“The Wages of Fear” at MoMA and Film Forum (Dec 08-22)

by on December 8, 2011Posted in: Essay


MIDCENTURY FRENCH MOVIES didn’t come any hairier, nastier, or more robustly existential than The Wages of Fear. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 primal-scream therapy was a pulp-craftsmanship nonpareil, and it’s not difficult to empathize with cinephiles who saw this beauty explode out of mid-1950s moviehouses like a molten spume. The child of cinema in that blessed day knew well the Italian shoeshiners and bicycle thieves, the harumphing Japanese samurai, Jeanne Moreau in a bustier, Harriet Andersson on her back, Alain Delon with a gun. But The Wages of Fear was something new, and a shock to the system: an edge-of-sanity tribulation saga, universal in its desperate torque but so specific on the ground you knew that something like it probably happened at one time or another, the true story buried with the bodies in some distant wilderness.


Four men, two trucks, a load of sweaty nitro, and a bajillion miles of unpaved South American hellhole roadway. How much money would they have to pay you, or how hopeless would you have to be, to take the job, face the impossible, drive the explosives to their inevitable explosion? This man’s-man on-a-mission scenario, from Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel, was a loaded cannon, built to bruise, armed with a novel kind of No Exit action structure that no pulp, not even film noir, had ever come close to before.


A world-class pessimist, Clouzot himself had long been the French film industry’s craftiest and most troublesome auteur. His 1943 noir-autopsy on human venality Le Corbeau, made during the Nazi occupation, was perceived simultaneously as being anti-Nazi, anti-Vichy, anti-Catholic, and anti-French. But Wages was an order of black magnitude beyond, an allegory of hopeless procedures and suicidal struggles, anchored in a very real world of industry and poverty. Its particularity is such that it still seems like one of the 20th century’s paradigmatic texts, a merciless workingman’s passion that couldn’t have happened earlier or later, and so seems inevitable, as inevitable as Sisyphus to the ancients. With this narrative equation, which multiplies human desperation by corporate cataclysm and then divides by unforgiving landscape, you can parse out way too much of the century’s worst decisions, lies and impulses.



NOT AT ALL INCIDENTALLY, The Wages of Fear is also the first film in which Driving became How We Live and Die. Just try and name a more pungent summary of our modern lives. For the vast majority of us, driving defines our every day as a neo-Jungian archetypal flow, from the insulated drone of the daily commute to the let’s-get-lost road trip, a dark American mission we’ve all known in our blood more or less since James Dean picked the black marble on the road to Salinas.


Even the structure of the automobile, designed to both conform to our bodies’ shortcomings and powerfully extend them into the world like the manifest projection of a collective ego, has defined our modern-day phenomenology: how we regard the world (through the Panavision-shaped screen of the windshield and the picture-in-picture inset of the rearview mirror), how we measure the width of continents (which have all gotten significantly smaller), how we simultaneously close ourselves up within our self-made universes and gain access to every forgotten corner of the globe. Driving, and the mad carnage it produces every two minutes or so, is our liberation and our imprisonment.



But the trucks in Wages are merely the vehicles. The cargo is split between blackhearted masculinity (we never learn why these Europeans are stuck in this South American nowhere, but it’s clear they’d left misery and carrion in their wake) and the tenderly explosive by-product of wholesale corporate greed. Clouzot’s movie was openly defamed as being “anti-American” when it first appeared, a claim that may’ve only helped its box-office bonanza, since nobody, not one ticket-buying soul, could’ve wasted a blink on the depiction of an oil company merrily enlisting men “with no unions, no families, no one will care” to drive themselves to death saving the home office from the expense of an industrial accident. That’s life, isn’t it?

Still, the sociopolitics of the film’s milieu may’ve been blistering. The portrait rather leisurely painted of that scrubby, vulture-stalked village has Third World exploitation sun-burned into its bleached-sands, its bare-assed urchins, its mangy and emaciated dogs. Was this another first? Did any film prior to 1953 cleave the skull of proto-globalized corporate malfeasance this way, on location and in your face?



FOR ALL THAT, Clouzot’s film has not worn quite as well as the white-knuckle accolades still maintain, and the reason for this, a reason that shouldn’t be controversial by now, is William Friedkin’s 1977 remake, Sorcerer.


