Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (a.k.a. Le salaire de la peur) is a classic suspense film, in the vein of Hitchcock, with the hard-boiled characters and dialogue of noir. It's also the screen equivalent of a classic existentialist drama like No Exit or Six Characters in Search of an Author. The chemical reaction Clouzot gets from these genres is pure dynamite—so to speak—as four men stoically act out a suicide mission: to drive two trucks of nitroglycerin three hundred miles over uneven terrain that threatens to blow them to smithereens at any moment.
Though there's not a hint of romance in The Wages of Fear, there's a Casablancan quality to the way in which its "heroes" are hemmed in both by their own choices and by circumstances beyond their control. Clouzot and co-writer Jérôme Géronimi set their tale in Las Piedras, a South American oil town that has become an international repository of gypsies, beggars and thieves. The natives scrape out a living by working for the Southern Oil Company, which callously exploits its workers as a matter of course, but for those who have "escaped" some other fate to come to Las Piedras, “It’s like prison here. Easy to get in. ‘Make yourself at home.’ But there’s no way out.” With enough money, one could grease the wheels and get passage to somewhere else, but no one has two nickels to rub together, and when they do, they hasten to spend them at the local watering hole.
Clouzot opens the film on a boy with four cockroaches tied together (an image so potent Peckinpah "stole" it for the opening of The Wild Bunch). The writhing insects in the hands of this angry god might as well be the film's quartet of lost souls: Frenchmen Mario (Yves Montand) and M. Jo (Charles Vanel), the Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli), and the German Bimba (Peter Van Eyck). In troubleshooting an oil-field fire, the imperialist American outfit SOC (which, not incidentally, has its own police force) sees in the four men the perfect saps to transport the nitro needed to cap the oil well. SOC has nothing to lose but $2000 a head and four men who are already off the grid. SOC manager (and Jo's "friend") Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs) sees that his recruits can't cause the company any trouble, dead or alive: "Those bums don't have any union, nor any families. And if they blow up, nobody'll come around bothering me for any contribution."
Clouzot's film won the Palme d’Or at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Berlin Bear at the same year's Berlin Film Festival, but it proved unwelcome in America due to its harsh depiction of American self-interest abroad (“If there’s oil around, they’re not far behind,” says one observer) and suggestions of homosexuality (even the male-bonding line "Women are a waste of time for guys like us" carries a hint of sublimation).
The film has also drawn charges of misogyny for its depiction of Mario's girlfriend Linda (played by Clouzot's own wife Véra) as sloppily willing to take her man's every emotional cruelty and physically demeaning gesture, but she's only one depressingly ineffectual character in a picture full of them; her arguable counterpoint is a female rabble-rouser displaying seeming strength while demanding social justice that will never come.
Above all, the film is a nihilistic gut punch about how death stalks us all. When Luigi asks, "Can't you see he's just a walking corpse?" Mario replies, "You think we're not?" The brawny Italian already has lungs full of cement thanks to SOC; the fatalistic, Aryan-looking Bimba isn't much in love with life since the Nazis murdered his father; and M. Jo—despite putting on a great show of intimidating macho bravado—proves to be a whimpering coward.
The true alpha male of the bunch is Mario, who tries to cheat death not by slowing to six miles per hour but by gunning straight for it at over forty (these being the options in one tense crossing of a terrible stretch of highway). Clouzot creates primal fears for his characters and his audience, from the prolonged certainty that one wrong move means certain death to a near-drowning in thick and inky oil to the vertiginous heights of mountain passes that promise a fall from something less than grace. After enduing such mortal terrors for eighty-seven minutes (including watching a companion stare directly into the eternal abyss), it's probable Mario is no longer sure if he wants to live at all.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Wages of Fear gives us Clouzot's classic in an image that's as good as it gets. The black-and-white transfer comes from a 35mm fine-grain master, cleaned up using the MTI Digital Restoration system. The results are sharper than any previous incarnation on home video, including Criterion's own well-regarded DVD. Sound is monaural, mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic track and likewise cleaned up using digital tools.
Happily, Criterion continues its commitment to presenting its fascinating bonus features—most of them exclusives—in HD. They include three interviews, an hour-long documentary, and an excellent featurette on the film's history of censorship.
"Michel Romanoff" (22:26, HD) is a 2005 interview with Clouzot's assistant director.
"Marc Godin" (10:09, HD), also from 2005, is an interview with the co-author of a Clouzot biography.
"Yves Montand" (5:00, HD) is a 1988 television interview with the star recounting the importance of The Wages of Fear to his career.
The 2004 documentary "Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant" (52:34, HD) includes interviews with Clouzot's second wife Inès, his brother Marcel, actresses Suzy Delair and Brigitte Bardot, and Romanoff.
Lastly, "Censored" (12:12, HD) details the cuts made to the film for its 1955 American release, to mitigate its anti-American and homosexual references. Clippings from Variety, Time, Film Culture, and Cineaste, help to solve the mystery, as do relevant clips from the director's cut.
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