Wages of Fear (France, 1953)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Wages of Fear Poster

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. (Hitchcock reportedly made Psycho in an attempt to top Diabolique.) 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.

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.

Even though Clouzot's name has often been linked to Hitchcock's (the two were intense rivals), Wages of Fear arguably has as much synergy with John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as with anything penned or directed by the universally renowned master of suspense. Although there is a psychological element to Wages of Fear, this is primarily a visceral thriller. It's aimed more at the pit of the stomach than at the head. To be sure, the film has a smart, savvy script and Clouzot toys with a variety of thematic material, but, in the end, the purpose of Wages of Fear is to keep viewers on the edges of their seats. And the mechanism for this is constantly building tension, not unexpected plot twists or contortions.

When Clouzot made Wages of Fear in 1953, he had already developed an international reputation, although his world-wide fame was not yet what it would become with the release of Diabolique. In addition to his suspense films, Clouzot is also remembered for 1956's The Mystery of Picasso, a documentary that depicts Pablo Picasso painting for the camera and explaining the creative process. Nevertheless, even though French film critic-turned-director Jean-Luc Godard praised The Mystery of Picasso while summarily dismissing the rest of Clouzot's work, films like Diabolique and Wages of Fear have unquestionably stood the test of time. In fact, both have been re-made.

When Wages of Fear was initially released in the '50s, certain "anti-American" scenes were cut from U.S. versions of the print. The movie portrays an American oil company (modeled after Standard Oil) as being ruthless, amoral, and money-grubbing. The corporation hires four down-on-their-luck individuals to transport the nitroglycerine because, if the men don't make it, no one will miss them and there will be no messy union problems. It's important to note that Clouzot does not openly criticize Americans or the American lifestyle (something that would have been risky less than a decade after the end of World War II), but American big business practices. Watching a restored version of the film nearly 50 years later, this aspect seems neither offensive nor hard-hitting; in fact, if anything, it adds to Wages of Fear's believability. And, by today's standards, Clouzot's approach is barely tough enough to be considered cynical. Recent movies like Erin Brockovich have made Wages of Fear look like a soft peddler of similar issues.

The film is divided into two clearly differentiated segments - the setup and the payoff. The first hour is devoted to introducing the characters and establishing the setting. The latter is especially important, since the grim, poverty-stricken town must be fully realized for viewers to understand the protagonists' desperation to get out. Las Piedras is governed by the law of inertia - no one has the will or the financial means to change their current lifestyle; the attempt would take too much effort. So the men of Las Piedras (many of whom are foreigners) do odd jobs so they can earn "just enough to eat and drink." They live their daily lives in quiet, uncomplaining despair, realizing that they'll likely die here one day. Clouzot drives home the point that this is a place where only desperate men surface, and, once they're there, freedom is a fool's dream. "It's like prison," explains one of them. "Easy to get in, but escape is impossible." Clouzot's camera captures images that compose a picture of a timeless community devoid of hope and optimism, where the heat is oppressive and the locals are exploited by the oil company. The dangerous task of transporting the nitroglycerine represents a way out - either by succeeding and getting the money or by dying.

The main character, if there can be considered to be one, is Mario, played by Yves Montand. Like just about everyone else in Wages of Fear, Mario's background is shrouded in mystery. We know that he's a Corsican in exile who lived for a while in Paris, but we are never given any specifics about why he left France. He is determined to return one day, but, for the time being, he makes the best of a bad situation, carrying on an affair with a local servant girl, Linda (Clouzot's wife, Vera, in her feature debut). However, although Linda is in love with Mario, he's just using her - a fact that becomes apparent once Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives in town.

Jo is a mid-level French gangster with a commanding personality, nerves of steel, and a dapper, cultured appearance. His unflappable demeanor makes him a magnet for attention. He takes a liking to Mario because both have lived in Paris, and Mario, seeing in Jo the potential and determination to provide a way out of Las Piedras, attaches himself almost slavishly to the older man. But, as it turns out, Jo is more bluster than genuine character. In the face of pressure, he cracks and becomes "an Al Capone with cold feet". Not long after the journey transporting the nitroglycerine has begun, his and Mario's relative positions have been reversed.

