The Wages of Fear Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    The Wages of Fear Review

    “Put all the blame on the victims. They're done for.”

    When a South American oil field becomes a raging inferno, the only method of extinguishing the flames is by blowing them out “like a candle ... only you have to blow hard!” Which, in this case, means using two lorry-loads of highly volatile and unstable nitroglycerine. The snag - transporting this devil's brew across three-hundred miles of the roughest terrain imaginable, where any bump, slide or jolt could ignite the liquid and vaporise all concerned, along with a huge portion of Mother Earth. With no other way of getting the nitro to the stricken disaster area and union rules forbidding its members to undertake what amounts to a suicide mission, big shot Yankee company boss Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs) is forced to recruit from the desperate dregs that society has spat out, the wasted, forgotten flotsam that has washed up from all corners of the globe and landed in the little hope-addled town of Las Piedras. Hard-bitten losers on the run, chancers in-hiding or just the errant trapped in the sun-baked purgatory that has become their virtual prison, these dream-squashed miscreants sweat and drink, fight and fade. But, to escape the endless Groundhog Day of their dreary existence, and in return for $2000 - more money than any of them can conceive - four men sign their lives away and set out on the treacherous road, their nerves shredding as surely as the tyres beneath them as they cover each nerve-wracking mile sitting up in front of a veritable bomb on their tail.

    It is not a job for the faint-hearted and nor is the great French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic 1953 film, The Wages Of Fear. Based on George Arnaud's novel, La Salaire de la Peur, Clouzot's adaptation is a rare gem, indeed. Part intense character deconstruction, part indictment of corporate inhumanity, but mainly, and most memorably, a nail-biting tour de force that is way ahead of its time in terms of sheer tension and audacious set-piece manipulation, the film is highly thought of by critics and cineastes alike, and proudly ploughs through the manly excesses of the likes of John Ford's Western collection, John Huston's The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and the cynical death-wish of the celebrated noir detectives of Chandler and Hammett. In fact, this is exactly the sort of film that you would have expected to see Humphrey Bogart strutting through, as he did when leading out his nefarious crew in 1948's aforementioned Sierra Madre. But, this time, the cigarette is clinging precariously to the tight, stern lips of Yves Montand who, as indecisive Corsican vagabond Mario, is breathtakingly anti-heroic and remarkably downbeat. Looking like a leaner, more sinewy Nick Knowles (the Beeb's ever-affable DIY/garden makeover super-specialist), Montand begins the film as a shallow putz - comedic, irascible, nonchalant - but turns into a loyal lapdog for a spell when Charles Vanel's potential meal-ticket, Jo, comes to town, and eventually becomes a single-minded figurehead for the fallibility and ruthlessness of Man once he, alone, finds the courage to get the job done. Mario is the one to whom we look, though. He is the most visually obvious hero amongst the four, yet his strength lies in his coiled anger, suppressed regret and stubborn realisation of his fellows' shortcomings. Before the film is over, you will have found the time to respect him ... and to hate him in equal measure for, in actuality, he has done nothing more than become as hard-line and uncaring as those who recruited him in the first place.

    Jo is a powder-keg, himself. Dangerous, abrupt and inflammatory. He arrives in town and immediately ensconces himself within the established fold by wrecking its very fabric from the inside. Pilfering Mario from his long-time buddy, Luigi, like an egocentric schoolboy on the emotional take, he undermines the lackadaisical order of these lost souls. An early stand-off in the taverna is gripping and cruel, but Jo seems to reveal a colossal hidden well of stoic bravery that only endears him all the more to the eyes-agog Mario. When the bomb-truck job comes up, Jo is the linchpin that unifies the desperate odyssey that they are about to undertake, and even if Vanel looks like one of the Chuckle Brothers, he has a granite-hard demeanour and ruthless spiel that you think you can bank on.

    But Clouzot is at his best when he has led you down the garden path. Just look at his celebrated chiller/thriller Les Diabolique for further proof of his deceptive nature. And The Wages Of Fear does some rug-pulling of its own.

