Wages of Fear

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE WAGES OF FEAR

8/10

Le Salaire de la Peur : France/Italy 1953 : Henri-George Clouzot : approx 140mins

Four European desperados – a Corsican (Yves Montand), a Parisian (Charles Vanel), a German (Peter Van Eyck) and an Italian (Folco Lolli) – must drive two truckloads of gelignite across 300 miles of perilous South American terrain. The explosives are intended to blow up a remote, blazing oil well, but the men are more bothered about their $2,000 wages, and the simple matter of staying alive.

First-time viewers aware of the film’s exalted reputation may wonder what all the fuss is about during the soporific first half-hour or so. Clouzot takes forever to sketch in the main characters and the middle-of-nowhere backwater town where they start their journey – his approach during this section is off-puttingly old-fashioned, not helped by some broad overplaying from the multi-lingual performers, including his own wife Vera as a barmaid who takes Montand’s eye.

But once the drivers set off on their expedition the film changes gear altogether. Wider philosophical, existential elements of the film come into focus, lifting proceedings a notch above the era’s gritty trucking dramas such as Hell Drivers. Because of their hyper-volatile load, Montand and company must drive slowly and carefully: the horror of their initial situation had been one of inertia and stasis, but the open road offers only the most agonisingly measured form of ‘escape.’ Clouzot presents the various obstacles that block the way with a ferocious attention to pragmatic, mechanical detail: the last hour or so is basically a virtuouso series of these intense set-pieces, with death and disaster always just a heartbeat away.

Clouzot’s most masterful coup comes when disaster does strike: one of the trucks explodes, but the event is never shown, despite our having sweated and strained with the two drivers through all sorts of mishaps and scrapes. It’s hard to imagine a more chilling illustration of the sheer arbitrariness of life and death – we’ve stumbled into a perverse, fickle universe where expendable individuals have zero control over their destinies. It’s no accident that the very first shot of the movie shows insects scrabbling in the dust, struggling to escape the strings children have tied to their legs and bodies – living creatures of all kinds get a pretty rough ride in this movie.

There’s no denying Clouzot’s vision can be overwhelmingly bleak – viewers who can’t deal with misanthropic attitudes should steer clear of his whole directorial output. But there’s no denying the skill and extremity with which he translates these attitudes onto celluloid, and, while none of the main characters is especially sympathetic, by the end you’ll feel as though you’ve been through the mill with them yourself. It’s a long, straight road that leads all the way to hell: the inferno of the oil-well that sends billowing flames into the dark sky, turning night to day. Stunned, exhausted collapse is the only sensible reaction.

It’s a chilling climax, but it isn’t quite the end – there’s an epilogue of deceptive jauntiness, which then suddenly veers into yet more arbitrary tragedy. While this fits in with the generally downbeat, fatalistic tone, the whole sequence feels wrong, studio-imposed, somehow not Clouzot’s. It’s too literal, too over-emphatic, especially the absurdly heavy-handed final shot. A truly great movie wouldn’t need to go for such cheap effects – but Wages of Fear remains, nevertheless, the most searingly nihilistic of all thrillers.

September 30th, 2001
(seen Sep-29-01, Hyde Park, Leeds – Leeds Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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