As Mario and Jo share a truck, so do Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli). We know less about these two than we do about their companions. Luigi is a talkative, seemingly harmless Italian who was Mario's best friend and roommate until Jo arrived. He is afflicted with a lung disease which his doctor has warned may be terminal. Bimba is a German expatriate who was persecuted by the Nazis. During the one scene when we are offered a glimpse into his past, he speaks of working as a prisoner for three years in salt mines. Both Bimba and Luigi are mistrustful of Jo. They believe him to be a liability on the trip - an opinion that Mario grows to share.

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. Each of these segments is crafted with great care, particularly in the way they are edited (closeups of the trucks' tires and the characters' hands are used in key situations to heighten the level of suspense). Clouzot allows the audience brief breaks in between each, but the cumulative effect of the final 85 minutes is to create an elevated pulse.

There are those who would argue that the setup runs too long, but a careful examination of the first hour indicates how important it is to the success of the rest of the film. In order for the journey to be more than a meaningless string of action/adventure set pieces, we need the grounding that the Las Piedras scenes provide. And, for the transposition of Jo and Mario's relative positions to have any meaning, it's necessary to provide the audience with the foundation of their relationship. Plus, from the simple perspective of atmosphere building and character development, Clouzot shows great economy in what he accomplishes in only 60 minutes.

Ultimately, we come to understand the characters and their relationships, but Clouzot doesn't invite us to respect or sympathize with them. They are, after all, risking their lives for nothing more worthwhile than money. They are courageous, but for all the wrong reasons, and this is behavior that Clouzot does not find noble. Today, when movies often display greed as one of the primary motivators of human activity, the idea of four men wagering life against money is not shocking or dishonorable. But, in the wake of World War II, when so many lives had been lost for a cause, it was a different matter.

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. The Grim Reaper hangs over each of the four protagonists throughout the entire film, and there is a sense that one can only challenge Death so many times before He picks up the gauntlet. The final scene hammers home Clouzot's point with forceful, biting irony. (This is the kind of ending that could never be seen in a modern-day Hollywood release because it would anger audiences by violating their comfort level.)

Wages of Fear has influenced movies as diverse as The Wild Bunch and Speed. William Friedkin, the respected director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, remade Wages of Fear in the mid-'70s under the unlikely name of Sorcerer (with Roy Scheider headlining an international cast, and most of the filming done on location). As far as remakes go, this one is exceptionally well-made, although more attention is paid to the technical aspects of the production than to character interaction. Released in 1977, shortly after Clouzot's death, Sorcerer was dedicated to the man who initially brought the story to the screen.

Wages of Fear made Yves Montand into a viable dramatic leading man. Before Clouzot cast him as Mario, Montand was known primarily as a singer/dancer, but Wages of Fear afforded him the opportunity to display a greater range. His performance is not deep, but he has the rugged good looks and the screen presence to place Mario in the forefront. In the wake of this movie, Montand went on to have a long and successful motion picture career which was capped off by numerous critical plaudits for his work in Jean de Florette.

The real acting star is veteran Charles Vanel, who invests Jo with a complexity not apparent in any of the other three leads. Vanel, who appeared in more than 100 films between the 1920s and the 1980s, plays both halves of Jo - the cool gangster and the fearful coward - with equal aplomb, and makes the transformation believable. His performance in Wages of Fear earned him an award at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. Vanel would work three more times with Clouzot, as Inspector Fichet in Diabolique, then later in 1960's The Truth and 1968's Female Prisoner (Clouzot's last feature).

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. Wages of Fear is available on home video (including an excellent DVD transfer by Criterion), but, given the opportunity, this is a movie to be seen on a large screen. There, the mastery of composition and breathless excitement come most vividly to life.

Wages of Fear (France, 1953)

Ranked #27 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:24
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1