Wages of Fear Review
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear is one of the most sheerly riveting films ever made, a relentless tour de force of suspense filmmaking that doesn't let up for a second once the main plot gets going. The first screen adaptation of Georges Arnaud's novel, it is so far superior to the second (William Friedkin's ill-fated Sorcerer) that there's no comparison - which just goes to show that even a narrative premise as truly inspired as this one goes for nothing if the rest of the ingredients aren't gelling properly.
It's set in an unnamed Latin American region largely populated by disaffected expatriates who left their native countries in search of adventure and ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere. As if to emphasise the emptiness of their present existence, very little happens in the film's first hour - Clouzot is one of very few directors who dares to be boring as a matter of dramatic necessity (Wolfgang Petersen brought off something similar in Das Boot - and fans of that film will love this one!), since he knows that the second half of the film will be that much more intense if we've been made to wait for it to get going.
The plot proper commences when the local oil company suffers a major fire at one of their refineries. The only practical way of putting it out is to blow up the site with tons of nitroglycerine - and while they have enough to do the job, it's 300 miles away. But who in their right mind is going to drive a truck crammed with one of the most dangerous substances known to man (the film makes clear very early on that even the slightest vibration might cause the lot to blow up) over terrain that would be dangerous enough to navigate even without that slight handicap?
After its union-backed employees, unsurprisingly, decline the offer, the oil company (whose agent is, equally unsurprisingly, American) decides to hire four of the local no-hopers: Mario (Yves Montand), the rather older Jo (Charles Vanel), the German Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) and the Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli), on the cynical assumption that if it all goes disastrously wrong, no-one will miss them - and they send out two trucks on the even more cynical assumption that one of them won't make it.
When the trucks begin to move, the film stops becoming an anti-imperialist critique (this uncut print restores scenes originally removed from the US print thanks to their perceived anti-American bias) and becomes an unbearably tense four-hander, with the men encountering any number of obstacles in their path.
There's the "corrugated iron" sequence, where the unevenness of the road means that they should keep their speed above 40mph in order to avoid excessive vibration (so now you know where the makers of Speed got the idea from!); the scene where they have to manipulate the trucks over a rotting platform halfway up a mountain (one of the most brilliantly-directed suspense set-pieces I've ever seen); the scene where they find an avalanche of rocks has blocked their path and they have to use the nitroglycerine to move it - and the agonising journey the second truck has to make through the wreckage caused by the destruction of the first (this really isn't giving anything away, since the mere fact that there are two trucks makes it dramatically essential that one of them doesn't make it!).
But the film is much more than just a definitive example of suspense film-making technique. Above all, it's a study of dissimilar men forced to band together under almost intolerable pressure - and the second half of the film clarifies and justifies why Clouzot spent so long setting things up at the start (and also one of the reasons for the failure of Sorcerer: the men in that film were largely anonymous).
In this respect, the performances of the four leads are beyond praise - they never resort to cheap ploys for the audience's sympathy, and rightly so: they took this job on out of pure greed, and each of them is a deeply flawed human being. So the tension in the film comes just as much from watching them interact (would you trust your life to any of them unless you absolutely had to?) as from the external elements.
This side of the film proves that Clouzot was more than the ruthlessly efficient technician his detractors often painted him as - though he fully lives up to the other criticism of his work, namely that he's one of the cinema's darkest, most sadistically cynical pessimists (I've always thought it ironic that his name is pronounced the same way as that of a certain comic French detective, since there's nothing remotely funny about Clouzot's films - which is where he most sharply differs from Alfred Hitchcock, otherwise his closest rival for the title of the screen's greatest master of suspense).
Although there's nothing seriously wrong with the DVD, for a Criterion release it's a little disappointing. The print is frequently marred by spots, scratches and even tramlines (it's obvious this print didn't undergo the kind of intensive digital restoration granted some of the other films in Criterion's catalogue), and some of the night-time sequences are overtly grainly and lack shadow detail. It's all perfectly watchable, and the image has a pleasingly wide dynamic range, but it's not going to win any prizes. Since the film hails from the pre-widescreen era, you can rest assured that the 4:3 framing is correct - and you wouldn't expect an anamorphic transfer under these circumstances.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and as with the picture it's rarely more than adequate, though the fact that it's distinctly fuzzy at times can almost certainly be blamed on the original materials. The subtitles, though, are excellent, translating rather more of the multilingual dialogue (although mostly in French, the early scenes in particular feature a fair amount of English, German, Spanish and Italian) than I recall from earlier prints. There are 25 chapter stops, which is a bit on the skimpy side for a two-and-a-half hour film. Even more bizarrely, fifteen of them pertain to the first hour, with just ten to cover the real dramatic meat.
Surprisingly for a Criterion disc, there are no extras whatsoever - unless you count a printed essay by Danny Peary that sums up the film's strengths. Still, the fact that the DVD is $10 cheaper than most other Criterion offerings shows that the company is clearly aware that it doesn't set the same quality standard that their offerings usually do. I'm not that bothered, though, since all I was after was a decent copy of the uncut version of the film - and on that score it certainly delivers.