The Establishing Shot
The current oil-well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the issue of reckless corporate despoliation make for some timely parallels to The Wages of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 thriller that is often cited as one of the most pure examples of suspense on film, rivalling, or outclassing even Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1950, the then 43-year-old French director (who had been blacklisted after the war for having worked for the German-operated Continental Films) visited South America for his honeymoon with his Brazilian-born wife, Vera Gibson-Amado. He was unable to finish a documentary there but later wrote a book about his experience.
Back in France, he was offered a chance to adapt a novel by Georges-Jean Arnaud, a French expatriate living in South America. It was about a group of European drifters who take a dangerous job for an American oil company, driving a nitroglycerine truck over dangerous roads in an effort to stop an out-of-control well fire.
Think of The Wages of Fear ( Le Salaire de la peur) as the worst summer job ever. Dripping sweat and oil dominate this grim suspense thriller, about four unemployed Europeans (including Yves Montand and Charles Vanel) who are in a squalid South American village, where the kids torture cockroaches for entertainment. Everyone's under the thumb of the American Southern Oil Company (standing in for Standard Oil).
"It's like prison," says one resident of the town, encapsulating the postwar existential theme of the drama: "Easy to get in, but escape is impossible."
Suddenly, there's a possible way out: A burning well in a jungle oil field is out of control, and the company is desperate to stop it. The four men can earn $2,000 each to drive two trucks carrying cans of nitroglycerine over 500 kilometres of rough mountain roads to get to the field. If they succeed, they get to leave the village; if not, there won't be enough of them left to ship home.
The second half of the film is a sustained, extended action sequence as the men, in two teams, contend with a succession of terrors where each jolt could send them to oblivion.
In his essay for the Criterion DVD release, novelist Dennis Lehane ( Mystic River) comments on how Clouzot's film simultaneously plays on our inclination toward cynicism and empathy: "What remains in Clouzot's chilly remove from his main characters is a fascinatingly odd mixture of contempt and love."
In its initial review, Time magazine, reacting to the film's perceived anti-Americanism, called The Wages of Fear "a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made." A couple of years ago, the same publication declared the same film the second greatest film (after The Third Man) ever to show at the Cannes Film festival (where Clouzot's film took the Grand Prize).
The Wages of Fear made Yves Montand, a former musical-hall singer, into a movie star. Georges Auric's score and Armand Thirard's high-contrast black-and-white cinematography all contributed to the film's reputation as a masterpiece of suspense.
There were two remakes, Howard Koch's Violent Road (1958) and William Friedkin's Sorceror (1977), which couldn't capture the pent-up tension of the original.
The Wages of Fear came up again this year when The Hurt Locker was making its successful run for an Oscar. When Clouzot's film was mentioned in an interview, director Kathryn Bigelow expressed appreciation for the compliment while distancing herself from the comparison: " Wages of Fear is near and dear to probably all of our hearts [but]probably not a direct reference in this," she said.
We'll take Bigelow at her word, and concur with her esteem for Clouzot's masterpiece. At a time when summer movies are all about stuff getting blown up, The Wages of Fear is something different: a film where the explosions are profound.