Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The Wages of Fear (1953)

by on December 7, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing thru Thurs Dec 22 at 1:00, 3:50, 6:40, 9:30 daily at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

*Monday showtimes are 1:00, 3:50, 9:30


Don’t miss Michael Atkinson’s feature for Alt Screen, which discusses the film and its American remake, William Friedkin’s highly underrated Sorceror (1977).


Meanwhile, Joshua Rothkopf gives you a Clouzot primer, for Time Out New York:

Throughout his professional life, France’s Henri-Georges Clouzot suffered comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock—the former’s critical reputation languished for it, and he took it hard. Clouzot needn’t have worried: On a good day, he was arguably better. Diabolique (1955) is the perfect psychosexual thriller, and this earlier effort is Hitch’s bomb-under-the-table suspense formula burnished to an expert sheen. Literally explosive, the plot (from Georges Arnaud’s page-turner) concerns a South American oil fire raging out of control, with only the possibility of a nitroglycerine blast to snuff it out. But which poor schmucks will transport the combustible jerricans over miles of bumpy road to the site?


Here’s where it’s easiest to see Clouzot’s advantage over his more famous peer, as he combines nail-biting action scenes—calibrated to the millimeter—with a Hawksian command of earthy performances. Gallic hauteur (Montand and Vanel) swirls with Italian bluster (Lulli), Dutch severity (Van Eyck) and an overweening sense of European nihilism—the four cash-strapped men take their two trucks into the steep highlands and you wait for everything to go wrong. Clouzot’s entire body of work will be revisited at MoMA beginning Friday, but The Wages of Fear (showing at Film Forum in a new 35mm print at the complete length) is ground zero and undoubtedly the place to start.



Terrence Rafferty in anew profile for for the New York Times:

Watching a film by the French master Henri-Georges Clouzot, you often feel as if the walls were closing in on you — even when there are no walls. “The Wages of Fear” (1953), the movie that opens the Museum of Modern Art’s Clouzot retrospective on Thursday, takes place almost entirely out of doors, yet it’s as claustrophobic as a stretch in solitary confinement. This picture, which was his first big international success, and which remains one of his most popular, tells the story of four men driving truckloads of nitroglycerine over some very poorly maintained South American roads.

The ill-shaven, understandably sweaty guys — two to a vehicle — spend a great deal of time shut up in the cabs of their trucks, staring out at the road ahead, toward what might, for each of them, be too literally the vanishing point of this unforgiving landscape: the end of everything could be just over the next rise, or closer. The vistas are wide, and the air is clear, but the world seems suffocatingly small.


That’s the Clouzot effect. It is perhaps fortunate, for the sanity of his viewers, that he managed to complete only 11 features between 1942.


Vadim Rizov for Green Cine:

It’s evident from the fatalistic title and first shot—a small boy tormenting insects—that everyone on-screen will have to pay for their sins. It’s equally obvious that a film running two and a half hours isn’t going to be killing its four protagonists off sooner than need be: the film isn’t so much suspenseful as it is gleefully sadistic in toying with a cast of characters who deserve death. Even in Clouzot’s cynical oeuvre, The Wages of Fear stands out for its relentless nature: it’s not just the terrible, pitiless place they’re trapped in punishing the characters, but the godlike director who treats his characters like insects. He gives them tools to fight back against road blocks and oil slicks: the journey to transport the nitro requires lots of ingenuity, with the trucks’ many features alternately turning into unexpected death traps and broken down into Transfomers-components.


Yet cleverness isn’t the same as the capacity for empathy, which is what’s being punished. Mario comes off the worst of the lot. “You can’t imagine the pain,” says one character to him while writhing in agony late in the game. “I don’t have the time,” he responds contemptuously. No one onscreen does; Clouzot’s scorn for everyone includes cynical American manager Billl O’Brien (the aptly named William Tubbs) and Hernandez, the greasy manager of the only cafe in town (Dario Moreno) in addition to the four men. Only the generic natives escape contempt; they have no agency in their exploitation. Everyone else has no business being in town, but their unearned sense of superiority by birthright dooms them. Rarely has angry anti-neocolonialist sentiment and full-bore nihilism played so entertainingly.



