Criterion // 1953 // 147 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // January 16th, 2006
"They're going to get what's coming to them. And I'll see to that." -- S.O.C. Boss O'Brien (William Tubbs)
Criterion double-dips one of European cinema's bleakest thrillers. Four men. Two trucks. 300 miles. Too many gallons of unstable nitroglycerine. As one traumatized character in the film remarks, "You don't know what fear is, but you'll see..."
It may be one of the most iconic depictions of Darwinian savagery in cinema. Roaches are tied together with string. A boy pokes at them with a stick. He wears no pants. A vulture dries its wings in the muddy street. Right away, we know we are in a world where the gods toy with us for sport, and they have no shame.
Biographer Marc Godin might view this opening scene as typical of Henri-Georges Clouzot. "I think he carried a lot of rage and frustration inside," he remarks in his brief introduction to Clouzot on Disc Two of Criterion's new edition of La Salaire de la Peur. Clouzot was an unhappy, humorless man, a "shady character" with a bitter sense of irony. It seeps into every frame of The Wages of Fear.
Clouzot uses every detail -- shadows, dust, wrinkled clothes -- to let us know that we are in the ass end of Hell. There is nothing for the empty men that live in Las Piedras but each other, and nothing is more pathetic than that. "There is no cage here," says Mario. It is not necessary. The uncrossable desert keeps them there.
But Clouzot has not crafted an abstract world like that in an existentialist play. From the moment an airplane screams overhead, we know that this is a very specific sort of Hell: the company town. Las Piedras is Hell as imagined by Halliburton. This corrupt backwater runs on bribery and oil. The Americans are only in control because they are "organized." And organized only means that they have the money and the resources to exploit the hungry losers of Las Piedras. When a burning oil well 300 miles away needs to be blown out with nitroglycerine, the local Southern Oil Company boss decides that since the men of Las Piedras have no union, and nobody will miss them if they die...
The plan is clearly suicide, and the men know it. But what else have they got? Mario (Yves Montand) is handsome and has the elfin Linda (the director's wife Vera Clouzot) to dote on him, but he would rather keep the company of these kindred souls. His best friend Jo (Charles Vanel) looks like a high roller, but is really a coward. Mario's roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) dubs Jo "a walking corpse," as if unaware of how it applies to all of them. Even Luigi's driving partner Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), who survived a Nazi prison camp, knows he is on borrowed time.
Quite a while back, I wrote a Deep Focus column on Henri-Georges Clouzot and zeroed in on The Wages of Fear as a way to decode the ground rules of the world of film noir. Take a minute, read that column (you'll find the link over to the side), and come on back.
The noir world of The Wages of Fear is a world of pure competition: survival of the fittest. But being fit is never a matter of taking the moral high ground, as in melodrama. "I may not be right, but I'm the strongest, so it buys me some time," announces Mario, as he beats down the weaker Jo. This is the motto of the noir hero. In the Darwinian world dominated by chance, Mario is a survivor, at least in the short term. The upshot of "cool" in noir is that it protects its hero through the immediate crisis, but that necessary callousness results in the sacrifice of anyone else that stands in the way.
Yves Montand, former singing star whose stage persona oozed cool to the audience, is a lightweight actor and just a little out of his depth in the film. But perhaps an actor with more intensity would have made this film unbearable to watch. We need somebody to root for. Vera Clouzot's innocent waif is a temptation for Mario, a way to make him dream so that he has dreams to crush. She may also be the last natural resource in this blasted place for the company to strip-mine.
The Southern Oil Company, whose S.O.C. logo looks like ballistic missiles topped with a crucifix, outcools even Mario, because its heartless bureaucracy is willing to chew up even its own employees. American colonialism has stripped this barren landscape of anything of value. The corporation blames the victims for its pollution, its corruption, and the disasters that it causes. Mario and his friends are lost souls, banished to this Tartarus for so long that no one seems to remember their individual sins. Their truck journey is a punishment in the eyes of the company, but to the men, it might be a way out. But their climb never amounts to a prison break. There is no escape from this underworld for the already dead.
