Wages of Fear
Cast & Crew
Peter Van Eyck
Four social outcasts are hired to transport two truckloads of unstable nitroglycerine to an oil fire at a U.S.-owned drilling site in Central America.
Peter Van Eyck
The Wages of Fear on DVD
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.
Synopsis: 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 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 on the 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 their bandaged and maimed workers, and offering 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 Buñnuel 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 that they might be blown to smithereens at any moment; all except for Jo, the tough guy. The pressure reveals his macho posturing as 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 in 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, with 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 seen 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.
For more information about The Wages of Fear, visit Criterion Collection. To order The Wages of Fear, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
The Wages of Fear on DVD
The Wages of Fear
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
The Wages of Fear
Winner of the Best Actor Award (Vanel) at 1953 Cannes Film Festival.
Winner of the Best Film (Audience) Award at the 1953 Berlin Film Festival.
Winner of the Palme D'Or at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival.
Released in United States April 15, 1953
Released in United States March 1979
Released in United States on Video 1992
Released in United States Winter February 16, 1955
Re-released in United States October 18, 1991
Shown at Cannes Film Festival (in competition) April 15, 1953.
Shown in New York City (Cinema Village) as part of Janus Films 40th Anniversary Film Festival December 13, 1996 - January 2, 1997.
By the time "Wages of Fear" (France/53) reached the United States, over 30 deletions, a total of 43 minutes of footage, had been made in the film, in order to shorten it for increased turn-over and to remove its anti-corporate-America sentiments, references to homosexuality and scenes of Third World squalor.
Released in United States on Video 1992
Released in United States Winter February 16, 1955
Released in United States March 1979 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The 50-Hour Mighty MovieMarathon: Mystery and Suspense) March 14-30, 1979.)
Released in United States April 15, 1953 (Shown at Cannes Film Festival (in competition) April 15, 1953.)
Re-released in United States October 18, 1991 (Film Forum; New York City)