The history of film theory abounds with chapters on the impact of fundamental film syntax: the power of a cut, a close-up, an extended take, a low angle, etc. To illustrate these devices put into practice, such analysis regularly points to pillars of the form, directors like D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. Not often part of this conversation is the French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot, even though his 1953 film, The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur), is a model of elemental, technical tension, containing a sustained sequence lasting roughly 90 minutes (part of its 147-minute total runtime) in which the basics of cinematic grammar are implemented and manipulated to astonishing ends.
This comes in the nerve-wracking finale to what is generally an intense, concentrated picture, an overwrought study of futility, greed, solidarity and political exploitation. Written by Clouzot and frequent collaborator Jérome Geronimi (pen name of Clouzot brother Jean), based on the 1950 novel by Georges Arnaud Could, the set-up of The Wages of Fear could conceivably inspire a Hawksian tribute to a band of brothers, indiscriminately brought together to enact a stirring mission contingent on bravery and camaraderie. However, while there is the ragtag team and the risky assignment, there is no such valor and no enduring amity. In the impoverished South American town of Los Piedras, there are only desperate men in desperate situations.
There is, first, Mario, the ostensible hero of the film. Played by Yves Montand, a newcomer at the time, Mario’s towering, sturdy stature suggests his significance (even at this early point in his career, Montand has a way of fixing a scene in his direction) and the kindness he shows toward hapless barmaid Linda (Véra Clout) — even if it hinges on personal gratification and little in the way of actual respect — suggests his sporadic decency. Clouzot positions Mario as the evident protagonist, a broad centerpiece character to serve as the prevailing emotional and narrative focus. But that’s not to say he’s an effortless lead to follow, and everything changes when Jo enters the picture. The epitome of a blow-hard bluster, Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives in this meager village on a one-way ticket, carrying nothing more than some bribery cash, cock-of-the-walk swagger and crafty allure. Charmed by their shared Parisian background, and Jo’s highfalutin ways, it doesn’t take long before susceptible Mario forsakes all else — his relationship with Linda, his friendship with laborer Luigi (Folco Lulli), his reputation in town — just to be part of whatever it is Jo cooks up. The two are preoccupied with appearance, hilariously so in this town where everything appears indigent (they take a dilapidated taxi because Mario says it’ll “look better”).
The flies buzzing around the squalor are among the first to see through this façade, however, repeatedly landing on Jo’s temporarily impeccable white jacket; black specs drawn to the trash no matter what’s on the surface. But the one who suffers most at the hands of Mario’s hasty allegiance is Linda, the only female character of any significance in The Wages of Fear. A relatively minor figure in the grand scheme of the film (and nonexistent in Could’s novel), what Linda conveys lies solely on the bared shoulders of Véra Clouzot, otherwise known as Brazilian-born Véra Gibson-Amado. This was an expectant star-making role for Clouzot, the director’s wife since 1950, but she would only appear in two other features (both of them for her husband — 1955’s Diabolique and 1957’s Les espions) before her untimely death in 1960, at age 46. There is no denying the provocative nature of her presence here, almost purely as a carnal, sexual object. Scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees, Linda is as smoldering as the territory’s sweltering humidity. At the same time, though, she is the embodiment of virtue, delicately realized by Clouzot and cinematographer Armand Thirard, who lends her image a faintness in the frame and captures her fleeting traits of behavioral simplicity: spirited dancing, chomping on a cigar, wishfully dreaming over a movie magazine. Nevertheless, Linda suffers incessant abuse and is subject to derision, chauvinistic mistreatment and the leering gaze of every man she encounters (including those behind the camera and in front of the screen).