Vincent Canby reviews Film Forum’s 1991 premiere of the film’s restored version for the New York Times:

Seldom have the exquisite pain and pleasure of motion-picture suspense been mixed with quite the intoxicating effects that Henri-Georges Clouzot achieves in his 1953 classic, “The Wages of Fear” (“Le Salaire de la Peur”)[…] it may play forever. No other show in town can match “The Wages of Fear” for the purely gut sensations it prompts, the kind that make you laugh out loud as the heart threatens to go on permanent hold. Yet “The Wages of Fear” is a lot more than a spectacular roller-coaster ride. It’s about courage as well as fear, about the impulse to persevere in the face of apparent futility.


“The Wages of Fear” is also a 1950’s time capsule, the contents of which reflect French attitudes toward everything from Sartre’s existentialism to America’s post-World War II hegemony. No wonder that William Friedkin’s 1977 remake, titled “Sorcerer,” seemed so wan: it didn’t have an attitude. The Clouzot original is not only one of the most breathtaking thrillers ever made but also a film that is grounded in attitude. For its initial American release in 1955, the film’s distributors toned down (and sometimes pared away entirely) everything they thought might offend American audiences in the Eisenhower era. The running time was thus collapsed to 105 minutes from 148, which is the version on the Film Forum screen. The excised Clouzot attitude now looks pretty tame but, in the early 50’s there were many who might have taken “The Wages of Fear” to be inflammatory.



Murray Pomerance for Senses of Cinema:

“Let me tell you the story”, Henri-Georges Clouzot appears to be offering in Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953), “of four strange men. Four lonely men, and their intertwined fate.” Not friends as much as comrades, not comrades as much as fellow slaves, not slaves as much as desperados, they have been selected to face peril for a high reward by the Southern Oil Company (a handy sobriquet for the Standard Oil Company of New York), which has an oil operation going in the wild mountains of Mexico, where has erupted a wildcat fire. Needed is a massive shipment of nitroglycerine – two truckloads full, so that one truckload can act as security against the hazardous loss of the second – an exceptionally volatile and syrupy liquid that can be used to produce the explosion that will bring tranquility again. From the remote Mexican village of Los Piedras, a village as lost in space and time as the Plaza that is the center and maintaining frame of Tennessee Williams’ haunting Camino Real, two pairs of men will depart in matching vehicles, racing to their goal yet forced by the exigencies of chemistry and geography to travel at no more than a snail’s pace, lest the nitro, sensitive to pressure and spontaneous disturbance and as powerful an explosive substance as one can find outside of atomic physics, be jostled into an “action” that will destroy, at once, the whole space and story of the film. We virtually squint at the scorching black-and-white cinematography by Armand Thirard, and breathe through a pace that is at first languid and soporific, then suddenly charged by urgency, and finally, for a very long time indeed, inexorable in its pressing slowness. This is the grandfather of “slow cinema”, a film in which each grinding shift of a gear, each spin of a truck’s wheel in mud or oil, the striking of a match against a cigarette pack, the strain of a man’s neck muscles to contain himself, the lifting of a tire over stones on a bleached stone-littered road tossed randomly with saguaro and high-tension lines and soft dust, carries us simultaneously closer to the SOC oilfields, which linger at an unfathomable distance across the sun-dried hills and further from safety, safety which qualified that zone in which one likes to imagine one lived before entering upon this voyage to hell.


Pauline Kael for the New Yorker:

