The Wages of Fear
A film by Henri-Georges Clouzot
A film by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Year 1956; Runtime: 141 mins
19th May 2013; 5.45pm
Perks Mini Theater
One of cinema’s most revered thrillers, The Wages of Fear is the acknowledged masterpiece of the brilliant French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-77). Clouzot’s sixth film and the predecessor to his terror classic Diabolique, it was voted the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1953 and Best Film of 1954 by the British Film Academy.
The film's extended suspense sequences deserve a place among the great stretches of cinema. Desperate men, broke and stranded in a backwater of Latin America, sign up on a suicidal mission to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerin 300 miles down a hazardous road. They could be blown to pieces at any instant, and in the film's most famous scene Clouzot requires them to turn their trucks around on a rickety, half-finished timber platform high above a mountain gorge.
Their journey also requires them to use some of the nitroglycerin to blow up a massive boulder in the road, and at the end, after a pipeline ruptures, a truck has to pass through a pool of oil that seems to tar them with the ignominy of their task.
The movie is heart-stopping once the two trucks begin their torturous 300-mile journey to a blazing oil well. The cinematographer, Armand Thirard, pins each team of men into its claustrophobic truck cab, where every jolt and bump in the road causes them to wince, waiting for a death that, if it comes, will happen so suddenly they will never know it.
The journey, which comprises the second half of the film, is heartstopping. Georges Auric’s score and Armand Thirard’s cinematography, which dramatically opposes light and shadow, add to the tension. And Clouzot’s editing style “based on constant shocks,” punctuates the narrative perfectly. Consequently, as the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “You sit there waiting for the theater to explode.”
Like so many others, Clouzot found his chance to move from scriptwriting to directing during the Occupation, a time when there was a paucity of directors in France. His first effort, L'Assassin habite au 21, was a safe film. Its script followed two similar films he had written which had been well-received by audiences. These witty police dramas were exercises in style and cleverness, befitting the epoch. Le Corbeau, made the next year, was in contrast a shattering film, unquestionably hitting hard at the society of the war years.
In the mid-1950s when The Wages of Fear and Diabolique gave him a reputation as a French Hitchcock, interested in the mechanics of suspense. In France, however, these films, especially Diabolique, were seen as only well-made studio products. His 1960 La vérité, starring Brigitte Bardot, was designed to win him favor in the youth culture of the time, which was obsessed by New Wave life and movies. While the film outgrossed its New Wave competition, its cloyingly paternalistic style showed how far Clouzot was from the spontaneity of the New Wave. The cafe scenes in the film are insincere, and the inevitable indictment of society rings false.