The Wages Of Fear's original 1.33:1 black-and-white square-box image is often breathtaking to behold. Criterion's restoration work for the film isn't quite on a par with their BD transfer of The Seventh Seal, but there is no doubting the wonderful effort that has gone into presenting Clouzot's epic yarn.
Although some marks are still present, plenty of scratches, nicks, dust-specks and hairs have been removed from the print, making the film look appreciably clean and robust. Grain still remains and appears to have all the texture required to ensure that the image is purely film-like, detailed and layered. There may be the odd wobble here and there and the contrast can flutter about within the some shots, but these are the only elements in which the film's vintage is recalled.
Contrast is higher than previously, making the sun-bleached landscape when the guys are on the road all the more brighter and intense. But this is not to be misconstrued as being harsh blooming that is taking place, for the image now holds a more realistic level of light and shadow. When the characters are squinting, you can now clearly see why they are. The blacks are often terrific, but can also occasionally veer slightly towards grey at times. Interiors have a solid shadow base and night-time scenes are strongly presented without wavering or crush. Flames, of which there is a lot, billow with intensity, especially the big blaze in the oil field. Detail isn't great within the conflagration, but I wouldn't have expected it to be, either. The thick black oil-pool that Mario and Jo have to wade through is deliciously filthy and the contrast between the glaring sunshine and the sludge is spot-on. The sheen on the surface of the pool is also keenly presented.
Detail, on the whole, is excellent. We can see the glistening sweat on natural-looking faces full of creases, marks and stubble. Eyes are vivid and strong - especially Montand's and Vera Clouzot's. Clothing has material texture on show and the vehicles, drums of nitro, furniture and beer bottles all benefit from the depth and clarity afforded them by the high definition encode. Street scenes in Las Piedras are realistically squalid. We have copious muddy puddles, debris and indigenous shacks and prefabs filling the frame and all of this, together with the numerous denizens lounging about reveal depth and detail that is blurred on previous editions. But, speaking of things appearing blurred, there are still some peripheral edges of frames that can soften-up and noticeably lose distinction and sharpness. This, of course, is down to the cameras used at the time and is not a reflection upon the new 1080p transfer. Foliage and pebble-strewn canyons offer plenty of clarity, with even background detail coming in for a readily apparent upgrade - look at the cliffs and the rolling wasteland, or the distance shots of oil depot and town of Las Piedras. The rickety bridge, all withered planks and flimsy struts, looks much more defined than I have seen it before, with more detail and texture featured and better shadow-play making it more striking from within the image. Road-surfaces and close-ups of wheels, tobacco and the dangerous stream of nitroglycerine seeping down the hole that Luigi has carved are all images that look better than ever before. Shots of Mario peering down into the chasm, or anyone seen silhouetted against the skyline or the landscape show only minuscule amounts of edge enhancement and the picture has a perfectly smooth and unprocessed look.
This is an impressive transfer of Clouzot's film, and further proof, if any were needed, of Criterion's continuing dedication to supplying us with the best that they can.
The French PCM Uncompressed mono track is certainly up to Criterion's typically excellent standards, although I will say that the level of “depth” may not be quite on a par with the likes of Seventh Seal, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, The Third Man etc. But there is still a lot of detail and realism projected. Voices are always clear and the environmental effects are presented with a clean-sounding naturalism. Explosions feature a nice degree of guttural crunch and the various impacts of rocks, bumpy roads and collapsing timber have a presence that is well filtered by the track. As I say, the level of distance within the limited signal isn't the best that Criterion have managed to produce which, considering the landscape and the locales that this film takes us through is a very slight disappointment, but you would be hard pressed to hear The Wages Of Fear sound this good anywhere else. The sparse score from Georges Auric - really just a title cue - is dealt with a brightness and a clarity that allows it some jangly, percussive vigour.
But it is the sound of the trucks, themselves, that is probably the most prominent effect in the mix. When the guys fire them up, there is a terrific throaty rumble that really penetrates the room. And then you get the sirens with which they bid their farewells to the township as they set off into the night - so shrill and demonstrative in the mix that my wife shouted down from upstairs for me to lower the volume. The subtle and unexpected explosion later on is very nicely captured by the sound design and, yep, even for a vintage mono track, there is a definite, though admittedly slight, sense of placement and spatial appreciation. Only Criterion seem able to provide this quality to such limited older mixes.
A good 7 out of 10 for what is a fine audio restoration that is shorn of most age-related bugbears as crackle, hiss or drop-outs.
