The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur) is a French film from 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot, based on a 1950 novel by Georges Arnaud. It was voted the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1953 and Best Film of 1954 by the British Film Academy. The plot is simple, yet the character development and building of suspense is marvelously complex. The story takes place somewhere in South America. Four men are down and out in a small town, spending most of their time arguing and drinking in the local cantina. When an oil well owned by an American company catches fire a few hundred miles away, the company contracts with these four desperate men to drive two trucks over dangerous and unpaved mountain roads, carrying volatile nitroglycerine needed to extinguish the fire. The slightest disturbance can cause the nitroglycerine to explode, promising certain death to the men should they make any mistake.
The Wages of Fear is considered critically one of the great films of world cinema of the 1950’s. Time has not diminished it’s ability to captivate the viewer. A large part of what makes this film work is also why one does not see movies like this come out very often these days. The director is allowed to spend a good chunk of time, nearly an hour, simply on character development. By the time the ‘action’ of the driving starts, the viewer is very familiar with the types represented by the characters and their motivation for taking such a dangerous job. As the men begin driving the trucks, the suspense builds due to the dangerous conditions and the raw emotions displayed as the trucks hit each bump, let alone more treacherous situations. This is textbook man against nature, really masquerading as man against man. The cinematography, by Armand Thirard’s, is simply perfect in it’s dramatic and opposing use of light and shadow; textbook in its ability to add to the tension of the film.
Henri-Georges Clouzot is also famous for his Les Diaboliques, La Vérité (starring Brigitte Bardot) and the documentary The Mystery of Picasso. Clouzot’s reputation is one of negativity, which shows in the darkness of his films. His characters are usually quite flawed, though one can argue quite realistically so. Betrayal and death are often the end, Clouzot not being a believer in unrealistic happy endings. He clearly bemoans the human condition and seems pessimistic on humanity itself. His suspense films are sometimes compared to those of Alfred Hitchcock‘s, which based on this film I certainly understand. The slow build up of suspense is often subtle, but much more effective than today’s quicker, more ‘in your face’, shock-based approach.
The movie is sometimes classified as anti-corporate and anti-American, but I do not really think so. It is more anti-everything, casting a skeptical glance at pretty much all things human. Keep in mind that Clouzot, like most at the time, was significantly influenced by World War II and the stench of immorality and human culpability that was in full display. The film is full of self-loathing and a complete lack of sentimentality. None-the-less, the movie is unquestionably suspenseful and a true masterwork of cinematic art.
The cast is fantastic, including Yves Montand as Mario, Charles Vanel as Jo, Peter van Eyck as Bimba, Folco Lulli as Luigi, William Tubbs as Bill O’Brien and the beautiful Véra Clouzot as Linda. Vera Clouzot (the wife of Henri-Georges Clouzot) is especially marvelous, perfectly playing the role of a waif-ish house-girl hopelessly enamored to Mario. It is a shame she only acted in three films, dying of a heart attack at 46.
As is almost always the case, the presentation from The Criterion Collection is fantastic and highly recommended.
- New, restored high-definition digital transfer
- New video interviews with assistant director Michel Romanoff and Henri-Georges Clouzot biographer Marc Godin
- Interview with Yves Montand from 1988
- Henri Georges Clouzot: An Enlightened Tyrant, a 2004 documentary on the director’s career
- Censored, an analysis of cuts to the film made for the 1955 U.S. release
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- PLUS: A 24-page booklet featuring a new essay by novelist Dennis Lehane and a compilation of interviews with the cast and crew of the film
Below is the trailer from 1953.