Please note: this review contains blatant, unhindered spoilers!
Closing in on 60 years since it was released, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s tense suspense drama about two pairs of truckers carrying payloads of deadly nitroglycerine along a precarious series of decrepit roads in then present-day South America (presumably Venezuela) barely shows its age, which is remarkable, considering numerous filmmakers have mined aspects of Wages of Fear / Le salaire de la peur in various permutations. The most obvious is William Friedkin’s 1977 remake, Sorcerer, but there are key aspects to this icon of the modern suspense genre which broke ground in 1953.
I. Anti-Americanism or Socio-Economic Commentary?
For American filmmakers, dramas set in border towns and eyesore towns have proved fertile ground for westerns and crime dramas, because they represent a kind of location that ensnares visitors, trapping them in their environs because of love, greed, or an event that forces a once free soul into servitude until an unpayable debt is paid.
Clouzot’s film goes a little further, establishing a small town living off the gains from a large American oil company; those not part of the elite worker force must survive from odd jobs because there is no local industry; only indigenous people seem uncorrupted by the European kludge of workers, but they’ve been marginalized by an American multinational that’s already turned a once pristine land sour.
The beauty of the town in Wages is the desperation that hasn’t been tempered, but slowed down, if not muted, by the intense heat. Europeans fleeing from past lives – some maybe good, mostly discernable as bad – include British, Americans, Italians, Spanish, and Germans – and the ravages of WWII are still fresh in the minds of the post-WWII men who’ve settled for lives that only deliver the basics, or as Mario (Yves Montand) explains to newcomer Jo (Charles Vanel), one can earn just enough to eat and sleep and smoke, but no more.
It’s a sharp comment tied to the film’s layered critique of imperialism and corrupt capitalism, which didn’t make the film’s original U.S. distributor happy. There were obvious no-no’s which were among the first bits snipped to appease the Motion Picture Code – a shot of a naked boy, a naked bathing woman, cutouts of nude women pasted on a character’s wall, and implied micturating - but the reason the town and its citizens have poor quality of life stems from American imperialism.
For the era, it is remarkable that while the excitement of oil drilling and its financial and societal rewards were largely celebrated in dramas such as Thunder Bay (1953) and Giant (1956) (or even more precisely in contrived promotional documentaries such as Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, commissioned in 1947 by the Standard Oil Company), Clouzot managed to contemporize his film for eternal generations because little within its socio-economic context has changed in regards to the wealth of oil, the effects of corporate exploitation on the environment, and the greed of regimes unwilling to share the wealth with its indigenous people.
The company’s CEO, O’Brien (William Tubbs), is a fair-minded man who insists the men hired to deliver payloads of nitro to a burning oil derrick 300 miles away deserve their danger pay of $2000 per man, but Clouzot sneaks in little moments that quietly remind audiences what the oil company is doing to the land and its native culture is wrong.
The slyest example is a shot that has three natives watching to the screen right as a derrick careens to the ground from a volatile inferno. It’s almost akin to the famous U.S. TV ad where Iron Eyes Cody glances at the trash piling up on once-pristine land, and the final shot of a tear rolling down his cheek.
II. Laying Character Foundations with Patience and Precision
Getting back to the dusty town in Wages, Clouzot spends a full 40 mins. of character introduction and local texture to set up conflicts before word of the burning derrick reaches town, which by any Hollywood standard, is insane. Something must happen during the first act, but with the exception of a plane landing and brining nattily attired Jo – a bankrupt man on the run, impersonating a wealthy tourist – the first act’s length is about the reasons the four men are desperate to risk their lives for hard cash; the closer they get to the finish line, the less life matters, which is why the power shift between Mario and Jo is so shocking.
At first, Mario is a sycophant, wanting to impress Jo’s tough guy bluffing and bravado, but as Jo realizes he’s made a horrible choice in taking the nitro run, Mario takes advantage of his weaknesses, and rather than boost his morale, he berates him, nearly kills him twice, and tortures him before he realizes greed has destroyed what little humanity he possessed before Jo’s sparkling arrival in town.
The social pecking order that Jo disrupts – his hatred of music nearly causes a shootout in the town’s social epicenter, a local tavern – is perhaps partially paid back by Mario’s greed, and to some extent Jo is responsible for the monster he created because he often teased and convinced Mario to shrug off girlfriend / town whore Linda (Vera Clouzot, in her film debut) and spend time with him because women are worthless. (Or perhaps read another way, if Jo can’t get a woman, why should anyone else?)
