Wages of Fear
The first time I saw Wages of Fear, I knew nothing about it except that it was the product of French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot, who also made Diabolique. After careful consideration of how much I enjoyed Diabolique, I decided to give this movie a try. I ended up watching it three times consecutively over the course of a rainy weekend, then writing a lengthy review. I was so hooked on the movie that I sought out a copy of the English-language remake, Sorcerer (a good movie, but not on par with the original). There are many things in this movie that impressed me, but the one aspect that stands out in my memory is how taut and suspenseful the entire production is. After a series of establishing sequences, Clouzot starts building the tension, and there's no relief until the end credits. This is also a movie where the subtitles don't distract. There is dialogue, but, for the majority of the movie, that's one of the least important elements. Acting and camerawork convey nearly everything that's necessary. For those who enjoy thrillers and have not seen many foreign films from the '50s, Wages of Fear represents a superior find.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Wages of Fear is constructed upon a seemingly simple premise. Four men are stranded in the dead-end, poverty-riddled town of Las Piedras in a nameless Latin American country. When an oil company, the only business in the area, offers big money for a dangerous job, the men jump at the opportunity as a way out. The task: drive two rickety trucks loaded with nitroglycerine across 300 miles of treacherous mountain country. If they survive - an uncertain proposition at best - each gets a check for $2000. But the odds are against them, and the rivalries between the four further limit their likelihood of success. The four men are Mario (Yves Montand), a burly Corsican in exile; Jo (Charles Vanel), a mid-level French gangster; Bimba (Peter van Eyck), a German expatriate who was persecuted by the Nazis; and Luigi (Folco Lulli), a talkative, seemingly harmless Italian who is afflicted with a lung disease which his doctor has warned may be terminal. Once the characters are introduced and the basic framework is established, Clouzot shifts into the main part of the movie - the treacherous journey. Along the way, there are four primary opportunities to ratchet up the tension. In the first, the trucks must attain a certain speed (at least 40 mph) over rugged ground in order to keep the vibrations from the road from setting off the nitroglycerine. Then there's a sharp, narrow turn that requires the trucks to back up onto an unstable, rotten wooden platform. Following that, some of the nitro must be used to clear a boulder out of the road. Finally, an encounter with a pit of spilled oil wreaks havoc.
Legendary filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot has often been referred to as the "French Hitchcock." Indeed, Clouzot is best known for his 1955 movie, Diabolique, which is widely regarded as one of the most surprising and disturbing psychological thrillers of all time. Yet, as chilling and effective as Diabolique is, it stands a small notch down from Clouzot's 1953 effort, Wages of Fear. Based on the novel by Georges Arnaud, Wages of Fear is the kind of motion picture for which commonplace phrases like "white-knuckle tension ride" have been coined. It has been said that all French movies must have subtexts, and if that's an unwritten rule, then Clouzot does not violate it. Wages of Fear has an existential viewpoint that sees Fate as a joker and Death as a force that respects neither age, health, morality, nor bravery. Throughout the past five decades, Wages of Fear has been available in several different cuts, from the full, 144-minute edition to the selectively trimmed American release. Without exception, each version has been hailed by critics for its style, depth, and power to thrill. Even Hitchcock, at the height of his powers, was hard-pressed to duplicate the one-two punch of Clouzot's Wages of Fear and Diabolique.
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