Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
With tolerance of political dissent at an all time low, Criterion has picked a fine moment to resurrect and spruce up its early disc of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (spine number 36). This uncompromising, bleak thriller received a release in the United States, but only after twenty minutes or so of acidic content were excised. Many a foreign picture was condemned as propaganda in the 1950s and refused import, just as the exportation of a few American films (like the juvenile delinquency picture Blackboard Jungle) was 'discouraged' so as to suppress negative images of the U.S. abroad.
The Wages of Fear is from a book by a French expatriate who witnessed conditions in South American mining regions. One doesn't have to be Ché Guevara on a motorcycle to see that most of what it reports is true. The tough, exciting film version is a meat grinder of suspense that doesn't flinch from its philosophy of universal bleakness - there are no heroes among these desperate men risking death for a grubstake paycheck.
Dozens of unemployed foreigners languish in a tiny oil town in an unnamed South American country. Ex-criminal Monsieur Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives as broke as the others, expecting help from his old pal and fellow Frenchman Mario (Yves Montand). They put the touch on Mario's roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli), while Mario mistreats Linda (Véra Clouzot), the maid and chattel of the local saloon keeper. Then opportunity knocks. The all-powerful Southern Oil Company needs 200 gallons of nitroglycerine transported over near-impassable roads up to where a drilling fire has killed dozens and threatened a slowdown in oil production. SOC foreman Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs) decides to hire bums from the village - they have no union and nobody will miss them should they get blown to bits. O'Brien's experts think that particular fate is almost a certainty.
Writer Georges Arnaud's 1953 view of human nature openly attacked the notion that business and industry are run according to the rules of fair play and goodwill. The Wages of Fear's Southern Oil Company owns everything in an impoverished corner of a Latin nation and wastes no time or money bettering squalid local conditions. An oil-drenched town festers outside the guarded SOC fence, harboring losers and ex-criminals stuck there as prisoners of the local economy: The only way in or out is by plane, and raising the airfare is impossible without an SOC job. The barrio is a microcosm of society run on the business model: Those lucky to have meager sources of income watch the others starve. Ex- Parisian bus driver Mario takes advantage of his roommate Luigi. Tough guy Jo has difficulty muscling in on local territory -- there is just no room for another bum in town, no matter how aggressive he may be.
The Wages of Fear shows the production-minded American oilmen playing a particularly ugly game of life and death. They react to a deadly oil fire by roughly discarding the bandaged and maimed victims, and then offer the unemployed foreigners the suicidal explosives transport job as if it were a favor. Mario, Jo and the rest accept SOC's offer as a fatalistic challenge. The men compete and cheat one another to be picked to drive two trucks up to the oil camp, and one even commits murder to secure a slot. Such things are trifles in a place where life is so cheap.
Ethics and virtue have no value in this cruel, isolated society. Charles Vanel's tough guy Jo is a case in brutality, while the most likeable character Mario is almost sadistic in his treatment of Linda, the maid who pledges a dog-like devotion to him. Folco Lulli and Peter Van Eyck are the other driving team, a softhearted Italian with health problems and a proud German with a suspect background.
This unstable male unit has to work as a team, reminding us of other stories about male groups under pressure. Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix has some similarities, especially the early death of a sentimental young Italian who doesn't make the cut for the harrowing truck run. But Clouzot's hard-bitten attitude toward human nature steers The Wages of Fear in the direction of Luis Buñuel and Sam Peckinpah: Nobody exists in a state of grace. SOC management is ruthless because the company expects maximum profits and considers all other values secondary. The trapped vagrants quickly lose respect for human dignity. Nobody is innocent, not even the locals or their children who play naked in the rancid puddles, like pigs.
The truck drive is one of the most famous extended suspense sequences in film history. It's not a race, as the trucks drive extremely slowly to avoid jarring their delicate cargo. Fate puts daunting obstacles in their path. A giant boulder must be removed with explosives. A hairpin turn next to a cliff can only be navigated by backing the trucks out on a crumbling wooden platform. The men hold up well considering the constant threat of being blown to smithereens at any moment; all except for Jo, the tough guy. The pressure reveals his macho posturing to be a bluff, and even Mario's bullying can't keep him from whimpering in fear. The uphill haul proves to be a horrible ordeal.
The standard pattern for this kind of film is that any hardship can be overcome and that group loyalty and sacrifice can redeem the worst of men. The difference with The Wages of Fear is that Arnaud and Clouzot refuse to play that game. Camaraderie is worse than an illusion, it's a joke. The film insists that man's best efforts come to less than nothing when harnessed for manipulation by unfeeling bosses and owners. Anyone who ever felt exploited by an employer will feel a personal stake in the story, which makes its extreme case without uttering a single political speech. Clouzot purposely dashes audience expectations by offering a happy ending and then snatching it away. The director wants his adventure film to have the most downbeat finale imaginable.
Criterion's DVD of The Wages of Fear replaces a good early disc from 1998 with a far better looking restoration, adding new extras that concentrate on the career of director Henri-Georges Clouzot. A recent French documentary uses new interviews to recount the hard times when Clouzot was accused of collaboration and banned from working for two years. Clouzot's brother and writing partner, his second wife, and actors like Brigitte Bardot testify to his character and talent. Great film clips are offered from other Clouzot pictures including an interesting selection in which Peter Ustinov is seen acting in French. But viewers who have not seen the masterpiece Les Diaboliques should be warned that a film clip spoils its key scene.
One extra isolates some of the scenes dropped by the American distributor DCA (which cleaned up with imports like Rodan and The Crawing Eye). Although much more material was trimmed simply to knock down the film's running time, the snippets offered here impute political motivations. The SOC foreman O'Brien callously announces his decision to put men in harm's way for expediency's sake, and various other clips demonstrate how SOC's irresponsible job offer is in itself sufficient to have deadly consequences among the unemployed rabble.
Actually, the charge that the film was bowdlerized to remove anti-American content is difficult to make stick, as the short version did not (and couldn't) remove the basic situation of the oil company exploiting their captive work force. The shorter cut doesn't make the behavior of the drivers seem any more noble, either. They are actively complicit in their own degradation.
References in the insert booklet essays establish that star Montand and his companion, star Simone Signoret were sympathetic to Communist causes, but The Wages of Fear is too pessimistic about human nature to endorse anything so naïve as Communism. The irony is that no other economic or political system would allow a dissenting film like The Wages of Fear to be produced, let alone exhibited. American film distribution in the 1950s found a compromise ... it allowed some of the film to be shown.
The excised clips imply that one dialogue exchange between Bimba and Luigi contains hints of homosexuality. Perhaps Bimba is overtly gay in the book or something, for the fact that he shaves regularly and says he hates women isn't exactly proof for that conclusion. It's another cliché, but I'm more inclined to think that Bimba may be dodging an earlier wartime role as a German soldier.
The excisions also dropped Jo's final bleak assessment of human dreams, his vision of the afterlife: "Nothing! Nothing!" There's no need to credit the owners of DCA with the ability to weed out content because it too closely resembled Sartre existentialism ... those trims were probably just made for time.
Interviews new and archival are included with assistant director Michel Romanoff, author Marc Godin, and star Yves Montand. The insert booklet has a perceptive essay by author Dennis Lehane, and excerpts from a 2002 book. The producers for Criterion are Debra McClutchy and Alexandre Mabilon.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Interviews with assistant director Michel Romanoff and Clouzot biographer Marc Godin; Archival interview with Yves Montand; French TV show Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant,
clip selection of scenes censored from American 1955 cut; Essay by novelist Dennis Lehane, interview excepts from 2002 book.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 18, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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