07 August 2007

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Written and Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Grade: A

At its outset, Clouzot's Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur) plays out like a Howard Hawks fraternity play set against a sweltering Tennessee Williams backdrop. Set in an unnamed South American village, and shot on palpable location, the film opens with a symbolic shot of tethered, scrambling beetles, whose anthropomorphic counterparts are soon introduced: a swarm of pan-Euro expats stuck in the sticks, broke, desperate for work and baking to death in the equatorial sun.

Clouzot displays his mastery in his immense patience, spending the first hour soaking in the local atmosphere and indulging in immersive characterization; it's the key to the film's success. Eventually, four of the men are chosen for what's essentially a suicide mission—moving a ton of nitroglycerin down unpaved roads in unprotected trucks. The mere sound of a revving engine suddenly assumes the gravity of a menacing portent, the aural representation of death. The Wages of Fear changes gears—fitting for a film about truck-driving—shedding its travelogous stylized verite, its South American romance, to become a tense roadtrip through the mountainous countryside, as the drivers confront one perilous and potentially fatal obstacle after another. "Think they pay you to drive?" asks Charles Vanel to his partner, Yves Montand. "They pay you to be terrified."

If an early sequence, a barroom brawl, evinces a master of form at work, it's simply a warm-up for the rest of the film, a crafted exercise in maintained suspense; as the trucks, packed with a bumper crop of ultra-sensitive explosive, lurch forward, the nails I'd spent weeks growing out were suddenly gone, spattered in pieces on my hardwood floors. The tension culminates in one climactic, spectacular and nearly unbearable sequence in which an obstructive boulder must be cleared from the road; it is slowly, carefully filled, drip by drip, with a bit of the volatile, "could explode at any moment" liquid explosive. Under the immense pressure of perpetually teetering on the edge of death, the characters begin to drastically transform: the stupid turn strong, the scared turn arrogant and the once tough tuck their tails.

While touching on age's effects on attitude—youth's hubristic false sense of invincibility vs. old age's cautious anxiety—The Wages of Fear, the ultimate truck driver picture, is primarily a general exemplification of how the rich take advantage of the poor, how they're happy to send them out on missions of certain death for their own personal, capital benefit. It works as a devastating allegory for war, among other things, with American oil companies cast as the central, callous villain, abusive towards native populations and exploitative of the desperate. The Wages of Fear hasn't lost an ounce of its whiteknuckleness, and the contemporary aptness of its politics make it seem downright prophetic, although the actual lesson to be learned is that oil company perfidy is nothing new; they have, for decades, been engaged in such disreputable pursuits.

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