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THE WAGES OF FEAR

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter Van Eyck, Folco Lulli, William Tubbs, Vera Clouzot
Director:  Henri-Georges Clouzot
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  147 Minutes
Release Date:  October 25, 2005

"Mario, my darling...why are you doing this?"

Film ****

There are essentially two stories at play in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear.  One is a grim, unapologetic look at the way businesses plundered poverty stricken third world lands for cheap labor and resources.  The other is one of the most white-knuckled suspense tales ever spun for the cinema.  The first remains topical, but less surprising today.  The second just gets better and better with each viewing.

The story begins in the fictional Latin American town of Las Piedras.  It is a place, we are told, that you can get in for a single franc.  Getting out costs a thousand.  Here, under oppressive heat and economic strain, a number of seemingly lost souls wander in and around.  Most jobs are temporary, and come from the company Southern Oil.  These jobs often fuel meager dreams, as they tend to pay what they consider large sums of money, but the work often involves mortal danger.

Two of these characters are Mario (Montand, in his first screen role) and Jo (Vanel).  Mario is a native, Jo has traveled under the guise of an aristocrat.  But no person of substance ends up in Las Piedras, and soon even Jo is looking for that proverbial way out.

It comes with a strike of good (or bad) luck, when one of Southern’s fields catches fire.  The only hope of containing the blaze is with a nitroglycerine explosion.   Soon the call is out for four men to drive two trucks carrying the volatile substance across 300 miles of some of the worst terrain imaginable.  One truck is all that is needed; two are hired to improve the odds that one will make it to the fire.   The wage?  $2,000 per man.  Soon, Mario and Jo, along with two other poor men with big dreams, Bimba (Van Eyck) and Luigi (Lulli), are en route, with one truck instructed to remain a half-hour behind for added safety.

The premise for suspense is something Alfred Hitchcock could admire:  it is clearly established that these men are just one untimely jostle or one tiny impact away from oblivion.   If death comes, it will come so fast and so without warning that they won’t even know what hit them.  You will be on the edge of your seat for the duration of the film, but three sequences build the suspense to almost unbearable limits:  a V shaped turn in the road that forces one truck, then the other, to make a three point turnaround on a high, unfinished platform aside a precipice where the wood is rotting, the planks are falling, and the tires slip and slide precariously to the edge.  There is another scene involving blowing up a giant boulder with some of their nitroglycerine in order to pass, then realizing too late that their trucks might be the victim of falling debris.   Another involves a trek through a giant and expanding puddle of oil, knowing if they stop, they won’t be able to start again.

The men are brave, but they aren’t heroes…indeed, Clouzot seems critical of his characters for placing a willing value of two grand on their own lives.  Yet, the early part of the film establishes why.  It’s easy for us to disagree with their values, but impossible for us to place judgment on the men for them.

Ironically, most of the early scenes were cut or trimmed for the American premiere of the film, for fear that U.S. audiences would never stand for the picture’s treatment of American business in Latin America.  Southern Oil, it could be argued, was a little too closely related to Standard Oil, and frankly, if this country’s audiences were going to see the movie, they were going for the suspense and craft, and not for the political or social statements.

This DVD presentation by the Criterion Collection returns the film to its proper running time of 147 minutes.  Some have questioned whether returning the trimmed scenes helped or hindered the picture, as they meant more time was taken getting to the heart of the film’s suspense.  I think without them, the film loses a lot of its heart.  The point is not so much placing judgment on western business operations in poorer countries, but rather, the world the four men found themselves trapped in.  We need these scenes to appreciate why they would value their own heads for $2,000 apiece…otherwise, the picture remains a technical masterpiece, but would have come across as gimmicky.

In short, both parts of the film work symbiotically, making the characters more real and the suspense more believable.   If there is a minor flaw in the picture, it might be the ending (which I won’t reveal), and I don’t call it a flaw for the reasons some might speculate.  For me, having seen the picture a few times already, it always comes across as too deliberate a stab at irony.

But that’s a miniscule complaint.  Wages of Fear is a tense, nerve wracking motion picture experience, and one of the greatest suspense films ever made.  Like the main characters themselves, audiences will probably never feel quite so alive as when they share in the experience of knowing death is a constant companion on the journey, ready to strike without warning at any moment.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Clouzot's stunningly beautiful wife Vera plays Mario's lover.

Video ***1/2

Kudos to Criterion for another remarkable transfer of a classic film.  Wages of Fear looks great!  The black and white photography is crisp and sharply detailed throughout, with solid lines, deep blacks and a full range of expressive grayscale.  Save for a few small stretches of film that show some aging in the form of specks and scratches, this is a near perfect presentation.  There is no grain or compression evident throughout.  Fans of classic cinema should be well pleased.

Audio ***

A surprisingly virile mono soundtrack, this DVD offers clean and clear dialogue, strong music and effect and a nice amount of dynamic range.  There is very little in the way of noticeable background noise; stretches where the movie grows quiet are very effectively rendered.  All in all, a considerable effort.

Features ***

With this re-issue, Criterion has included some tasty supplements for film fans.  Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant is a terrific 2004 documentary on the director's career.  There are also new interviews with assistant director Michel Romanoff and Clouzot biographer Marc Godin, as well as a classic interview with Yves Montand.  There is also an analysis of the original cuts made for the U.S. premiere of the film.  Rounding out is another excellent 24 page booklet with an essay and printed interviews.

Summary:

Wages of Fear is a masterpiece of suspense and tension, with a great premise and expert direction that make it a wall-climbing cinematic experience.  Henri-Georges Clouzot proves every bit the equal of Hitchcock in his handling of nail biting material.   A must see!

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