    Folco Lulli's builder-cum-baker Luigi has lungs that are filled with cement. The doctor gives him six months to live, maybe a year, but the rotund impresario sees something more in the mission to deliver the nitro than merely a final exploit that could have him enjoying his last days in luxury. With the potential to prove himself a winner and, possibly, claim back his old friend, Mario, from Jo, the hazardous trip seems like one that will finally cement him with some good fortune. Lulli is superb as the easy-smiling grafter. He takes us to the brink of his own commitment and also reveals some dignity when he refuses to shoot a man or even to fight back when Jo belittles him and slaps him in the face. Well, he does heft a wine-bottle over his head, but you know that Luigi just hasn't got that killer instinct in him and Lulli genuinely makes you feel for his predicament. Likewise, he is not as cutting or as vengeful as Mario when the roles are reversed and the man you least expected to get the jitters becomes a cowardly wreck, the film, once again, tickling clichés and stereotypes all along the route, yet never actually giving in to them.

    “It's like prison here. Easy to get in - Make yourself at home! But there's no way out.”

    Peter Van Eyck's quiet Arian, Bimba, looks like a trooper from the Afrika Korps, but he is undoubtedly one of the bravest of the bunch. When a massive boulder blocks their twisting mountain path, he comes up with the idea of siphoning off some of the nitro and using it blow the obstacle into a million pieces. Wisely, Clouzot just keeps the camera pragmatically on gutsy Bimba going about his perilous task without elaborate close-ups or quick-cuts or dramatic music, knowing that our nerves are already spiked by Eyck's calmly suggested fears as the liquid explosive seeps slowly and steadily down into the hole Luigi has made in the rock and Bimba is left alone to light the fuse whilst the others cower in the distance. Perhaps the most identifiable character in the movie, Bimba's self-absorbed loner - once a political outcast of Nazi Germany who was flung into the salt mines as a punishment, and now a veritable refugee - is the one man whose very practical nature and unemotional desire to simply get on with the job, no matter what happens, makes us believe that he, at least, must make it to the other side in one piece.

    “You don't know what fear is. But you'll see. It's catching. It's catching like smallpox ... and once you get it, it's for life.”

    But Clouzot does not play favourites with his ensemble of rough and ready ne'er-do-wells. Where Jo was initially the prime instigator when he arrived in town - almost single-handedly wrestling Luigi's best friend from him and usurping the tribal dominance and loyalties in the local tavernas like the squat little incarnation of US foreign policy - Clouzot has absolutely no qualms turning his pride and self-confidence completely upside down once the trucks start rolling. The very fact that the screenplay doesn't even give us a particular incident that we can say with certainty has rattled him - he loses his cool almost from the instant the ignition is turned - shows us that Clouzot is taking no prisoners and allowing a realistic vein of inordinately human unpredictability to filter through the tough talk and all that brazen swaggering. Jo's fall from grace and Mario's massive, and even aggressive, disdain for it form the emotional backbone of the drama that follows and, much like genuine relationships in the real world, even those that have not been stretched to their limits by the pressure of such stressful situations as ferrying instant death over a few mountains, there are unprovoked ups and downs, a voyage between seething hatred and whimpering regret, camaraderie and foul-mouthed irritation.

    Clouzot, in the guise of an action/advenure film, is just holding up a mirror to society's interminable pit-falls.

    Of course, nowhere is this sad observation of the mucky end of life's stick, and how people learn to live with it, better evidenced than with Vera Clouzot's jaw-droppingly gorgeous gin-joint slave-girl, Linda. Beholden to her ratty, quick-tempered boss Hernandez (Dario Moreno), but eternally smitten with Montand's rough, but chic-looking proto-Diet Coke break, she is treated like a dog by all and sundry. Of course they all adore her, she is like the one diamond in a stinking slag-heap, but they still regard her feelings with contempt. Perhaps too beautiful to be fully believable in this veritable toilet, Clouzot's real-life wife supplies the heart, perhaps the only one, of the picture. Hopelessly swooning at the feet of her all-too dismissive paramour, we would will her to flee the town - if anyone could get out of there, it would surely, and ironically, be her - but it is clear that she is too deeply in the thrall of its lack of ambition to use her own talents to effect any escape. In a way, Linda is the most tragic character of them all. Whilst everyone else has done something in their lives - whether unfair, foul or furious - to get there, she already belongs in the town and has never experienced anything of the world beyond it, unlike them. Pleading with him not to go on this mission, she even insists that she will steal, or even kill for him. Such devotion is dutifully ignored by a man who finds more worth in the banter he has with the bloke sitting next to him - and, although she will always bounce back for more, this blight must eventually hit home to Linda. Even the prospect of Mario's $2000 wage means nothing to her because deep down inside she knows that his plans, if he even makes it back alive, will almost certainly not involve her.

