Monday, May 20, 2024

The Wages Of Fear: A Nitro-Filled Retrospective

This should have been written last year to mark seventy years since its release, but even then, rewatching this all-time classic thriller stands out highly as one of the best films of the 1950s from any country. Henri-Georges Clouzot, France’s own Hitchcock, had made a solid career, up to this point, with his daring portraits of French society, despite his temporary suspension from filmmaking because he worked within the Nazi-occupied system. He had directed six films up to the time of making The Wages of Fear, marrying Brazilian actress Vera Gibson-Armando, who would become central to his career. It was on his return from Brazil when Clouzot was handed a newly published novel set in Latin America that would make him internationally renowned. 

In 1949, author Georges Arnaud published his novel, “The Wages of Fear, after his trip through South America exposed him to American oil companies in the area making their presence well-known while the towns nearby remained impoverished. It became a bestseller in France and Arnaud wanted Clouzot to make it into a movie, which he accepted. Clouzot was aware of the situation in which the wealth gap was widely noticed as governments neglected the social welfare of their poorest to allow Americans to reap in the profits. Serving as a way to provide social criticism to American policies, Clouzot agreed to take on the project.

While the film is set in an unnamed country (supposedly, it is either Venezuela or Guatemala), the film is primarily spoken in French with some scenes in Spanish and English. Reflecting that, Clouzot hired actors from different countries. Yves Montand, then a popular singer, was cast as Mario, the more masculine protagonist. Jean Gabin was offered the role of the cowardly Jo, but turned it down, so Charles Vanel, on a career downturn, was cast. German Peter van Eyck and Italian Folco Lulli were cast as Bimba and Luigi, respectively, and Vera was cast by her husband as Linda, the local girlfriend of Mario. For the American foreman, Clouzot went to William Tubbs, notable for playing American roles in Europe. 

Due to the concern of costs and Yves Montand’s refusal to shoot on location in Central America, sets were made in the south of France where its rocky terrain stood in for the treacherous drives. Yet, production during the shoot was troubled and costs ballooned, resulting in numerous delays. Weather-wise, it was cool during the shoot, making it harder to reflect the intensity of heat the setting called for, and an unusual amount of rain made transporting the trucks much more difficult. One rainstorm was so strong, a river was flooded, which killed two engineers from the French Army who were building a bridge for the movie. Extras in the fictional town, complaining of really low pay, refused to participate unless they were paid more. 

While the film struggled on, the story Clouzot sought to make took shape. The first act is all about these characters stuck in a town they went to find work in, only to find nothing and have no money to leave. So, they stand around and wait for a chance to make their escape anyhow. That opportunitycomes when an explosion at an oil rig forces the American foreman of the Southern Oil Company to hire non-unionized employees to try a suicide mission by driving two trucks full of nitroglycerine to the site. It is a highly volatile substance and driving through harsh terrain with it just feels like dancing on a highwire. One slight slip and it is goodbye. People sign up for it anyway as the money involved is their ticket out of hell.  

Mario, Bimba, and Luigi are hired, as well as a fourth person, but when that person doesn’t show up the night of the drive, Jo, who has been hanging around suspiciously, gets the job. In two trucks, the foursome begin their drive with the suspense already beginning. There is no score, which heightens the tension. Throughout the second act, these four find themselves waiting for their truck to explode with this dangerous substance behind them going through every roadblock on their way. There isn’t a wasted beat as the separate pairs go on through trials of nerves which just takes your breath away. Driving through a fast stretch of road and nearly colliding, crossing a rotten section of deck while making tight turns, and a large boulder in the way are just some of the obstacles that test them all.

When The Wages of Fear was released in Europe, it made Clouzot the biggest director in the world as it won the top prizes at Berlinale and Cannes, the only film to do so while it was allowed. Despite the costs, it was a box office hit that allowed the production to make a profit regardless. In the United States, however, the reviews were hostile. The anti-American elements such as the depiction of their obvious exploitation forced cuts to the film for release. One review of the film from Life Magazine called the film “one of the most evil ever made.” However, the great Bosley Crowther from The New York Times wrote, “The excitement derives entirely from the awareness of nitroglycerine and the gingerly, breathless handling of it. You sit there waiting for the theatre to explode.”

It would not be until 1991 when the fully restored version, as Clouzot intended, was shown in the U.S. William Friedkin directed a remake, Sorcerer, in 1977, but the original version remains the ultimate suspenseful picture that literally drives on the smallest bumps between salvation and damnation. It is a story about courage, desperation, and defying death with their machismo, all of which are tested. Into today, the influence of Wages of Fear remains seen all over suspenseful pictures but none can surpass Clouzot’s masterpiece. The fear of nitroglycerine under us seems real when driving any highway right after first watch.  

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