Masterpiece Memo: Le salaire de la peur (Wages of Fear)

The Fifties, that squeaky-clean decade of that saw the birth of the suburbs, strict morality and, the McCarthy era, also had the misfortune to precede the Sixties and Seventies in film history because the number of industry–challenging styles of storytelling positively exploded in the latter two. Since then, with a couple of major exceptions like All About Eve, Bridge on the River Kwai, etc., we pretty much dismissed the majority of 50s films as anything other than light entertainment. Looking back, the glare from the artistic innovations of the second golden era eclipsed the years immediately prior.

I had seen a crappily clipped cut of Wages of Fear on the Channel 5 Late Night Movie when I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until Criterion released their restored 1999 set did I really see it. It immediately landed on my all-time top ten and has bobbed up and down there ever since. I watch the film about once a year, marveling in its style, subtlety and, most of all, heart.

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As a director, here’s a lot going on in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s head, especially when it connects to Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel. Although fairly apolitical, Clouzot is an acute observer; he knows (and shows) that there’s always a story behind the story. As well, he has an impeccable eye for functional artistry. His rain is wetter, his desert wind, hotter, and his dust, grittier. He reaches a climax with this technique by the end of the film with oil – the visual viscosity will have you wanting an immediate shower.

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The same goes for his characters – there are no true heroes or villains, just situations where the chemistry of the moment forces them to assume one role or the other. It’s also notable that his characters do not control what happens to them. They are chaff in the wind, flying this way and that under forces far stronger than their abilities. This is what Pauline Kael called, in her rave review, an “existential thriller”.

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On the surface, the story is simple…too simple. An oil company hires some drivers to take supply truck to help extinguish a fire at a remote rig. Very straight forward until Clouzot begins to add the layers, and the first impressive layer is Las Piedras, the most godforsaken remote town you’ll probably ever see on film. Southern Oil Company has the town under it’s thumb, regularly exploiting the locals and expats stranded there, who, quite literally, have nothing to do and no place to go. They surrender to the dust, heated wind, and severe boredom, waiting for any opportunity to change things up or get the hell out.

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So who are these ne’er-do-wells that society has seemingly abandoned here? Add another layer – WWII ended less than a decade ago, so the nationality of the main characters is telling: a Corsican (Yves Montand), a Frenchman (Charles Vanel), an Italian (Folco Lulli), and a German (Peter Van Eyck). Although we never learn all the biographical details behind each, Clouzot conveys enough through dialog and body language to show that they each carry a sizable amount of baggage in their lives, including generous reserves of interpersonal resentment and mistrust. Flare-ups are inevitable.

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Opportunity knocks at last. The oil company has had a blowout at a remote rig and needs drivers to take supplies there as fast as possible. The next layer, however – the roads are slow, rocky, washboarded and rut–riddled, definitely not scaled for rapid delivery especially when the cargo is nitroglycerine. The slightest jiggle or bump and any trace of you or your truck are obliterated instantly. Naturally, our four expats jump at the opportunity to make an “easy” couple thousand dollars – it’s just driving, after all. They pair off and take the two trucks on the road, thirty minutes apart to prevent losing both trucks should one have a mishap.

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The jump from the tedium of town life to the ever-increasing tension on the road is classic suspense – with a capital S. Clouzot achieves this through artful cutting, camera angles and, most effectively, filming scenes at night. Imagine night on a road littered with death traps in the form of small rocks and potholes. The way he shoots these scenes you can almost feel the night heat and smell the fuel exhaust, all the while reading the faces of the increasingly nervous drivers. There are a few classic obstacles – like a dilapidated wooden platform over a chasm that the trucks must use to make one of the many hairpin turns on a ribbon of road clinging to the mountainside. Disaster does occur, but instead of glorious Hollywood pyrotechnics, Clouzot brilliantly telegraphs this with a single match, lit for a cigarette, being extinguished by a puff of wind, part of a shock wave from an explosion.

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By the time the final credits roll, we’ve been informed that we are mere cogs in a larger machine. Although the film won the Palmes D’Or at Cannes and the Golden Bear in Berlin and BAFTA’s Best Film awards, the film didn’t do well in the US. Why? This was 50s America – commies were everywhere. Clouzot’s negative portrayal of a large oil company was considered “anti-American.” They were not able to stop the release completely, but did manage to get 21 minutes – twenty-one minutes! – cut in the US print.

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There are many film buffs out there who have never had the desire to pick up Wages of Fear, maybe because of its age, subtitles (the film is multi-lingual), or the fact that it is in B&W. I’m telling you now – it is one of the greatest films ever made. It isn’t showy and doesn’t get in your face, it goes directly to your head. A highly recommended watch.

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