The loathing of women is disturbingly strong in Wages: they’re either happy whores, fat women eating with their hands on the sidelines like ‘fallen fat coconuts’; or disciplinarians who administer order as set out by men. (In the case of the tavern where Linda works, the owner makes a point of biting into an onion to annoy Linda before their itinerant love session).
Bimba (Peter Van Eyck, well-used as a chilly but sympathetic character) is a German whose survival after Nazi brutality has rendered him cold, and wants nothing to do with women for reasons perhaps rooted in his wartime past, or being an orphan after his father’s death. The only softie is Luigi (Folco Lulli), who’s the sole nice guy among a troubled town: he likes being surrounded by people, prefers to sit and chat with strangers about whatever pops into his head, and hopes to use his $2000 to return home to Calabra and find a pretty girl and just live – a simple plant that makes his outcome among the four drivers the most tragic.
Luigi is also unique because he too is symbolic of progress ruining the lives of good men. Diagnosed with a lung disease from the cement dust he’s been inhaling while working in town as a construction man, his life is effectively over: if he works, he dies in less than a year; and if he doesn’t risk his life transporting the nitro, there’s no other alternative work because he’s not as wily nor guile as Mario.
The atmosphere Clouzot creates is so beautifully rendered that Orson Welles must have taken a hint and transposed some of the techniques to his noir drama Touch of Evil (1958) – particularly the opening tracking shot, which Clouzot already tested in an elaborate shot that has a zoom lens following Luigi as he walks down a busy street, tracking left to an observing Bimba, and following him into the tavern where a third character raises his arms to make an announcement to a group. (Clouzot uses his zoom lens selectively, but it adds a peculiar docu-drama quality to the film.)
Similar to Clouzot, Welles also opted for natural sound and source music; with the exception of its “Main Title” music by Georges Auric (who also scored Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso), the other cues are radio tunes or live performances.
III. Stealth Exposition
The third important aspect – if not the primary – is the way a dialogue, character bits and generally expositional matter, is dealt with using clever tricks that ensure audiences are fed information without an overt awareness.
As main characters walk and talk between locations, they’re exposed to local colour and encounter secondary characters. Mario shows Jo the town, and as though by coincidence, introduces best buddy Luigi, whom we see coughing badly before waving a friendly goodbye as he returns to work. The scene simultaneously introduces Luigi, ties to a later doctor’s diagnosis of his terminal condition, and shows the swell friendship that Jo manages to destroy before night has even fallen that day.
There’s also montage within an undetermined time where Mario goes over the pros and multiple cons of the town, and why people can’t leave. Clouzot cheats the passage of time by having the two men constantly walking, going as far as partaking in a funeral possession, and further discussing the down while the burial is done with in record time.
Even discussions in the truck cabs during the nitro delivery are used to break up shots of driving. The series of brief scenes layer further details which add sympathy to the more honorable characters that die en route (Luigi and Bimba), and reveal the power shift among the other set (Jo and Mario). As a script, both the dialogue and characters are perfect, but the dialogue-heavy first act soon makes room for the detailed driving montages that dominates the film’s second act.
IV. The Modern Suspense Film Hits the Road
In terms of modern film technique, it’s Clouzot’s visual and editorial handling of driving – in daily life, it’s a monotonous act – that makes Wages a major influence among subsequent films where men use wheeled vehicles to travel across terrible terrain with a hard deadline. It goes beyond the close-ups of wheels, bumpers, sweaty drivers, roads, and shots of the trucks in motion: it’s the set-up of carefully structured (and logical) obstacles from which sometimes unbearable tension is wrought.
Admittedly, one must share some interest in the nature of machines to really enjoy the sequences, but it takes 65 mins. before the first truck leaves, and even before the men get into the vehicles, it’s the machines that are given a few minutes of precious screen time to characterize them as beasts of burden.
Without score, sonic tension comes from silence and sound, and the trucks are monster vehicles in an era when most Hollywood films showed pickup trucks or semis; these creatures are huge-wheeled, deep-set flatbed trucks with temperaments of their own.
In a major sequence, their unwieldy depth and width allows Clouzot to stage the world’s most dangerous three-point turn using a mountain extension made of rotten wood. The nature of their cargo mandates either slow driving, or the madness of cranking up speed on a ribbed dirt road (“Make those tires sing!”) to minimize the vibrations; and obstacles such as giant boulders and a pool of discharging oil give Clouzot ample opportunities to wring out further tension.
Bimba’s prepping the nitro to blow up a 50 ton boulder is unbearable because Clouzot’s intercutting reminds us of the danger through visual association: it’s unstable nature and reaction to movement and fire is hammered through a montage where Mario taps on a matchbox, Luigi smokes a cigar, and Jo raps his fingers on a door.
