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French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907 - 1977) began his career as a scriptwriter and then turned to filmmaking in the 1940's. With The Raven (Le Corbeau, 1943) he created a stir when the film was considered anti-French, leading to a suspension from the film industry that lasted from 1944 through 1947. Clouzot would go on to win prizes at home and in Venice for Manon (1949), but really hit international success with The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). He would cement his reputation by immediately following that film with Diabolique (Les Diaboliques, 1955), a one-two punch that was evidently not lost on Alfred Hitchcock, who considered Clouzot a rival. (His shower murder in Psycho (1960) was obviously intended to outdo Clouzot's bathtub drowning scene in Les Diaboliques.) Putting aside their respective craft in the field of suspense, Hitchcock and Clouzot had very different sensibilities. It's hard to imagine Hitchcock, for example, seeing one of his films trimmed due to a homosexual subtext or a reference to a corrupt American oil company - but that's exactly what happened to Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, which was cut by 21 minutes when it was finally released in the U.S. in 1954.
The Wages of Fear begins in the squalid and poverty-stricken Central American village of Las Piedras (which translates from Spanish into "the rocks"). The opening shot has four beetles strung together by a child, emblematic of the four characters about to be strung together on a harrowing journey for the bulk of the film. Several years later Sam Peckinpah would kick off his epic masterpiece, The Wild Bunch (1969), with a similar scene that clearly gives a tip of the hat to the same terrain and machinations that power The Wages of Fear. Instead of banks, however, Clouzot epitomized authority under the guise of a greedy oil company called the Southern Oil Company (S.O.C.), which not so coincidentally has the same initials as Standard Oil. When an oil fire three hundred miles from Las Piedras burns out of control, the callous American boss needs to find drivers willing to truck past treacherous terrain with nitroglycerine to blow out the fires. The journey is considered so dangerous, and the likelihood of a truck exploding so high, that two trucks are sought to drive at safe intervals between each other. With each truck having two drivers, four "lucky" members are lured to the cause with a $2,000 reward awaiting them at the end of the trip. It speaks volumes about the desperation and unemployment suffered in Las Piedras that this likely-suicide mission is not just coveted but also seen as worth dying for.
The leading interest, and youngest of the four drivers, is Mario, played by Yves Montand (1921 - 1991). Montand was an Italian-born singer and worked in theater with bit roles in other films before he got in the spotlight for both The Wages of Fear and his marriage to Simone Signoret (1921 - 1985). Montand had an impressive physique from his years hammering sheet metal at the Provence shipyards and Clouzot was eager to have him play the role of Mario and had to approach him several times before Montand finally relented. It was to be the start of a long love-hate relationship, and one of its first manifestations was in Montand's refusal to shoot the film in Spain, as Clouzot originally intended, so long as Franco was alive. Clouzot would finally relent and create the village of Las Piedras in France near Saint-Gilles, in the Camargue.
The other actors Clouzot would pick to round out his cast of drivers, whose backgrounds and ethnicities the director purposefully wanted to mix, were German Peter van Eyck (1911 - 1969), Italian Folco Lulli (1912 - 1970), and the French silent-film veteran Charles Vanel (1892 - 1989). The making of The Wages of Fear would test them all in different ways, and Clouzot's reputation as a ruthless taskmaster was well earned. In Yves Montand's biography by Herve Hamon and Patrick Rotman the authors note that, "Vanel and Montand were subjected to the most awful circumstances. Submerged in a pool of crude oil and exposed to gas fumes, they contracted conjunctivitis. But oil was not their greatest enemy. Worse was inundation of the purest kind: a deluge of rainwater...Week after week, the production floundered - and was postponed. The budget was in ruins. Vera Clouzot (the director's wife, playing the role of Linda) fell ill. The director himself broke his ankle. By the end of November, the situation was catastrophic: the days were now disastrously short, it had not stopped raining, and the movie was 50 million francs in the red." To say that things looked grim would be an understatement. Production was stopped. Everyone was let go. Six months would pass before production could begin again with the return of desired weather. All the work and heartbreak was destined to pay off with the Grand Prix and a best actor award for Vanel at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. It also won top honors at Berlin and played to packed movie houses, receiving enthusiastic responses from an international public and critics alike.
To revisit The Wages of Fear is to see that, far from being a critically acclaimed film from another era whose impact has softened with age, it has lost none of its power. The film is even more impressive now in an age where "product" by consensus and formula is guided by preview audience's expectations and the studio executives incessant preoccupation with the bottom-line. The Wages of Fear is that rarity - a work of art and a gripping entertainment. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the film, "The last scene, where a homebound truck is intercut with a celebration while a Strauss waltz plays on the radio, is a reminder of how much Hollywood has traded away by insisting on the childishness of the obligatory happy ending." The film, like its director, may be ruthless, but it also lives up to Clouzot's full ambition of creating, as Georges Sadoul quotes the director saying in his Dictionary of Films, "an epic whose main theme is courage. And the opposite."
Producer: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Louis Wipf
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Jerome Geronimi, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Georges Arnaud (novel)
Cinematography: Armand Thirard
Film Editing: Madeleine Gug, Etiennette Muse, Henri Rust
Art Direction: Rene Renoux
Cast: Yves Montand (Mario), Charles Vanel (Jo), Peter van Eyck (Bimba), William Tubbs (Bill O'Brien), Vera Clouzot (Linda), Folco Lulli (Luigi).
by Pablo Kjolseth