This isn't a bad selection of extra features, but they only really brush the surface of the film's production and impact.
We have an Interview with assistant director Michel Romanoff (22:26 in HD) in which the man, who has also worked with directors as diverse as Julien Duvivier, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda and Marcel Carne, recounts his experience with Clouzot. Only twenty-three when he embarked on this project, he fully admits that he was both extremely lucky to have landed such a job and surprised at how well he coped with the stress of the arduous shoot without really knowing what he was doing. Romanoff would go on to perform the same duties for Clouzot on Les Diabolique and Spies.
Next comes an Interview with Henri-Georges Clouzot biographer Marc Godin (10:09 in HD) that takes a look at the man's career and provides some background to his style, his reception and his decisions.
Then there is an archival interview with Yves Montand on working with Clouzot, too. Lasting for 5 minutes, this edited cluster of replies to interviewer Anne Andreu for the 1988 TV program Cinema cinemas is a little rambling and somewhat lightweight. Ostensibly billed as how Clouzot enticed a reluctant Montand back into acting, there actually isn't a great deal of worthy anecdote or opinion discussed. But the star's answers are wide-ranging, honest and very “French”.
Then we get a featurette entitled 'Henri-Georges Clouzot- the Enlightened Tyrant' (52:34 in HD) that profiles the man's career and achievements in quite a candid and frank fashion that sees interviews with the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Suzy Delair, Clouzot's brother Marcel and assistant director Romanoff again gets to say his piece about his views of the esteemed darling of French Cinema. Recorded in 2004 for Open Art Productions, this also contains stills and archival footage of Clouzot and is a fairly interesting document on a truly unique individual.
Finally, Criterion supply us with another featurette called Censored Scenes (12:12 in HD) which takes a detailed look at the segments that were removed from the original American print of the movie. With the scenes that were omitted shown to us - they are all in this uncut version of the movie, anyway - and excerpts from written reviews and some critical snipes from high-brow buffoons, we learn about the fears distributors had for the perceived anti-American stance, the downbeat anti-heroic attitudes of the leads and some veiled homosexual hints that some right-wing mentalities may have picked-up on. It is a fascinating insight into a very jaundiced and paranoid attitude, but it is all over far too quickly.
The16-page booklet of production notes is capped-off with the simply excellent essay by novelist Dennis Lehane, acclaimed author of Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island. This is a slightly shorter book than the one that graced Criterion's SD version of the movie, but the essay is intellectually probing, opinionated and well structured.
I was somewhat disappointed with the supplementary features accompanying this release. Whilst they are good, in themselves, and certainly something that Clouzot fans will appreciate, I would have loved to have seen more on the actual film, The Wages Of Fear. I know it must be difficult sometimes for labels to obtain material for older features and I am sure that Criterion have done all that they could. Some sort of retrospective making-of or overview of the movie would have been nice, though - I mean there must be dozens of modern filmmakers and screenwriters out there who would have relished the opportunity to discuss such an influential movie.
To a modern audience, Clouzot's streamlined actioner may seem tepid and slow, but this pivotal exposé of fractured friendships and flawed bravado represents a turning point in how physical thrillers would come to be made. Grit, pain and cynicism would become the hallmarks of the genre and doomed anti-heroes would replace the staunch resolve of Hollywood and the post-war optimism of British Cinema. Yves Montand is superb as either a swine or a layabout. Vanel performs one of the most amazing character-switches that you are likely to see. Eyck and Lulli work wonders with characters that are, respectively, underwritten and intimately drawn, yet both with a lust for life. And Vera Clouzot just mesmerises as the one real angel amongst a nest of fallen ones. Nowadays, in-yer-face hysterics and Bourne-style immediacy would orchestrate the proceedings, but with Clouzot at the wheel, things remain restrained, lived-in and credible - and are all the more tense for it.
Criterion's high-definition transfer is sublime and it is certain that, outside of its original theatrical debut, the film has never looked or sounded so good. The ramped-up contrast provides a dazzling rawness to the scorched visuals and the heat feels appropriately amplified, adding to the texture and the atmosphere of the story tenfold. With some respectable extras - although a commentary or retro making-of would have been the icing on the cake - The Wages Of Fear just has to come with huge recommendations. It is one of the classics of the Cinema that has a wicked impact the first time that you see it and, from then on, just keeps getting better.
So climb aboard ... and ride the nitro-bus to Hell!
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