    “Mario, my darling, why are you doing this?”

    The film is tensely dramatic and often overwrought with dilemma. It fits right in with the grey areas of moral ambiguity so perfectly encapsulated by the likes of Casablanca, The Third Man, Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, yet it retains a gritty, unflinching appeal that sets it apart from many of its contemporaries. Clouzot soaks the story in masculinity but he also scrapes away the grease and the testosterone to reveal the sick, sour and pathetic reality of so many crushed ideals and the usually fake sham of male bravado. One poor kid, Luis De Lima's tragic Bernardo, is virtually thrown away by both the screenplay and by the characters that surround him, yet the spectre of his demise hovers over the entire enterprise in recognition of the inescapable doom that cocoons almost everyone who has tasted the tainted air of Las Piedras. Clouzot does not inject such metaphor or allegory into his film so blatantly, of course. His style is as stark and as barren as the unforgiving country rolling out before the travellers. But nuances, subtleties and subtext are cast out liberally throughout the perilous journey, almost like the stones scattered away from the trundling wheels of the trucks. In his wonderful essay on the film (that accompanies this release), novelist Dennis Lehane refers to the opening image of a small child cruelly playing with cockroaches that he has bound together, and draws the parallel between it and Man's addiction to greed, as well as the homage that Sam Peckinpah so obviously pays to the scene with his own infamous opening to The Wild Bunch. But there is, perhaps, more at work here than even he suggests. Like the cockroaches, our four boys are bound together and set off on a path that they have no control over, lorded-over by a playful, Machiavellian mind. The minute the child is distracted by the luxurious lure of what a passing ice-cream vendor has to offer - something that, like freedom for Mario and Jo, is unattainable for him - a vulture descends upon his orchestrated race and the scene is swiftly ended as the sombre world simply revolves, uninvolved with the petty snatch of life that has taken place. What is this if not a small-scale analogy of big-time American greed and power, and its casual contempt for indigenous “obstacles”? Of course, to claim that the film is poking accusation at just the Americans would be wrong. Clouzot, as we shall see, neither plays favourites, nor points the finger. He merely captures what is. Big business smashing down the underdog is not unique to the US, although America almost always makes for the most acceptable scapegoat.

    “Even when they guillotine you, they dress you up first.”

    Clouzot spends a long time in the shambles of Las Piedras, evocatively painting both the desolation of the place and the wretched desperation of the souls who have contrived to end up there. Even though many early American prints of the film excise much of this hour-long scene-setter, the film is greatly enhanced by our fly-on-the-wall sojourn in the mucky little shanty-town. We have to know how broken and beat-up these people are. We have to know how low these multi-national drifters have sunk. Whilst no-one is actually as bad or as un-likeable as many critics love to claim in their write-ups, they are definitely a bunch of wasters who, to a one, are on the run from something that they can not reconcile, or ever return to. The wind has blown them this far into the cesspool of the downtrodden and the only ones who are doing well are the corporate vultures who are preying, like that cockroach-eater, on the resources beneath the scorched earth. Life is stagnant, and when the expatriates vent their frustrated spleen at all and sundry it is as much at themselves for having landed in this godforsaken province as it is the wretched dearth of hope they have to look forward to. But, come the turning of the first hour, the film fuels-up and powers off into a shimmering wasteland in which our hapless heroes discover Fate has cunningly tipped the scales. Clouzet piles on the set-piece obstacles and danger with a relentless grip that tightens around us, episode by episode, yet his steady hand remains disaffected and uninvolved. We may be along for the ride, but his semi-documentary style informs us that are not participants in what goes down ... merely useless observers.

    “Forget it! It's over - the wood is rotten!”

    “Then we'll just have to go all the way to the edge ...”