The Wages of Fear was so perfect for the acid sensibilities of Henri-Georges Clouzot that he eagerly storyboarded the entire project in advance, then pushed the actors to conform to his vision of the hellish experience. After the success of Wages and Clouzot's follow-up, the thriller Diabolique (and the bold experiment of The Mystery of Picasso), Clouzot settled into his position as "the French Hitchcock." But as the hour-long documentary on Disc Two, "The Enlightened Tyrant," reveals, Clouzot was never as, well, fun as Hitchcock. He "exuded charm, like a destructive force." Actors, biographers, even family members call him manipulative and tyrannical, but they all seem to accept that it was a role he played in order to create the harsh world seen in his films. (Brigitte Bardot details a physical and psychological beating she received from the director on the set of La Verite so that she could do an emotionally difficult scene in a single take.) Growing up in a literate, middle class family, Clouzot wanted to become a screenwriter. He worked first in Germany and saw the rise of Nazi power, then returned to France and suffered a breakdown of his health. I suspect that these two events may have given him a cynical, existential outlook on life. Somehow, anger made him feel free, even if it cost him friends and jobs. Yet, his artistic collaborators trusted him, and he often drew ferocious performances out of them.
The Wages of Fear was no exception. Michel Romanoff, assistant director to not only Clouzot, but to French maestros like Michel Carne and Agnes Varda, discusses the difficult production of the film in a 2005 interview. He is gregarious (and fluent in English), vividly conjuring an image of a young assistant caught up in the overwhelming two-year production with an intense perfectionist in the lead. He discusses the international cast and the dangerous and complex shoot (remember that those are not special effects -- those trucks are really hanging at the edges of cliffs). Elsewhere on Disc Two, Yves Montand talks about how The Wages of Fear saved his acting career. People may have though of Clouzot as a monster, but they remained fiercely loyal to him even when he beat them down.
The result is a hypnotic, horrifying journey. The film is so close to perfect that, although Criterion's previous release of The Wages of Fear was a single-disc affair, it was worth having even for its lack of supplements. The new version is even better. The newly cleaned-up print is brighter and sharper all around. The translation is more precise. And best of all, Criterion includes a second disc of supplementary material and a long booklet with interviews and an essay by suspense novelist Dennis Lehane. As noted above, the second disc includes a documentary on Clouzot's career, interviews with his biographer, the star of the film, and an artistic collaborator -- all the bases are covered. In the absence of a commentary track to provide direct exegesis of the film, these supplements give us plenty of context.
There is even a video essay detailing the cuts made for the 1955 American release of Wages and offering thoughts on why certain parts were excised. The anti-imperialistic stance of the film was viewed with suspicion in Cold War America, so censors clipped fifty (!) minutes, mostly from the first act. Some critics might agree that the first act is overlong (I would contend that it is necessary to create an oppressive atmosphere -- ironically by oppressing the viewer), but the reasons for these cuts are clearly political and not related to pacing. The pathetic and naive Bernardo (Luis De Lima), who hangs himself in the first act, was eliminated almost entirely in the 1955 release, because the death was blamed on O'Brien and the company. Anything with a homoerotic subtext was tossed as well.
We can only imagine what violence Clouzot would have instigated against the American censors of his film, if he ever got his hands around their throats. The Wages of Fear is an angry and powerful movie. But that rage gives it an energy that few American thrillers could ever match. Even Hitchcock never matched the intensity of The Wages of Fear. No wonder Sam Peckinpah, perhaps the closest American director in sensibility to Clouzot, borrowed the opening shot of Wages for The Wild Bunch. But even Peckinpah closed his film with a joyous, reckless sacrifice. Clouzot is never so melodramatic. In this particular Hell, Mario never gets to go out in a blaze of glory. Only a blaze.
This court pays Mario and his friends their $2,000, so they can finally get out of town. Henri-Georges Clouzot is sentences to take a slow boat with them, because, after all, hell is other people. Criterion is commended for a worthwhile double-dip that substantively improves on their original release.
Review content copyright © 2006 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 147 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant
* Interview with biographer Marc Godin
* Interview with Michael Romanoff
* Interview with Yves Montand
* Censored Scenes
* Deep Focus: Henri-Georges Clouzot
* DVD Beaver: Comparison with Criterion's previous release of Wages