The pool of oil through which Mario drives also marks the tipping point of the character, because not only does he drive over Jo as he wades too close to the truck, but he severs his leg, and lets the man writhe in pain while he manages to wrangle a method to pull the truck out from the pool. The brutality is as stark as the poisonous oil leaking from a damaged pipe, and nothing is as chilling as Mario smoking a cigarette while his former ‘mentor’ weathers the pain as his stump rots inside the pant leg.
Modern viewers will also find the oil leak contemporary with recent oil spills, and the film seems to infer a message that the black gold being pumped across the land comes with a heavy price tag.
The effectiveness of these montages made it difficult for Friedkin to stage his own variations in Sorcerer, yet his attempts to recreate the three-point turn worked beautifully, and like Clouzot’s own madness in using real vehicles for spectacular stunts, Friedkin similarly went bonkers and crafted the world’s nastiest bridge crossing – a mad yet exquisite sequence that justifies Sorcerer being a classic in its own right.
From a contemporary stance, Clouzot at the very least outlined the sequence of events, specific visual and aural techniques necessary to craft an effective driving montage; testing characters through increasingly impossible obstacles until even the victor suffers the scars of losing his comrades, and his moral compass.
V. Uncompromising Nihilism
The finale is fascinating for its utter bleakness, and Clouzot maximizes the tone by covering Jo’s pathetic death beside Mario through extreme close-ups – the first time he pushes the camera so close to his actors.
When Mario arrives at the oil station with the nitro undisturbed, the workers treat him as a savior, but he’s a complete wreck, and perhaps he knows his time is limited because he’s become part of a monster event. When he emerges from the truck, he lights a cigarette and approaches the inferno of the broiling derrick, as if hypnotized by the beast whose silver bullet he ferried through Hell. His collapse near the fiery corona is technically due to fatigue, but the audience understands what he’s lost in the process.
That brings on the ending, where Clouzot cuts from a nighttime inferno to a starkly lit day where Mario drives his own truck back to town, giddy with $4000 in his pocket – taking Jo’s share ‘because he would’ve wanted it.’
As a Strauss waltz – the first music heard in over an hour – plays from a radio, Linda and the tavern’s revelers await Mario’s triumphant return. Clouzot intercuts Mario driving the truck in a swerving motion, until he loses control goes off a cliff. Like the destruction of the derrick and the rotted wooden extension, Clouzot stages the truck’s destruct as total: the vehicle tumbles head-first down a rocky slope, getting its front smashed, ripping off the timbres that form its rear, and twisting the axel like a pretzel. A shot of a dead Mario holding a ticket he’s been carrying as a souvenir is a bit rich, but Clouzot shows no mercy: the man is dead, the drama is over, and ‘The End’ appears followed by a fast fadeout.
It’s a straight punch to the audience’s stomach, and while Friedkin didn’t follow the same resolution, he wove in some cruel irony which similarly dooms the hero to a violent end.
VI. Post-Clouzot Influences
That Clouzot’s film influenced filmmakers in other genres isn’t hard to find. In addition to Welles’ Touch of Evil, there’s Bertrand Tavernier’s equally bleak Coup de torchon (1981) where murder, sleaze and power trips affect the miserable multinational inhabitants in French Africa. Pacing and character nuances dominate action, and it isn’t long into the film where one feels the misery of living in an armpit town.
Director Peter Collinson and screenwriter Troy Kennedy-Martin appropriated Mario’s driving the truck back & forth for their finale in The Italian Job (1969): the driver sways the bus back & forth and loses control of the vehicle as the men sing, joyful they’ve just pulled off a massive gold heist. Instead of having the men die – the film was a comedy, after all – the bus is poised on a precarious edge with the gold at one end, and the men on the other, with no resolution before the end credits.
Lastly, there’s also the visual design of Wages which makes beautiful use of day and night shooting with minimal continuity issues. In one shot, Bimba and Luigi drive through a bamboo forest, and prior to the emergence of the truck the locked camera films the rapid flickering of the approaching vehicle’s headlamps – a shot copied to the letter by Dario Argento in Suspiria (1977) when a girl runs through a rain-soaked forest, and the flickering light stems from lightening and an approaching taxi cab carrying Suzie Bannion.
Wages of Fear marked the beginning of Clouzot’s peak international period during the fifties – Diabolique / Les diaboliques (1955), The Picasso Mystery / Le mystere de Picasso (1956), Les espions (1957) – but it stands out as the godfather to the modern suspense film, and where the character of man-made machines is almost on par with humans.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan