Opening on a flurry of percussion — loud and noisily foreboding — Henri-Georges Clouzot does not quibble with the “thriller” genre in The Wages of Fear, he redefines and elevates it to high art. Deeming the world terrifying enough without inflated, fast-paced narratives of war or serial killers, the film need only focus on a few desperate men and the universal panic that surrounds being trapped. Clouzot’s vision is an evolved yet profoundly primal version of terror; he utilizes a calculated and honed grasp of cinematic technique to draw out seconds into hours and the length of the film into somewhere just shy of eternity.
Set in an anonymous South American town, The Wages of Fear introduces the players with as few words as possible, and when impractical otherwise, the dialogue serves as a multifaceted instrument. Speaking the languages of five different countries, the various gangsters, war criminals and brigands have a bond that transcends speech, and one that unites them all against their common imprisonment. A German nihilist (and likely Nazi war criminal, Smerloff, played by an absolutely creepy Jo Dest) throws stones at a dog because he hates things that seem content, while the coolly lazy Bimba’s (Peter van Eyck) enjoyment of quiet isolation masks his loathing for others. Mario (Yves Montand) is the center of attention in this strange and humid universe, a master at gaming the system, and the group’s cheerful translator. When M. Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives in the small town, we see a pompous man in a white suit willing to bribe the immigration officer, and yet he has just exited a plane followed by a goat. Jo’s importance only exists in his own mind — to the unforgiving world, he is little more than livestock.
Before Clouzot can introduce his avenue of escape, he must first make the audience stew in the desperation of these fugitives. Only when we begin to understand their futility do we begin to understand why anyone would take on their mission. After more than an hour of living life through their eyes, Clouzot presents his challenge: the men must drive two truck-fulls of nitroglycerin to a remote destination in order to aid with extinguishing an oil fire. Yet, a simple explanation, despite a demonstration of what even a drop of this temperamental stuff can do, would never suit Clouzot’s appetite for theatricality. Including a monumentally foreboding soliloquy from a harbinger of doom, the director sets a stage that is seemingly too extreme to live up to:
“I was born in Texas. When I was a kid, I used to see men go off on these kinds of jobs, and not come back. And when they did, they were wrecks. Their hair’d turned white and their hands were shaking like palsy. You don’t know what fear is. But you’ll see. It’s catching, it’s catching like smallpox.”
One of many over-the-top moments in the film, this monologue loudly proclaims the mission as a senseless waste of human life — regardless of success — and one that is too absurd to be taken seriously. Clouzot is undaunted by these words, however (while also having a hand in writing them), and knows that what is to follow will, in every way, parallel what has just been stated.
Strapping a bomb to four of his leading men, the director’s job becomes almost playfully easy during the second half of the film. Any bump, large stone, flat tire, mechanical failure or wayward animal could spell disaster for our quartet and erase them from the world. It is here where Clouzot shifts his focus to the minuscule — these massive trucks with their boisterous drivers are no longer the focus, as the road becomes the central figure. Representing the living, breathing core of the film, the road changes with the men and with the story. Posing challenges that will go beyond testing their driving ability, it will rattle the men to their psychological core and, with each mile, unravel their very sanity.
Ignoring the rutted road as a “minor” challenge, the first major challenge the men face is, simply enough, making a turn. The turn is an acutely angled switchback up the side of a mountain, and a rickety platform serves as the only means of backing up. Clouzot shoots the intricate driving from a very low angle that floats on the hillside. Rubber tires that ride halfway off the rotten boards focus our attention on the precision and danger of every moment. After the initial backing up is successfully completed, the next hurdle is little more than a small mound of dirt that separates the planking from the road. A modest berm that exists on the edge of the road becomes a mountain in the way of forward progress. To heighten our experience, Clouzot takes out a section of the lumber behind the back tires, squeezing the men between the invisible fingers of a perverse god. Then, we have to go through everything again as the second truck makes its turn, with less platform, and with more weight.
The Wages of Fear, quite literally, doubles down on the thrilling danger it has to portray. There are fewer than four significant obstacles, but living through them twice is gutting. Clouzot only ever hints at the men’s pasts because he wants his audience to be able to relate to a group of supposed criminals without hesitation, and as they begin to fray, we do in turn. The hyper-masculine Jo goes from toughest-guy-in-town to a cowering puddle of worry by the end of his metaphorical road. He is a mirror for our mounting concern. Initially the picture of a man capable of beating up any Willis, Schwarzenegger or Stallone character from the 1980’s, Jo’s descent into cowardice both humanizes him and renders him even more repulsive.
Henri-Georges Clouzot was the only man that Alfred Hitchcock considered a serious rival in terms of suspense in filmmaking, and The Wages of Fear is a resounding blow in the French master’s favor. Proving that action does not depend on speedy car chases, gunplay or violence, the heart-pounding thriller tantalizes an audience with a jovial opening before throttling them with its vice-like grip. Inventing new ways of instilling fear in his viewers, Clouzot is meticulous in his portrayal of the of its ubiquity and connects with it in a way that breathes new and wholly terrifying life into the most primal of instincts.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.