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  • Ravi Swami

"The Wages of Fear", Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953

The French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 film "The Wages of Fear" (Fr: "Le Salaire De La Peur") (Criterion Channel) is a kind of "Boy's Own Adventure" that reveals Clouzot's dark view of the human condition reflected in his other well-known films such as "Les Diaboliques" and the unfinished "L'Enfer" (Eng: "Inferno").

Whatever shaped his rather gloomy outlook could possibly be traced back to his work-for-hire role as a writer for the German UFA film studios before the rise of Nazism and the post WW1 climate that he grew up in, followed by difficulty in finding work in his native France after the war due to a suspicion that he was collaborator when in fact he had been previously fired by UFA for his associations with Jewish film producers in France before the war.

This may account for a rather patchy career as a director with perhaps only three films that mark him out as a distinctive and ultimately highly influential and much imitated voice, and traces of "Wages of Fear" can be seen in many subsequent films such as in "Ice Cold in Alex" (1958), William Friedkin's ill-advised 1977 remake "Sorcerer" (the title refers to the name painted on one of the trucks carrying unstable nitro glycerine), Steven Spielberg's debut film "Duel" and "Mad Max- Fury Road", which has a similar emotional denouement.

The plot of the film concerns 4 displaced Europeans stranded in a (fictional) South American "one-horse" town of Las Piedras, men seeking adventure and an escape from the prospect of hopeless lives or compulsory military draft in their native countries but who now have no means of returning since there is no way of earning an income to enable that.

Yves Montand, in an early role, is "Mario", a sarcastic Corsican playboy who keeps the sole female romantic interest in the film, "Linda" (Véra Clouzot - the director's wife at the time and who appeared in several of his films) dangling with vague promises. He is joined by "Jo" (Charles Vanel), a washed-up ex-gangster who arrives in town, "Bimba" (Patrick van Eyck), a preoccupied and intense man whose father was murdered by the Nazis and who was forced to work in a salt mine for 3 years, and "Luigi", an Italian (Folco Lulli), Mario's roommate and who is the only one of the four to have a paid job working at the nearby oilfield run by the American Southern Oil Company (SOC), something that makes him very popular in the one-horse town since he has money to burn.

Referring back to the role of Linda, I'm not sure if this is a film that would appeal to anyone other than a male audience since the plot could have come from the pen of Hemingway - it's adapted from a 1950 book by George Anaud who based it on his own experiences in South America. This is addressed to some extent in "Ice Cold in Alex" by including a stronger and more central female role, in stark contrast to that of Linda, who is treated abominably by the men around her.

The four men see a way out when the oil company puts out a call for drivers to transport highly explosive and unstable nitro glycerine needed to extinguish an oil fire several hundred miles away, the only catch being that the slightest bump in the road could cause it to ignite and the route they have to take is very perilous.

It's around this rather simple premise that Clouzot constructs a story that examines how the need for cooperation and the men's self-interest are tested when faced with such odds - the four men are chosen after many candidates come forward, for their driving skills and age, though Jo uses his past friendship with the manager of the oil company to wangle his way in as a driver - callously stepping in when another chosen driver who had previously begged Jo to help him obtain a visa, hangs himself - despite his advancing years compared to the other three.

Both Mario and Jo have a shared heritage in France and hope that the substantial bounty offered by the oil company of $2,000 apiece to whichever of the two teams gets to the destination first without mishap will buy them a passage back there. Jo's line of dialogue later in the film where he muses about drinking a cold beer in Paris after they complete their mission is echoed in the memorable closing scene of "Ice Cold in Alex" and would suggest that the scene is more than a coincidence.

Without offering up too many spoilers, "The Wages of Fear" is a brilliant edge-of-your-seat thriller and existential horror story where characters who exist in a moral vacuum are forced to ponder their mortality and their notions of responsibility and self-interest, both to their fellows and to their explosive cargo.

One other interesting detail of this film is the fact that the characters are polyglot, moving fluidly between French, Italian and English as they interact with each other and the various characters in the film, which adds an air of authenticity that is quite rare in cinema.

"The Wages of Fear" / "Le Salaire De La Peur", Dir Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953

Criterion Channel


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