    The film is occasionally reminiscent of the classic Brit war-torn travelogue, Ice Cold In Alex, in which similarly disparate characters are flung together on an arduous and arid trek through hostile territory. Both films have an attitude of do-or-die about them, but whilst Alex is charming, dignified and hopeful, Wages batters the senses and then rips the callous off the scars to roast them in the unceasing heat of the sun and the hellish inferno of the blazing oil field. You don't love any of this quivering quartet, but you still side with them, urging them onward. But whilst this is certainly no early Speed, there is a sense of grinding inevitability about the slow, torturous progress that they make. We don't need vicious landslides and hairpin-bends, or bandits, gunfire or traitorous rivals to add spice to the situation. The plot is extraordinarily simple, almost attenuated. Nothing over the top ever actually occurs, which helps keep the foundations of its reality firmly rooted. The only sequence in which the speedometer matches our racing pulse is when the trucks have to make it across a ruined and pitted stretch of road. To keep the cans of nitroglycerine from knocking together and spilling, they are forced to either travel at under six miles an hour, or over forty ... and with the narrow road bordered by a rough drop-off into scrub-land on either side, no overtaking is possible. But circumstances conspire against our courageous crews, deciding that the lead truck is forced to take the slow option, whilst the rear vehicle, oblivious to their condition, comes barrelling up behind ... with no chance of slowing-down. Such a scenario of haute-tension seems daft when just written about like this, but the marvellously skin-prickling effect of the potential fender-bending supernova results in a completely classic scene.

    “If I've gotta be a corpse, I want to be presentable.”

    Clouzot directs dispassionately, his cold eye simply observing the circumstances and the repercussions of the men's maniacal mission, never pausing to pass comment, never judging. The moral compass is cracked and the psychological temperature is molten beyond all measurement - in many ways the characters become as rugged and as indomitable as the terrain. Though never villains, merely individuals who have fallen far from home, they have a misguided sense of adventure. Jo and Mario, especially, have a thirst for endeavour that would have led them into trouble together even if O'Brien's job hadn't sought them out. In pictures made before this and, especially, afterwards, they would have been mercenaries. Crueller, perhaps, and certainly more violent, but they would also have had a code of ethics that would have distinguished them. But, here, such committed heroism is beyond their grasp. Both embrace the seedier side of their celebrity, enjoying the status that a cool hairdo and trendy low-cut vest (Mario) and a snappy suit, a groomed moustache and an arrogant air (Jo) can get them in such a dishevelled hell-pot as this limbo-land.

    “He's alive! The blast just knocked him off his feet!”

    The Wages Of Fear is an excellent film that is unafraid to confront politics, moral bankruptcy and the idiotic hypocrisy of machismo, yet it is also a thundering white-knuckle thrill-ride made long before the term could be applied to half of the stuff that Hollywood now churns out every month. A lean, mean template for adrenalised tension and suspense, Clouzot's pedal-to-the-metal is a ferocious and nihilistic escapade that creates a fabulously bleak milieu during its atmospherically languid first act and then just demolishes everything in its path with a blisteringly tense marathon of motorised mayhem. Terrific performances from all concerned, great location-work and photography from Armand Thirard and a die-hard spirit of obsessive determination ensure that it delivers as much bang for your buck as those rattling drums of nitroglycerine. The big explosion, when it comes, is incredibly profound by virtue of the unusual approach that Clouzot takes to it - the whistling snatch of tobacco blown from a rolled cigarette and the breath-catching matter-of-factness of a driver's reactions when we all realise just who has gone up in smoke just seem to endorse the fatalistic outlook one must adopt in view of life's tinderbox fragility.

    The Wages Of Fear is a terrific film, although I would not say that it is perfect. Despite a rewarding insistence on ignoring the era's conventions, Clouzot still announces his finale, quite literally, from a mile away and, although poetic, it still smacks of contrivance. It is the one thing that we totally expect to happen and the fact that it does seems, to me at least, a little disappointing. Already poorly remade as 1977's Sorceror by William Friedkin, and starring Roy Scheider, you can easily imagine another take on the premise being mounted. But you just know that it would feature the likes of Jason Statham, Mark Wahlberg and Vin Diesel, don't you? Best to stick with the volatile pressure-cooker atmosphere of the original. With this, you feel like you've crawled over those three-hundred miles, as well.


    The Rundown

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