Most filmgoers would have heard the name of Hitchcock but the name Clouzot may not mean much to them. Henri-Georges Clouzot was in many cases the source of inspiration for the master of suspense who gave us Psycho, Vertigo and many other memorable movies. The formalistic and largely studio-based style of Clouzot of course was not in the same league as Alfred Hitchcock. Nevertheless his 1952 suspense thriller Wages of Fear (La Salaire de la Peur ) remains even now a masterpiece. His Diabolique (1955) is another. Wages Of Fear has everything that Hitchcock films do not carry. While Hitchcock teases Clouzout rivets us to the action. What is more he painstakingly develops characters and motives to engage the heart and mind of the viewer while Hitchcock passes on having pulled wool over our eyes. (When Kim Novak, during the filming of Vertigo questioned Alfred Hitchcock about her motivation in a particular scene, the director is said to have answered, “Kim, it’s only a movie!” It is typical of Hitchcock.)
Though Wages of Fear is set in Brazil, it was filmed entirely in studios in France. By the way Clouzot had worked in Brazil for several years and had married a Brazilian actress so he could achieve a remarkable degree of verisimilitude. His wife Vera Clouzot plays a significant role in the film.
The story opens in a decrepit rural town in Brazil called Las Piedras. Th opening shots establish the plot succinctly: a half-naked native boy has strung together four cockroaches on a thread. Like cockroaches are sport to some lad, four characters, all European outcasts, shall be strung together by the economic clout of Southern Oil Company to dare some dangerous job, all because they are desparate to escape the hellhole. The population of the town consists of a mix of European outcasts and the mostly black indigenous people. There is not much by way of jobs and the heat is killing.
One of the numerous vagrants is Mario (Yves Montand), a young exile from Corsica. Another is a blond Aryan, Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), who looks like a Nazi renegade (though he turns out to be a victim) Another is an Italian laborer named Luigi (Folco Lulli) whose work in a cement factory has put his health in serious jeopardy. Under the advice of his doctor he needs a change of place. Add to these desperate men the fourth, a newcomer. French gangster Jo (Charles Vanel), is on the run from Paris and his arrival suggests opportunity and Mario is soon showing him around what passes for a town, including his own room that he shares with the slow-witted Luigi.
Mario sums up the situation in Las Piedras in a terse commentary: “It’s like a prison here. Easy to get in but no exit. If you stay, you croak.”In the first part of the film Jo with his imposing swagger,- and nattily dressed to play a part complete with a flail, makes himself the man to reckon with.
The only employer in the vicinity is an American oil company, Southern Oil Company (SOC). SOC is unionized, however, and is restricted from hiring nonunion employees, so it has little to offer either the European drifters or the natives.
The somnolent dullness of Las Piedras suddenly changes when an oil rig fire breaks out in one of the SOC oilfields 300 miles away. The firefighters are at a loss to put the fire out. The one hope to end it is explosives but the necessary quantities of liquid nitroglycerin are located near Las Piedras and the special equipment required for transport is not available. The oil company needs volunteers willing to risk their lives to truck the nitroglycerin 300 miles over rough and rutted roads to the oil rigs. They’ll have to be nonunion locals since the union will not stand for that kind of risk for their union workers. Four drivers are needed for two trucks, two drivers apiece. There is so much poverty and desperation in Las Piedras that an offer of $2000 per driver draws plenty of volunteers. After a competitive evaluation of driving skills, four men are selected: Bimba, Luigi, Mario, and another man. Jo is promised a spot if any of the others don’t show up at the appointed time. When the last of the men mysteriously disappears, Jo duly takes his place. Mario and Jo are teamed up in one truck; Bimba and Luigi in the other.
The entire second half of the film follows the dangerous journey of the two trucks and four truckers across the rugged rural terrain. The four tough guys are effectively tethered together, as I mentioned early on, like the cockroaches. One substantial jolt could cause either truck to blow sky-high and in a manner of speaking they are strung together dependent on each other for survival. There is danger at every turn and a rickety old bridge to cross, and what not. It is then we see cowardice, resourcefulness, toughness and camaraderie among these four mismatched crew. There is also death. If I speak further I might only spoil for some the thrill of watching the brilliantly staged scenes that shall ever remain unsurpassed by way of adventure.
Do any or all of them make it to the destination? Do they collect their big paycheck? These are the questions that I must leave unanswered – in fairness to Clouzot and first time viewers.
The American oil company is so harshly depicted by the film that the film was cut by some 43 minutes prior to its release in America, to appease American sensibilities and, secondarily, to eliminate scenes depicting a degree of male bonding suggestive of repressed homosexuality. The foreman and administrators of the SOC are shown as willing to engage in a variety of unethical practices that risk the lives of employees or to protect themselves from financial responsibility for accidents. The issue of unethical acts driven by the greed for oil profits is as apt a topic in relation to America today as it has ever been.
Production Values: Wages of Fear is a superbly directed film with an intricate script that delivers taut suspense. Armand Thirard provides rich black-and-white cinematography and the score by Georges Auric adds to the dramatic tension. Clouzot’s editing is highly effective in generating a long series of surprises for the audience. Although Yves Montand had already appeared in several movies, this was his first significant role in a high quality film and it helped launch him as an international star. Charles Vanel’s performance as Jo was outstanding as well, especially because his character goes through dramatic changes. The part was originally offered to Jean Gabin, but he was worried that portraying a coward would damage his career. Vanel’s other work includes Diabolique (1955), To Catch a Thief (1955), and Three Brothers (1980). Peter Van Eyck was noteworthy as Bimba. William Tubbs played as the foreman of the oil company competently. He previously appeared in Paisan (1946).
Wages of Fear deservedly won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953. It has influenced the suspense thriller genre to a considerable extent and films like Speed (1994)
La Mort En Ce Jardin (1956, Luis Buñuel)
They Drive by Night (1940, Raoul Walsh)
Thieves’ Highway (1949, Jules Dassin)
Speed (1994, Jan de Bont)
High Explosive (2000, Timothy Bond)
Bush Pilot (1947)
Movies with the Same Personnel
Diabolique (1954, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Quai des Orfèvres (1947, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Les Espions (1957, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
L’Assassin Habite au 21 (1942, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
La Verité (1960, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Le Corbeau (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
La Prisonnière (1968, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965, Martin Ritt)
Other Related Movies
is related to: Black Dog (1998, Kevin Hooks)
has been remade as: Sorcerer (1977, William Friedkin)