Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi
Based on the novel by: Georges Arnaud
Producers: Raymond Borderie
Starring: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 148 mins
Amongst film buffs, the name Henri-Georges Clouzot is revered enough to be spoken in hushed tones and yet his reputation seems to rest primarily on two masterworks from the 50s, Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear. As this pair of astonishing films are among my favourites of the era, it has always been my intention to probe deeper into Clouzot’s filmography and yet for some reason I’ve never got round to it. Hopefully, the BFI’s welcome re-release of The Wages of Fear in a Dual Format edition will spur me on to finally go back and investigate Clouzot further but, more importantly, it may introduce more people to this singular cinematic experience. At any rate, the opportunity to watch it again was one I seized eagerly with both hands.
The Wages of Fear begins in an isolated town in Las Piedras where a group of down-and-outs find themselves trapped due to lack of means. The only way out is by plane but no-one can afford the airfare and there is little available in the way of work. The town is dominated by the Southern Oil Company (SOC), an American corporation with highly dubious ethics. When a massive fire breaks out at one of SOC’s oil fields, the company find that the only way to extinguish the flames is by using nitroglycerine and due to the short notice and lack of materials, this highly explosive substance must be transported across rocky, mountainous terrain in two trucks. Given that the smallest bump could cause an explosion, SOC decide the job is too dangerous for their unionised employees and instead offer $2,000 to the Las Piedras tramps to take on the job. Despite being aware of the dangers, the men see the job as their only chance to escape their dead-end existence and four men are selected from a large group of applicants to take on the potentially lethal road trip.
The premise of The Wages of Fear is a delectable one, with plenty of opportunity for nail-biting tension but the film is often mischaracterised as an action movie. In fact, given that the drivers of the trucks have to handle their loads with the utmost care, the pacing rises and falls with the speed of the vehicles which very rarely reach car-chase velocities. The Wages of Fear could more properly be classed as a suspense film, for while the nature of the task that forms the film’s main plot is suitably high stakes, it calls for a series of set-pieces based on problem-solving rather than action-packed impulsiveness. The constant threat of an explosion at any moment proves more than sufficient to keep the pulse racing but the action on screen moves at a far more deliberate pace.
As important to The Wages of Fear’s success as its premise are its characters and Clouzot ensures we appreciate their plight properly before he introduces the SOC deal, spending a whole hour setting up the story before the trucks are finally waved off. While some event-hungry viewers have suggested this slow build up is tedious and unnecessarily lengthy, it actually creates the appropriate tensions between the four drivers that ensure that the journey would be combustive even without the nitroglycerine. Central to this is a sort of platonic love triangle between Yves Montand’s hulking playboy Mario, his jovial roommate Luigi (that’s right, Mario and Luigi. Get it out of your system now!) and the newly-arrived small-time gangster Jo. Las Piedras is portrayed as culturally diverse but filled with simmering prejudices, a point Clouzot brings home by having his dialogue spoken in a number of different languages. Mario and Jo’s burgeoning friendship is founded on the fact that they are both French, leaving the Italian Luigi sidelined while the German Bimba, the most level-headed member of the group, looks on enigmatically. Clouzot uses Jo’s arrival as a device to introduce the viewer to the town-dwellers’ tough existence as Mario shows him around and explains the seemingly inescapable trap in which they find themselves. This exposition works wonderfully as Clouzot also uses it to show the two men bonding. Mario admires Jo’s swagger as he holds sway at the local bar and cockily shuts down Luigi’s attempt to dethrone him. These interactions are compelling enough in themselves but their significance comes into focus once the four men hit the road.
Once the trucks are en route to their destination 300 miles away, The Wages of Fear becomes a series of extraordinarily tense set-pieces as the characters have to negotiate a series of obstacles. The shifting dynamics of the group also continue to play out as the formerly cocky Jo almost immediately buckles under the pressure, his kingpin persona quickly becoming that of a jittery, infirm old man, much to Mario’s alarm and anger. Despite their differences, the men must work together to tackle the problems before them. Every event from hereon in is superbly shot as Clouzot makes the most of the cavernous scenery and the hulking bombs on wheels that must navigate their way through them. The film peaks with a glorious set-piece involving a construction barricade that forces the vehicles to teeter on the edge of a precipice on a platform made of rotten wood.
It is difficult to say much more about The Wages of Fear without diminishing the experience for first-time viewers. Part of the joy of the experience is finding out what will hinder the characters’ progress next and never knowing if or when an explosion might occur. Even having seen the film already, I was still aware that minutes passed when I barely breathed, such is the power of Clouzot’s direction. If you’ve never seen the film, I’d highly recommend doing so before you read any more about it. If it’s heart-stopping suspense you’re after, it’s hard to think of a better example in the annals of cinema.
The Wages of Fear is released by the BFI on Dual Format DVD and Blu-ray on 23 October 2017. The film will also be screened at BFI Southbank on Saturday 21 October as part of the BFI Thriller: Who Can You Trust? season. Special features on the DVD and Blu-Ray are as follows:
– Interview with Assistant Director Michel Romanoff
– Interview with Clouzot biographer Marc Godin
– Interview with Professor Lucy Mazdon
– Audio commentary with film critic Adrian Martin
– The Guardian Lecture: Yves Montand in conversation with Don Allen
-Original theatrical trailer
– Illustrated booklet with essays, reviews and film credits