollywood films. Do they really exist? If they did would I like to go there and hang out for a few days? The location in “Wages of Fear” is what I like to refer to as the “lawless border town” – you know the place…where the bartender is bitter, the barmaid is beautiful (and possibly a hooker), and the denizens are all people on the fringe: You got your expatriates, disgruntled reporters left over from some long forgotten coup, alcoholic ne’er-do-wells, people with visa problems or legal problems or just hiding from the law from some reason. Maybe there’s a drug runner, or two, or someone just waiting to score some decent cash (legal OR illegally) just so they can leave this “one-horse town.”

    “Mos-Isley Spaceport” in Star Wars is a good example. Do these places REALLY exist? The only “lawless border town” I’ve ever been to was Tijuana, Mexico and all I grasped was that you could buy liquor and silver for cheap (I was probably 10).

    In “Wages of Fear” we spend our first 45 minutes in a town just as I described and we meet the members of our story. These are all men (and one very hot woman) who are stuck in this border town (I don’t even remember if it has a name or even if it’s on a border). There’s one legal business in the town and that’s the Southland Oil Company and if you don’t work for them…you don’t work for no-body. So, yes, everyone is stuck. Young/old, fat/skinny, American or French or Italian or Latino they’re all here hanging out at a local watering hole flirting with the barmaid or razzing the bitter bartender.

    But wait! 300 miles inland there’s been an accident. People have been killed, fire is burning out of control and the SOC needs a team of four guys who can drive a couple hundred gallons of nitro-glycerin (yes, you heard right) to the location to help them (I presume) put out the fire.

    Well, of course, a number of the slackers leap at the chance to drive and after a few rough patches – four are chosen. Luigi (the fat comical character), Jo (the old guy – who wasn’t chosen but, uh, found a way to join), Mario (I think that’s his name: Our Hero), and some other guy. And BOOM! They’re on the road.

    QUICK NOTE ON JO: He’s the only character who actually FLIES into this location and bribes the customs (?) agent with an out-of-date visa or something. He also has some history with the local SOC manager – so that adds to the backstory.

    First, though, our beautiful bar-maid throws herself at our hero begging him not to go and another guy who didn’t get chosen hangs himself. That’s where the morale is in this town. Don’t get the suicide mission? Well, then, commit suicide. All for $2,000 – which in this town buys you a house or freedom or a future or something.

    Then we’re on the road. The story turns into a suspenseful road picture at this point as the four, in two separate trucks, makes their delicate way down the road to the encampment.

    We learn pretty quickly that “old-guy” Jo doesn’t have the balls to be doing this trip. But he’s stuck with Mario who won’t let him quit – even though he begins to whine to the point where you want to smack him (which Mario does).

    “Fat-guy” Luigi and other guy whose name I can’t remember seem to get along fine – so we don’t spend much time with them.

    As the story progresses, they both have truck trouble, they both have issues with roads and bridges and other such obstacles and then a rock is in the way and they decide to blow the M-F’er up with some nitro and then on the road again.

    These moments are hilarious, suspenseful, frustrating and fun. When, finally, out of the blue, Luigi and the other guy “blown up real good” and then it’s just Jo and Mario.

    When they come across where the other truck was, they realize how close they are. The explosion blew up an oil pipeline and the hole in the ground is filling with oil. They need to get through it NOW and they’ve got to keep the truck moving. Jo decides to guide Mario and it’s a slow slog and then Jo gets stuck and Mario ends up running over his leg – crushing it.

    BUT THEY’RE ALMOST THERE!

    Suffering under the pain, Jo whines some more as Mario dutifully keeps driving. In a heart-breaking moment Jo dies just as they arrive at their destination and Mario breaks down. The journey has been a success. He can smell the 2 G’s but his friend, his old whiny friend Jo, has passed in his arms.

    Cut to morning. (we don’t see them take the nitro off the truck, we don’t see them stop the fire, we skip all that falderal) Mario is a new man after a good night’s sleep and a check for $4,000 (I think he gets Jo’s pay).

    On the way back to the small town Mario is so happy he dances with the truck (while his girlfriend/hooker/barmaid is dancing with the denizens of “Cheers”) and drives off the side of a cliff and dies (while girlfriend/hooker/barmaid mysteriously passes out or dies or something).

    WHAT EXPLODED:

    I love these “lawless border towns” – they’re so cool! I want to visit! I want to hang out! I want to drink straight shots of whiskey, whine about the new regime in power, and flirt with sexy non-bra-wearing barmaids.

    The actors were all very good.

    The photography (except for the “straight-on driving shots with the dorky screen in the back”) was excellent and really gave you the feeling that this was, indeed, a long dangerous journey.

    I enjoyed the fact that there was a mix of languages as you would find in a location such as this. English, French, Italian – it all flowed and gave the story a stronger feeling of place.

    The film had very good moments of suspense that did keep you on the edge of your seat.

    Though the ending is depressing, it totally fits the story.

    WHAT FIZZLED OUT:

    As good as the actors were – we were basically left with clichés: The strong hero, the old guy, the fat happy one, the mysterious one.

    The begging by the barmaid to Mario got real old real fast. He didn’t seem to have a lot going for him, though he’s good looking, that she would be as upset as she was that he was leaving.

    The film is 156 minutes long and the opening first act which runs 45 minutes or so, could easily have been shortened down (Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide warns of shorter versions out there – so some people probably feel the same way as me).

    Also note: I saw the American remake “Sorcerer” starring Roy Scheider – which I also thought was good – but I don’t remember a lot of it.

    IS IT DYNAMITE?

    This was a fun film. A good popcorn movie. Never boring. An enjoyable 300 mile drive.

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