An existential thriller–the most original and shocking French melodrama of the 50s. The opening sequence shows us a verminous South American village and the Europeans trapped in it; they will risk everything for the money to get out. An oil well 300 miles away has caught fire, and the oil company offers four of them $2,000 each to drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerine (to explode out the fire) over primitive roads. The four are a Corsican (Yves Montand), a Frenchman (Charles Vanel), an Italian (Folco Lulli), and a German (Peter Van Eyck), and the film is about their responses to the gruelling test of driving the trucks. When you can be blown up at any moment only a fool believes that character determines fate. In this situation, courage and caution are almost irrelevant, and ordinary human responses are futile and archaic–yet nothing else is left. If this isn’t a parable of man’s position in the modern world, it’s at least an illustration of it. Henri-Georges Clouzot directed his own adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel. His most controversial film, it is also his most powerful; the violence is not used simply for excitement–it’s used as in Eisenstein’s and Buñuel’s films: to force a vision of human experience. With Vera Clouzot and William Tubbs. The music is by Georges Auric; the cinematography is by Armand Thirard. Awarded the Golden Palm at Cannes. Originally released in the U.S. in a cut version, partly because of the film’s length (156 minutes), and partly because of nervousness about how Americans would react to the sequences touching on the exploitative practices of American oil companies; the footage trimmed was later restored. (You can see the influence of this picture in Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH.)



Eric Henderson for Slant Magazine:

Awarded the Palme d’Or amid much mouth-frothing from the American press over its alleged communist credentials, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear now seems much less like Salt of the Earth-as-a-potboiler and a lot more like the spiritual godfather to every testosterone-fueled thrill ride since. Time has inevitably eradicated the contemporary circumstance that fed its political reception and modern audiences will surely recognize that howls of anti-Americanism said more about the accuser than the accused. If anything, Fear now registers as the callous post-World War II flipside to Casablanca, in which people have been scattered not only into pockets of nobility, but also outposts of pusillanimity.


The movie opens in Las Piedras, a parched, godless shantytown on the outskirts of a South American oil jackpot, where Clouzot (in no rush) introduces his rogue’s gallery of international losers even the Nazis in Argentina wouldn’t have. They spit, steal each other’s clothes, pet women like dogs, and all pine for the chance to scrape together enough bread to make their journey back home, where hopefully everyone has forgotten whatever they did to necessitate their dislocation. For Mario (Yves Montand, half-surly, half-homoeroticized), Jo (Charles Vanel), ex-Nazi Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), and poor Luigi (Folco Lulli) with his cement-caked lungs, that chance comes when one of the squatting oil conglomerate’s rigs ignites, killing some of the village natives. The unwelcome interlopers take the oil company’s fat paycheck to drive a pair of big rigs across a treacherous couple hundred miles to the fire. Their job becomes a grueling journey across a minefield, only the mines are strapped to the insulated flatbeds of their trucks: They’re to deliver massive payloads of nitroglycerin to the site so crews can detonate and extinguish the burning pyre.


Clouzot’s inhuman touch was made for a scenario like this. Unlike his flailing thriller Diabolique, which needed at least some semblance of an empathetic core to justify its protracted “gotcha!” climax, Clouzot’s nihilism distends Wages. (If Diabolique was Clouzot’s bid to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock, Wages is a little bit like a Howard Hawks thriller, only without the mitigating presence of women.) Literally and figuratively, the four men are lost souls propelled forward not by their belief in the mission, but rather because there’s no other choice but death, either in Las Piedras or holding the steering wheel of a mobile bomb. When their nerves begin to fray and their patience is repeatedly tested, Clouzot presents them without pity, and Jo in particular becomes a whimpering, flatulent jellyfish. (Vanel’s gutsy descent from Mediterranean brawler to paunchy bawler earned him a citation at Cannes as well.) Perversely, though, it’s Clouzot’s seeming lack of empathy that allows the four of them to emerge as humans. Sure, they’re cowardly, desperate, and merciless in their pursuit of that $2,000 ticket home, but by God and the Southern Oil Company, they’re alive. Just.



Mike D’Angelo for the Onion A.V. Club:

In his book-length conversation with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock famously outlined the crucial difference between surprise and suspense. Surprise, he explained, is a bomb suddenly, unexpectedly exploding underneath a table in the middle of a mundane conversation. If you want suspense, on the other hand, simply make the audience aware of the bomb’s presence beneath the table, well before it goes off, so that they’re constantly thinking about it as the characters mindlessly chat. “In the first case we have given the public 15 seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with 15 minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”


There’s a third option to this scenario, however—one that movies seldom employ, except in small doses. You can inform the characters as well. Granted, if your protagonist is James Bond or Jack Bauer or even Jeremy Renner’s bomb-defusing cowboy from The Hurt Locker—somebody for whom tick-tick-tick is an standard occupational hazard—then you’re still in suspense mode. But let a handful of ordinary Joes know that they’re liable to explode at any moment, and you don’t have 15 seconds of surprise or 15 minutes of suspense, but 150 minutes of pure, unadulterated terror.


