The Wages of Fear (La Salaire de la peur)

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot & Jérome Geronimi (based on the novel by Georges Arnaud)
Stars: Yves Montand (Mario), Charles Vanel (Jo), Peter van Eyck (Bimba), Antonio Centa (Camp Chief), Luis De Lima (Bernardo), Jo Dest (Smerloff), Darío Moreno (Hernandez), William Tubbs (Bill O'Brien), Véra Clouzot (Linda Clouzot), Folco Lulli (Luigi)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1953
Country: France / Italy
The Wages of Fear Criterion Collection DVD
The Wages of FearHenri-Georges Clouzot’s existential suspense classic The Wages of Fear (La Salaire de la peur) opens in Las Piedres, a village in a poor, unnamed country somewhere in the heart of South America. It is a lost, dilapidated place of nearly suffocating heat where naked children play in the street and men sit around listlessly, waiting for some kind of escape. It is a place where desperate people come to escape their various pasts, and we get the sense that, having found escape, they now have no place to go.

The opening passages of The Wages of Fear are lengthy and slowly placed, as Clouzot uses them to establish his main characters, as well as a sense of time grinding along at a pace that would drive most people crazy. The film has been criticized for the slowness of these opening scenes, which take up nearly an hour of the running time, but they are crucial in showing why the characters do what they do and are willing to take extraordinary risks--to, in essence, establish a price for their own lives.

The two main characters are Mario (Yves Montand), who has been in the village for a long time, and Jo (Charles Vanel), who arrives in a fancy suit with just enough money to bribe his way past the authorities at the tiny airport and not much else. Along with two other men, they accept a job from an American oil company to drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerin 300 miles along rough roads. It’s extremely dangerous work, as the slightest bump is enough to set off the explosives, and the fact that they are willing to take it on speaks to their sense of desperation. There is, simply put, no other way out (and the fact that so many men apply for the job speaks to just how many desperate men are hiding in this village).

The Wages of Fear was originally censored when it was first released in the United States in 1955, two years after it won the Grand Prix at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. Much of the snipped footage had to do with the American Oil Company, which is here named the Southern Oil Company, but whose initials S.O.C. visually suggest the American giant Standard Oil. The men who run the company are depicted as having no compunction about using people to their own ends. They hire drivers from the village for the nitroglycerin run because they are not in a union and they have no family, thus there is no one to complain and sue if they should die. Clouzot’s film is clearly meant as an indictment of American big-business practices, where profit is put ahead of everything else. Sometimes, this leads Clouzot to some imagery that is a little too obvious, such as an S.O.C. Jeep careening down the village streets, splashing mud in the faces of its oppressed inhabitants.

Yet, the film is not so simple, as the men who accept the job are far from heroic. In fact, even though we know little about them, it is plainly clear that they are not “good” men in any sense of the word. In the early scenes, we witness Mario emotionally and physically abusing a local barmaid named Linda (Véra Clouzot), who is desperately in love with him. Jo is not much better, as he puts on a big show, but is really an underhanded scoundrel who is willing to exploit anyone and any situation to his benefit.

But, even in this sense, the film is not black and white, as the long truck drive through the back jungles and mountains of South America reveal different aspects of the characters. Mario develops into a genuine leader, one who does not hide his fear, but rather controls it. On the other hand, Jo exposes himself as a coward, someone who talks a good talk, but ultimately fails to back it up with his actions. His hardened exterior melts away with the growing tension, revealing a frail, weak old man who is so afraid to die that he is willing to return to his aimless life in the village without completing the mission.

The mission itself is the heart of The Wages of Fear, and the suspense Clouzot generates along the way is justifiably famous. The film’s production was notoriously difficult and drawn out by inclement weather, sickness, and accidents that pushed it way over budget. Compared to the computer-generated mayhem of modern action blockbusters, The Wages of Fear might seem almost antiquated to some viewers, but there is no denying that Clouzot perfectly intertwines narrative tension with character development. There are three major suspense sequences during the long trip, one in which the characters have to back their trucks along an unfinished, feeble wooden bridge that is constantly threatening to collapse, one in which they must use the nitro to blow up a large boulder that has fallen in the road, and one in which Mario and Jo must cross an ever-deepening pool of crude oil from a burst pipeline.

Each sequence is expertly shot and edited, drawing the maximum amount of tension from the situation while also revealing more and more layers of the characters. In this sense, The Wages of Fear is a genuine masterpiece, one that makes so many of today’s mindless action extravaganzas look all the more shallow.

The Wages of Fear Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Video interview with assistant director Michel Romanoff
  • Video interview with Clouzot biographer Marc Godin
  • Video interview with actor Yves Montand
  • Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyant 2004 documentary
  • Analysis of the cuts made to the film for the 1955 U.S. release
  • 24-page insert booklet with liner notes by novelist Dennis Lehane and reprinted compliation of interviews with cast and crew members
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 25, 2005

    The Wages of Fear was one of Criterion’s earliest DVD releases, way back in 1998. And, while that transfer was by no means bad, it has certainly been improved upon in this new release. Considering that both transfers came from similar sources (the 1998 transfer came from a 35mm fine-grain composite master, while the 2005 transfer comes from a 35mm fine-grain master), the difference comes down to improvement in technology and the fact that the new transfer is high-definition. The first thing one notices when comparing the two is how much brighter, and therefore more detailed, the new transfer is. Whereas the 1998 image is slightly dark, which muddies out finer detail, the new transfer is much clearer, allowing the smallest visual nuances to be seen. There is minimal damage, and the MTI Digital Restoration System has removed virtually all instances of dirt and debris. The range of grays is excellent, giving the image a strong, filmlike appearance.

    The original monaural soundtrack, taken from a 35mm magnetic track, is strong throughout. Except for the credits, there is no extradiegetic music anywhere in the film, so the soundtrack is restricted to dialogue and sound effects. While limited in comparison to the multitrack soundscapes of today’s action films, The Wages of Fear’s use of sound effects--from the sound of tires spinning out, to a distant explosion--is integral to the suspense.

    The other big difference between the 1998 release and the new 2005 release is that, whereas the former was bare-bones, the latter is a two-disc affair. The film takes up all of the first disc, while the second disc is given over to new and old interviews, a feature-length documentary, and an analysis of the various cuts made to the film for its 1955 U.S. theatrical release. The two new interviews on the disc are of assistant director Michel Romanoff and Clouzot biographer Marc Godin. There is also a 1988 interview with actor Yves Montaud. The 2004 documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant (which runs about 53 minutes) is a must-see for anyone interested in this great filmmaker’s extraordinary career.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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