In this cross-cultural no-mans-land, Linda is a diamond in the rough. She is a trace of beauty in a land that seethes under a swathe of filthy, sweaty stasis. Deep in the mountains, those who reside in this remote outpost flock to a communal cantina hub. As the men drift around or sit idly by — there is rampant unemployment and little opportunity for success — Clouzot produces one of cinema’s richest atmospheric illustrations, a tactile rendering of this dense South American region, with a penetrating, stolid ether (that the film was actually shot in the south of France testifies to the convincing quality of the production design). There, as it turns out, Jo really does have connections, namely Bill O’Brien, a quintessential ugly American played by the perfectly-named William Tubbs in his final film. Fitting for an acquaintance of ex-gangster Jo, O’Brien is a callous and horribly unscrupulous representative for the Southern Oil Company (its name standing in for the Standard Oil Company of New York, or any number of other American companies dubiously implanted in foreign lands). The pervasiveness and consequence of this corporation is evoked by trucks barreling through the poor hamlet and indigenous people looking on at the machinery with terror, curiosity and sadness.
But when there is a fatal explosion some 300 miles away, and the only way to extinguish the blaze is to exterminate it with a massive counter-force, men are needed to transfer an unstable shipment of highly combustible nitroglycerine, winding through the jungles, traversing the foothills and making their way over a hazardous stretch of coarse terrain. With an advertised payday of $2,000, and in this nowhere land where such opportunity is emphatically uncommon, however dangerous it may be, a squad predictably convenes for the ill-fated job. “There are plenty of tramps in town, all volunteers,” says O’Brien. “’I’m not worried. To get that bonus they will carry the entire charge on their backs. Those bums don’t have any union, nor any families and if they blow up nobody will come around bothering me for any contribution.” This wouldn’t be the first time the profits of oil turn to corrupt blood money, and it wouldn’t be the last. And that insinuation was more than apparent when The Wages of Fear was released. While some decried the picture as roundly anti-American (acknowledging the association of guilt in the process), and scenes were excised by U.S. censors, filmmaker Karel Reisz has more accurately remarked upon Clouzot’s sociopolitical stance, stating the film is “anti-American, but only insofar as it is unselectively and impartially anti-everything.”1For the men selected, their resounding motivation is similar (the money), but their distinct personalities generate four different beats that never sync up. Joining Mario and Jo, the latter securing his spot after another man conveniently misses the call (one unselected local commits suicide, indicating the prospect’s importance), there is the Dutchman Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), stern and somber, cool as ice and hardened by a past blackened by Nazi aggression, and there is Luigi, a rotund, jovial man with a terminal sickness caused by a buildup of cement dust in his lungs (his persistent cough, a slight foible at first, is later applied as part of Clouzot’s master plan). While the lingering animosity and indifference leaves one to wonder how this quartet is ever going to work together (paired up in two trucks, spaced several minutes apart), their collaboration manages to coalesce from competitiveness and strained masculinity, which is ratified by a lot of spitting, smoking, tugging on clothes and a celebratory joint piss. Yet this labored machismo hides a fearful naiveté, and just prior to embarking on the trek, the men are carelessly getting liquored up and are essentially moving on without any sleep. Discussing the order of trucks, but uttering a phrase more prophetic than he knows, Mario grumbles, “Makes no goddamn difference.”
And so it begins. As the motors roar and Clouzot gauges the faces of these doomed drivers, their fates inexorably sealed with every revolution of the engine, the machinery of destiny is propelled forward. The suspense starts immediately, with the cautious steps taken to load the truck, and for more than an hour, it rarely subsides. The journey is a relentlessly perilous process, and the progress is continually hampered by death-defying causeways, rickety manmade structures and slipshod mechanics (one senses these are not the best vehicles for the job). Mario and the others made their choice, but what is so worrying about the expedition is how so much of it is out of their hands. While Clouzot executes a masterful arrangement of shot size, placement and duration — a feat of cinematic engineering that pays off and refreshes at literally every turn — the veritable obstacle course is laden with unsettling puddles, wobbly wooden platforms, ridged straightaways and narrow misses beyond their control. With the intimidating freight of sensitive, explosive solution, each burst of acceleration or grinding halt, every fretful shot of a skeletal brake pedal or tottering speedometer, implies a careful pressure cooker formula, conceived and mounted by Clouzot and editors Madeleine Gug, Etiennette Muse and Henri Rust. By comparison, Thirard’s photography is as seamless as the montage is jarring. The exquisite black-and-white adds a liquid smoothness to the severity of the visual texture, climaxing in the nighttime’s shimmering silver light, cast in the hue of burning oil flicker. Processed within the larger juxtaposition of The Wages of Fear’s stately pacing and frantic urgency, the resulting combination of film form has been widely summarized as “pure cinema.” Or, as Dennis Lehane writes, “Here is a film that stands alone as the purest exercise in cinematic tension ever carved into celluloid, a work of art so viscerally nerve-wracking that one fears a misplaced whisper from the audience could cause the screen to explode.”