At least, that’s the basic idea behind Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic The Wages Of Fear, in which Yves Montand and three other roughnecks attempt to transport two truckloads of highly unstable nitroglycerin over 300 miles of mountainous terrain. Deriving endless anxiety from brawny men moving as gingerly as possible, it’s a riveting anti-action movie, one of the most memorable high-concept pictures ever made in Europe.



Dennis Lehane for his Criterion Collection essay on the film:

Here is a film that stands alone as the purest exercise in cinematic tension ever carved into celluloid, a work of art so viscerally nerve-racking that one fears a misplaced whisper from the audience could cause the screen to explode. As obsessively attentive as Clouzot is to the narrative spine of the story—four men drive two trucks of nitroglycerin three hundred miles across a hellish landscape of potholes, desiccated flora, rock-strewn passes, hairpin turns, and rickety bridges with crumbling beams to put out an oil fire raging on the other side of the mountain—he is just as savage in his commentary on corporate imperialism, American exploitation of foreign cultures, the rape of the land, and the ridiculous folly of man. Critics at the time charged that The Wages of Fear was virulently anti-American (Time magazine, in 1955, called it “a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made”), but this is missing the ravaged forest for the blighted trees. As director Karel Reisz pointed out in a 1991 Film Comment article, the film is “anti-American,” but only insofar as it is “unselectively and impartially anti-everything.”


I agree with Reisz about this impartiality—Clouzot’s camera may as well be the eyeball of a lizard, for all the emotion it shows the humans who enter its field of vision—but the charge of “anti-everything,” while certainly valid on a surface level, fails to take into account one of the basic tenets of cinematic humanism as employed by Clouzot and John Huston and Stanley Kubrick, among others: that by removing all hint of subjectivity from the point of view, one thus removes any stain of sentimentality. This erasure of sentiment does not cancel out empathy. In fact, in that very void, we, the viewer, are forced to decide what our capacity for empathy is. What remains in Clouzot’s chilly remove from his main characters is a fascinatingly odd mixture of contempt and love, one akin to that of a father who has closed off all outward displays of emotion for his children because he fears the heartbreak that could destroy him should anything tragic befall them.



Lehane continues:

The journey section of the film begins at the hour mark, and from that point on—for eighty-seven minutes of Homeric obstacles and knuckles so white you expect them to burst through the skin—it never relents. Each man who, as Jo puts it, rides with a “bomb on his tail” attempts to adapt to the never-ceasing thump of sheer terror as the trek begins with a full-out dash across the “washboard,” a road so ungainly, slick, and rutted that the only way to drive it without vibrations is at under six miles per hour or over forty; a turn so tight that to make it, they must back up onto what remains of a rotting bridge that hangs, as if by hope alone, over an abyss; and a gut-scouring set piece in which they must use some of the nitro to blow up a fifty-ton boulder in their path, and still make the fuse long enough to reach safety.


The entire journey, in fact, is a primer in what Clouzot and Alfred Hitchcock understood above all others—and something I always felt that I, as a budding novelist, learned at their knees: that tension exists in the absence of shock, in the suggestion of dire possibility, as opposed to any presentation of calamity, which often ends up looking rather pedestrian. After the boulder, there is a pool of oil to drive through, in which Mario, determined not to get stuck, purposefully crushes the leg of Jo, who is guiding him . . . and still gets stuck. As each crisis is averted, the toll on the men’s nerves (particularly Jo’s) grows worse. It’s a refreshingly authentic concept—that exposure to terror does not make one less fearful, as most heroic films purport, but more so. You can’t conquer fear, only temporarily elude it. So each encounter represents merely another wink from Death. But the four men know all too well that Death, sooner or later, will open his eyes.


– Compiled by Maxwell Wolkin

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