For its day, The Wages of Fear was both a remarkable heart-thumper and an existentialist Old Faithful, but let’s be frank: the landscape Clouzot chose had plenty of flat roads, the nitro is matter-of-factly lined up like beer bottles in dozens of gas cans, and the prevalent back projection is less than convincing. It’s a film that shouldn’t wilt slightly in the face of its mild ‘50s hamminess and studio sheen but, unfortunately, does. Why? Because Friedkin’s version — shot after Werner Herzog made not going into the jungle for real the evasion of cowards — raised the bar of realism so very high.



What seems, and is, real is what matters. Clouzot just cannot, in retrospect, compete with the carbon odor of emergency in Friedkin’s film, which may be the last undeclared masterpiece of the American ‘70s. Sorcerer remains a jugular ordeal by environment and circumstance that no amount of vertiginous CGI will ever approximate. The upgrade Arnaud’s novel got via Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green was insightful and arresting: instead of an hour-long build-up in that rotten little pueblo we get extended preamblin’ sequences nailing down the individual runaways: a cold-blooded hitman, a Palestinian terrorist, a corrupt Parisian banker, and a Mob-pursued hold-up artist.



Instead of sun-scorched desert heat we get moldy rain-forest damp. Far from suffering the luxuries of studio filmmaking, Friedkin pulled a Werner and went deep into the Dominican Republic forest, spending like a drunken sailor, wrestling with nature itself, reveling in the American New Wave mania for hardcore triple-penetration reality. The generalized vibe was so caustic and arresting at the time that I remember thinking, as a kid, that American movies were becoming genuinely dangerous and mature and daring, and wasn’t I lucky to have a front-row seat.


It didn’t last, of course, and it was my generation’s fault. Not mine, though. When a friend and I, still shy of armpit fuzz, saw Sorcerer in an empty afternoon theater in 1977, I knew it was the film of the year, making Star Wars seem a relative trifle. Even by ‘70s standards, Sorcerer was a heart-attack movie, a voyage to somewhere you weren’t sure cameras were even supposed to go, much less trucks stocking volatile chemicals (boxes of which were nestled in piles of sand on the flatbeds, by the way). Zooming spaceships were nice, but Friedkin’s balls-out masculine mise-en-scene and Holy Shit you-are-there authenticity had me snockered. Put it to the test today: show some 21st-century kids, raised on Spider-Man swooshes and Avatar rainbows, the rope-bridge sequence from Sorcerer, top to bottom, and watch their jaws unhinge and swing open like trap doors.



Clouzot’s visuals, by comparison, play more like your grandmother’s Kierkegaardian angst-odyssey, because that’s what Wages was, complete with soft-focused cutaways to Clouzot’s gorgeous wife, Vera, as a strangely immaculate waitress (what did she do to end up here?) and Yves Montand’s instant conversion from radio crooner to muy macho art-film icon (today that’d be like Clay Aiken starring in a remake of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). No matter. The hyperbolic respect Clouzot’s film enjoys shows no signs of fading.


The real issue is how and when Friedkin’s maligned, intimidating rhino of a film will finally get the pantheon shelf space it’s always deserved. Perhaps both versions cannot survive in the cultural forebrain simultaneously, since their relative visceral affect is the point at issue. Has Sorcerer in fact been for decades the cold-shouldered victim of collective aesthetic censorship as a consequence? As we speak, Clouzot’s film enjoys a Criterion double-disc job and a 2011 rerelease as the flagship of a new Clouzot traveling retro, while Sorcerer survives only in the 1998, non-letter-boxed DVD edition, and has never been remastered or rereleased. One may well suspect some unspoken prejudicial collusion here, because, as anyone with eyes can see, Friedkin’s film would be standing alone if you were to put both versions in a cage and let them fight.


Michael Atkinson has written for The Village Voice, The Guardian, Film Comment and many other publications. He is the author of the popular Hemingway Mysteries, amongst other works.


The Wages of Fear (1953) is playing at the Museum of Modern Art on Thursday December 8th, followed by a two-week revival at Film Forum from Friday December 9th to Thursday the 22nd.


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