Criterion // 1953 // 148 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 21st, 2009
Suspense! Close to prostrating! One of the greatest shockers of all time!
One of the great films of the 1950s gets the hi-def treatment from Criterion. Is it worth an upgrade from their well-regarded 2005 DVD release?
The plot of The Wages of Fear is simple enough. Four men are stuck in a small town in Latin America. They want nothing more than to make it out of there, to go somewhere else...anywhere else. Alas, they all lack the resources to go anywhere. Their hearts are filled with hope when an opportunity for financial gain presents itself. Four men are needed to drive two trucks full of nitroglycerin over some very perilous mountain roads. The job is extraordinarily dangerous. One wrong bump in the road or one small mistake by the driver would undoubtedly kill them. Only a fool would accept such a mission, but these men are just desperate enough to find the risk worthwhile. Will any of them survive the perilous journey?
Have you seen The Wages of Fear? If you consider yourself any sort of cinema buff, you must do so as soon as possible. It is arguably the greatest film ever crafted by director Henri-Georges Clouzot. What a magnificent creation this is. The film was cut significantly when it was released in the United States. Some material was deemed inappropriate for the usual reasons (sexuality, crass language, etc.), but a good bit of the film was snipped due to accusations of being "Anti-American." It wasn't until decades later that the film was fully restored for American audiences, revealing a film that tackled both political and social issues in a very complex manner. That's all well and good, and the nuances here provide engaging conversation and make repeat viewings more interesting, but such things have little to do with the film's greatness. Anti-American or not, socially/politically charged or not, The Wages of Fear is one of the most gripping thrillers ever committed to film.
This is great filmmaking, created with precision and expertise. You might not think so early on, for the film begins on a pretty slow note. It opens in an unnamed Latin American town, taking time to give a general feeling of life in the area. These scenes are merely observational and somewhat tedious. We're introduced to characters, given a look at the scenery, visit some local shops, and before long we begin to wonder whether the film is ever going to start going anywhere. Much of this material was trimmed in the original U.S. cut of the film, but it does serve a purpose. It provides us with a sense of just how miserable this place really is, and we almost feel as desperate to break away from it as the characters in the film. This portion also offers the largest measure of subtle and not-so-subtle sermonizing on a wide variety of topics, laying the nuanced groundwork for the relatively straightforward thriller that is about to begin.
Roughly an hour into this 148-minute film, the truly fascinating portion begins: the perilous trip. It starts as a very impressive display in suspenseful filmmaking, and slowly develops into something extraordinarily compelling. Once The Wages of Fear starts cooking, it's impossible to look away, and sequence after sequence ever-so-carefully increases the level of tension and despair. One of the most famous sequences in the film involves the two trucks making an attempt to turn around on a very narrow road. To do this, they're going to have to back onto a very rickety wooden platform of sorts which just so happens to be hanging hundreds of feet above the ground. Cinematographer Armand Thirard gives us unflinching close-ups of every detail...each creaking beam, each spinning tire, each sweaty face, mixed in with ominous shots of the ground far below. I defy anyone to watch it without having their stomach tied up in knots. By the time the film reaches its final half-hour, it has descended into such misery that we begin to flinch at the slightest hint of turmoil. It is an experience that has rarely been paralleled.
The key performances are excellent. The film offered one of the earliest lead performances from actor Yves Montand (Is Paris Burning?), and he demonstrates considerable command of the screen. Clouzot avoids employing Montand's obvious good looks towards creating a standard charming leading man character. Montand plays a misogynistic man who only seems to care about himself the majority of the time, and the film never apologizes for him. The film does not present us with heroes or noble peasants, but simply men doing whatever is necessary to escape unpleasant surroundings. Charles Vanel (To Catch a Thief) has perhaps the most interesting role, playing a man who oozes confidence early on and who has turned into a shivering coward by the conclusion. The most curious role is that of Linda (played by Vera Clouzot, Diabolique). She is hyper-sexualized throughout, constantly making advances and looking as if she wants to be taken by Montand, but in almost every scene she is abused, mocked, and thrown to the floor. It's an odd performance that seems so thoroughly rooted in symbolism that it nearly fails to connect with reality.
Criterion has always done a fine job when it comes to providing quality transfers, and this Blu-ray predictably improves on a DVD transfer that was quite strong to begin with. The level of detail is very strong. I was particularly impressed by the darker scenes, which offer very nuanced levels of contrast, capturing every subtle detail. There are scenes here that look absolutely fantastic; far better than they have any right to considering the age of the film. A bit of faint grain is present, as are some minor flecks throughout...but overall, the image is quite clean. The mono audio is also surprisingly strong and resonant. The trucks really rumble a lot more than I expected them to, and dialogue is crisp and clean. No problems with hiss or crackling here. As of this review, there still aren't very many older black-and-white films on Blu-ray, but this disc serves as a fine example of how they should be done. All of the supplements from the previous DVD release are repeated here: video interviews with A.D. Michael Romanoff, biographer Marc Godin, and actor Yves Montand, a 52-minute documentary about the career of Clouzout, and a fascinating featurette about the cuts made in the original version. You also get a booklet with a very good essay from writer Dennis Lehane. The packaging is sturdy clear plastic (far superior to cardboard, Criterion) and roughly the same size as a standard Blu-ray case.
What a memorable film this is. The hi-def transfer is strong, but I'm not sure many people will be willing to spend $20 on the upgrade. If you don't own the film yet, this release is certainly the way to go.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated