The Wages of Fear Review
Wanted: Four men to drive two trucks across three-hundred miles of treacherous terrain, where the slightest jolt could blow a cargo of nitro-glycerine sky-high. Constant danger guaranteed. What kind of desperate men would take on such a suicidal task? In the unnamed squalid South American village, there is no shortage of candidates. Lost souls, trapped in a decrepit version of Casablanca or Mos Eisley; a purgatory, a halfway point from which there is no escape and no distraction, and certainly no glitzy gambling joint.
The Wages of Fear has a heck of a premise and is one of the greatest exercises in pure suspense ever put on screen. You’ll watch a lot of it through your fingers and be holding your breath as the trucks encounter an ingenious collection of set-pieces. You’ve got time to warm up though and it is almost an hour before the men get into their bombs-on-wheels. That sounds like a long time for a movie with a premise that appears to put it on a similar road to Hell Drivers (1957), or modern equivalents like Speed (1994) and Unstoppable (2010), but its ambition is staggering. The drama that unfolds in that first hour is engrossing, consummate filmmaking, full of melancholy wit and thinly-disguised political indignation. It is an angry film, the intentions of which are clear from the opening scene.
The story is full of rich, dark potential for director Henri-Georges Clouzot, known as the French Hitchcock. Although, I wonder if he regarded that nickname with wry humour? He gazumped Alfred Hitchcock on Diabolique, to which Psycho would bear more than a passing resemblance, and the narrative of The Wages of Fear has much in common with the free-wheeling North By Northwest. The intention of both films was very different though; Hitchcock’s an experiment that would set the standard for action movies to this day, Clouzot’s a release of pressure built from post-war angst and an exercise in relativism. The irony in the story is persistent and excruciating. They meet in the middle and their technique compliments one another, hence why both have been released in cinemas this month as part of the BFI’s Thriller season, as well as a shiny new Blu-ray for Clouzot’s classic. Let’s call that one a draw then.
The cast is superb and the international nature of the characters makes for entertaining dialogue. Mario (Bogart-esque Yves Montand) is our main focus, young but resigned to his fate in the dusty town. He has an Italian friend, Luigi (Folco Lulli) and no, neither of them are plumbers before you ask. Mario also has a girlfriend of sorts in Linda, played by Véra Clouzot. She is a feeble, simpering character and the only female actor of note. Should we be critical of Henri-George’s commentary on gender? I think not. This is a cruel narrative and her part in it follows suit. The men in the story are hardly better and don’t find a sympathetic eye in Clouzot’s camera either. If anything, Linda at least tries to make the best of her present, while the men are obsessed with changing their doomed future. Less easy to defend are mercifully brief lines of dialogue that betray racism.
There are no heroes, no villains and everyone is wide-open for criticism by the end, the charming Mario almost immediately in how he has no backbone for helping the abused Linda. This is especially true when the enigmatic Jo joins them (Charles Vanel in an award-winning performance). He quickly beguiles fellow Frenchman Mario and in a subtle homoerotic subtext, Linda is barely tolerated from the moment Jo arrives.
The film has put them all in an impossible situation and yet still demands they take responsibility. It’s tough stuff, in the mould of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Wild Bunch (1969), or another Sam Peckinpah film, the grim Straw Dogs (1971). Of all of them, The Wages of Fear has a disarming charm that will draw you back time after time. Also, those other films don't have massive trucks that could explode at any second. Clouzot's mastery of suspense was the equal of Hitchcock's and he understood his rival's adage that waiting for the bomb to explode is terrifying enough, more so than the bang.
The squabbling double-act that is Montand and Vanel is key to the charm and the melancholy denouement. Jo has a mysterious past, clearly running from something, but he knows the local American Oil Company manager, Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs) and tries to lock horns with him, which can be very funny on both sides as they shift between English and French. O’Brien has the upper hand though and it is he that will make the men the terrifying offer. He’s a difficult character and represents the film’s aesthetic; big, brash and friendly on the surface, but ruthless enough to exploit the locals to do a suicidal job rather than risk his own unionised employees. And still, Jo and Mario, Luigi and German Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) bite his hand off for the promised $2000 paycheck.
As the men circle one another, even before they know about the impossible mission, there’s enough meat on the bones of the first hour to flesh out a decent Western. The kind of really good Western where there’s barely a gunfight and you don’t mind. The Wages of Fear has held all the tension and bottled it up, like the bottles of nitro-glycerine being loaded onto the trucks, the engines of which growl in anticipation. Buckle up, this is going to be a rough road. The sense of dread is astonishing, the ingenious design of each sequence extraordinary, setting a life or death riddle for the men to solve; the road where one truck has stalled, but the second cannot slow down and there’s no room to pass; the cliff-edge wooden platform on which a precarious turn must be made; a stubbornly large rock that requires siphoning a drop of nitro; and a pool of deep, black oil. The guys have much to endure and we feel every mile.
Still, it is not just the spectacle of each challenge that impresses, but the character-beats earned by that opening hour are now turned on their head. The narrative plays with our perception of good and bad morals, especially in Vanel’s performance as Jo. He is fabulous, the brash chancer revealed to be more human and lacking the grit he claimed. This is an arbitrary tale of macho pride being tested, of men being emasculated and while this is Mario’s story, and Montand has a Bogart-esque air of weariness, it is at it's most effective when reflected in Jo, like some twisted love affair.
Just when you think you have the measure of the film, just as you think the routine is set, just as your nerves are ready to surrender, a gust of wind literally represents a shift into a terrifying third act with an existential tone and, again, it is Vanel’s performance that holds your gaze as Jo recalls wistful memories of his home. The writing here is something on another level, beautiful and poetic. Clouzot’s ambition has layers, right up to the ending.
What's fascinating is how ostensibly unnecessary the ending of The Wages of Fear appears to be and it’s a fascinating lesson in narrative. Clouzot is playing with us, the contrast is harsh. The story doesn’t flow gently or predictably, though I wonder if such a decision were made today, would it result in swathes of Internet keyboard warriors declaring the ending to be a failure? Perhaps even generating one of those awful “How It Should Have Ended” videos. Such commentary has unreasonably dogged AI, There Will Be Blood (which makes for a curious companion piece) and No Country For Old Men. That isn’t to say that Clouzot or any director should be protected from criticism, far from it, and his home country was particularly sniffy even during his career, but the criticism that such a conclusion might invite should be constructive. In this case, the closing scenes should be embraced. If we’re in any doubt as to the intentions of the film, look again at the very first shot of a young boy in the town street. The ending was inevitable.
The Wages of Fear has been restored to 4K from an original 35mm negative and is the most complete cut available and, at 152 minutes, longer even than the superb Criterion edition from a few years ago. Missing scenes have been restored and you can occasionally spot a corresponding shift in quality. This isn’t a gripe. The 1.37:1 transfer is glorious and the film has never looked so crisp.
Audio Commentary with Adrian Martin - recorded for this release.
Lucy Mazdon on The Wages of Fear (35m)
The Guardian Lecture: Yves Montand in conversation with Don Allen (152m) - works like another commentary, and has been digitised from an archived analogue audio recording.
”Courage and Clouzot": Interview with Assistant Director Michel Romanoff (22m) - lively, sparky interview, taken from the Criterion edition.
"Framing the Human Soul" Interview with Clouzot biographer Marc Godin (10m) - also taken from the Criterion.
Original theatrical trailer (3m) - restored in HD.