Wages of Fear (1953)

Wages of Fear” is the international breakthrough of Henri-Georges Clouzot which won the Grand Prize of Cannes Festival in 1953. Clouzot died at the age of 69, leaving behind a small but impressive portfolio. With his two masterpieces “Wages of Fear” and “Diabolique“, he has been described by film critics as the French equivalent of Hitchcock.

What we have here is a tightly packed thriller that functions essentially as the “men on a mission” flick. The story involves 4 scoundrels, who are stuck in an unnamed poor filthy Latin American town. To get out of the situation they sign up a suicide mission to drive two full truckloads of highly explosive nitroglycerene 300 miles from the town to an oil mill caught on fire. The only way to put down the fire is to explode the mill. They will get a $2,000 reward each if they succeed, or otherwise, well, nobody will care.

The men here care nothing but the reward that will finance their escape from the desperate town. We get to know Mario (Yves Montand), a slacker who nudges off his romantic interest upon serious men business, accompanied by Jo (Charles Vanel) who is some sort of a mentor of Mario. Once they head off with the other team consisted of Luigi and Bimba, we already get to know their personalities and their motivations. The nerve cracking tension begins once the joy ride kickstarts. There is not any sort of false heroism shown here, everyone is doing exactly their personalities program them to do, and sometimes for the sake of the situation.

There are several set pieces here Clouzot could work with, one of them is a halfway built dock over a steep cliff that the trucks have to drive through. This great scene is told not with false suspense but in a meticulously edited sequence that Hitchcock would envy. We see how the first truck passes through and that adds up to the suspense to the second truck since we know exactly what they will be facing.

Technically this is a faultless film. The gorgeous black and white photography conveys more accurately if in the poetic sense the harsh weather than color photography would do. There’s a saying that black and white is able to illustrate the subject matter in a more symbolic way than the realism of color photography that we take for granted. It’s beautifully proved here.

The ending is not a happy one, but we cannot blame Clouzot when what we get nowadays are senseless happy endings in most Hollywood movies with the only function to please the audiences. And in fact, the ending makes perfect sense since this is exactly what these mindless scoundrels should behave.

“Wages of Fear” is directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, adapted by Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi from a novel written by Georges Arnaud.Buy DVD or Bluray at Criterion

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