Jeopardy On The Job: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear (1953) – Blu-ray Review
Clouzot’s masterpiece remains one of the great action films, largely because the intricate suspense is so cleverly established in mood, story and theme.
The Wages Of Fear
(Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
Alfred Hitchcock famously explained the difference between surprise and suspense – with the latter, the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table. To which Henri-Georges Clouzot obviously thought, “Let’s make the bomb as big as possible and stick it onto a truck.” In The Wages Of Fear, half the film consists of watching characters trying to drive these nitoglycerine-laden trucks along the world’s worst road. Now, that’s suspense.
This is a remarkable piece of action-adventure filmmaking, dripping in sweat and oil. It had an arduous shoot long before the likes of Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin (with his Wages remake, Sorceror) made such things fashionable. And it has extraordinary, agonising sequences of pure tension – a bumpy road, a dilapidated jetty, a rock blocking the road, a hellish oil pit. We’ve already seen that one drop of nitro will create a sizeable explosion, so each of these obstacles has to be navigated incredibly slowly. Every movement becomes a possible trip, stumble, fall or spill.
Why would anybody sign up for this ordeal? Well, that’s why only half the film is located on the road. Before that, there’s a brilliant hour of exposition to make it not only plausible but inevitable that these desperate men will agree to carry the nitro. Trapped in an unnamed South American village with no jobs and no money, the men drink, whore and gamble their way into an existential prison, so when the offer of $2000 bonus to transport the explosives to stem an oil well fire, they’ve got nothing to lose.
This could be dry, verbose filmmaking, except that Clouzot wields the same physicality he shows in the pure action ahead. Creating the decrepit village from scratch in a dustbowl in Southern France, he builds a world that is entirely convincing in its humid, slovenly languor. Shooting in deep focus and expertly choreographing the extras – including, at one point, a passing aeroplane – he lays out the tiny borders of the expats’ lives.
And this world comes with a worldview: pessimistic, misanthropic, nihilistic. These men have only arrived to get rich, and there’s a self-loathing in their realisation that they can’t even do that properly. Their masculinity in shreds, they form homo-erotic bonds, each trying to become the alpha male in this pathetic group. So they’re in no great mental shape when they start on the journey, and so Clouzot can anatomise the greed, hubris, cowardice (and occasionally, resourcefulness and skill) of the drivers.
That makes the film as much of an ordeal for the audience as for them – we’re not exactly rooting for anybody here, and the bleak punchline is satirical rather than traffic. The visuals emphasise the emptiness – monochrome has rarely been used as well, a world with all the colour drained out until we’re left with Yves Montand and Charles Vanel, drenched in oil and looking like walking corpses.