Milos Stehlik reviews the Henri-Georges Clouzot film 'Wages of Fear'
Made in 1953, the film Wages of Fear will be re-issued in a new reconstructed print. This is one terrific thriller — and unlike most thrillers which terrorize the audience or shock them with gratuitous fear, Wages of Fear is different and special in how it brilliantly manipulates our positive empathy. We cheer for the characters to make it out alive.
Master postwar French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot directs the film. His body of great work includes such films as Diabolique. Wages of Fear is set in a squalid South American town — basically owned by an American oil company. It’s feels like you're on the outskirts of civilization. Stranded characters fill this nowhere and nothing of a place, where boredom is the major event of the day.
With great mastery, Clouzot reveals to us shades of near-desperation, similar to the hell of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit.”
For the film's main characters, the distant promise of escape comes out of the blue, with the offer of a $2,000 reward, a huge sum in 1953. The job is to drive 300 miles with two trucks filled with nitroglycerin. The destination? An oil well burning out of control in the middle of the jungle.
The men who take their chances are Luigi, an Italian bricklayer, and Bimba, an arrogant and fearless German. Jo, a middle-aged gangster, and Mario, a Corsican, drive the second truck. Yves Montand plays Mario in a career-defining performance.
The treacherous journey and dangerous roads push each man to their limit. It’s hot, sweaty, dirty, noisy, dark and far. Wages of Fear exhibits its greatness as Clouzot pushes us to understand and empathize with these men’s weaknesses as their bravado, courage, perseverance or sheer force of will fail them. Clouzot emphasizes their humanity, reveals their heroism, their tragic flaws, by revealing these moments of fragility and vulnerability.
Clouzot himself revealed much about the film by saying he deliberately steered away from the exotic, and instead chose a solid, realistic setting and focused on “complex human material and the gripping accessory of a truck loaded with nitroglycerin.” This allowed him to develop the grand elements of the film. “Yes,” Clouzot continues, “This is an epic whose main theme is courage — and the opposite.” It’s an illuminating dichotomy because of how anti-heroism exposes the characters’ courage.
Wages of Fear is also ingenious for its sharpness. We see South America exploited by the American oil company, quite daring for a film in 1953. Ruthless and incessant greed — broken and shattered lives left in its wake — profit at all cost, all done with impunity: these themes are old-hat now, but Clouzot demonstrates their tragedy because he underpins their absurdity and their blindness.
Wages of Fear was a resounding international success and became a timeless classic. It still is, and much more today.