Henri-Georges Clouzot has a complicated backstory, but it helps to see The Wages of Fear in view of this complexity. Though interrupted by a prolonged illness, which left him bedridden in a sanatorium for four years, Clouzot had started his film career in the early 1930s, primarily as a screenwriter. His directorial path, like that of so many others, took a manifestly dramatic turn with the onset of World War II and the blitz of German hostility. However, unlike some of his countrymen, Clouzot continued working in occupied France, directing one of his finest films, Le Corbeau (1943), under the auspices of the German Continental Films. Patriots condemned his decision to maintain employment under the umbrella of the enemy and Le Corbeau was denounced by the Catholic Church, by those on the activist right and left, and was ultimately banned; after the liberation, Clouzot was tried and sentenced to a lifetime suspension from the French film industry. Following an outpouring of support, that verdict was lessened to two years, and the film was eventually released intact.
Political influence and involvement notwithstanding, the whole process left Clouzot a dark and somewhat unsavory figure (though a popular one with the younger generation of French cinephiles), and the cynical cloud soon seeped its way into his subsequent work, The Wages of Fear in particular. Returning to Reisz’s “anti-everything” quote, the sardonic tone of this exceptional feature is undeniable, and its perhaps most apparent in the portrayal of Jo (that and the inventive, if shockingly unceremonious killing off of two key characters). Vanel’s thorny, demoralizing performance earned him acting plaudits at Cannes in 1953, where the picture also won the Grand Prize (in addition that year to honors from Berlin and a BAFTA for best film in 1955). Aside from Véra Clouzot’s physical prominence, Vanel’s is the real star turn. This ambiguously arrogant hoodlum is a posturing bastard, corruptive and conniving, and he is almost instantly revealed to be a fraud. The disintegration of his character is among the film’s most devastating portraits. Preparing for the transport, he kicks the tires and checks the lights, doing anything to prolong the dispatch; all the same, he doesn’t even know how to get the rig started. He feigns sickness, blames the vehicle for his ineptitude and fear, and stubbornly puts the entire undertaking in jeopardy. Soon enough, but tragically far too late, Mario sees through the pretense, and sees now that the panic-stricken Jo is pathetic and cowardly, a crumbling, cowering, whimpering mess (hard to imagine first choice Jean Gabin in such a role). “Mr. Big Shot’s got the shakes,” mocks Mario, who later reveals his own capacity for cruelty when Jo flounders in an immersive pool of oil and writhes in the agony of a broken leg. “Do something,” pleads a debased Jo. “You can’t image the pain.” “Like I’ve got the time,” says Mario, now driven by his own obsessive end and soon to meet his own ironic demise. No one is saved in The Wages of Fear — no one gets out alive.
Within the shell of its high-concept premise, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear develops into a harrowing depiction of humanity in crisis; economic, political and cultural crisis. Stunning expressionist imagery tempers the bleakness, and several characters come mightily close to becoming decidedly sympathetic, but the nihilism remains. And yet just because the film is dire and pessimistic, that doesn’t make it any less perceptive or accurate. Quite the contrary: the virulent truth only makes it that much more engrossing, if only because its tension is so lucid and so palpable.
Watch ‘The Wages of Fear’ at FilmStruck.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.