The Wages of Fear (1953)

(original title: Le Salaire de la Peur)

As seen at Cambridge Film Festival 2017 in a newly-restored version.

This extraordinary French suspense drama will shock and startle a modern audience expecting vintage black and white cosiness. Its characters are nihilistic and politically-incorrect. They throw rocks at tethered dogs, talk about ‘boffing a black’ and swear a lot (‘putain’ and ‘merde’). The Wages of Fearstarts like an existentialist Western and recalls the opening scene of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Instead of scorpions, the camera lingers on cockroaches, harnessed together by thread – the playthings of a  naked boy, who pokes them with a stick.

We are in a crossroads shanty town of an unnamed South American country, with a motley crew of ‘tramps’ sitting around at the bar, wilting in the heat. It feels like a long way from Casablanca. There is no noble cause to fight here, only the struggle for work in this strange place where the American Sourthern Oil Company is king.

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So when the men are offered a job, four of them (including the pairing of Yves Montand and Charles Vanal) jump at the chance to earn $2,000. They have to drive two trucks of nitroglycerin along a 300 mile mountain pass to the site of an oil refinery fire so that the oil company can then blow up the pipeline and put out the blaze. But the mission is highly dangerous: their cargo is unstable and sensitive, liable to blow the drivers into minced morsels unless they are exceedingly careful.

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Writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) throws an assortment of obstacles in their way – rock falls, a river of oil, rickety bridges and hairpin bends, keeping the audience on tenterhooks. Being stuck with each other only fuels the characters’ distrust and dislike of one another, rather than foster team spirit. There is a tender scene in which Montand tries to keep a dying Vanal awake, naming the streets and shops of Paris where he grew up, but even this is undercut by nihilism: ‘what was behind the fence?’ puzzles Montand. ‘Nothing,’ replies Vanal. Then he dies.

An excellent craftsman, Clouzot was an acknowledged master of suspense, a sort of French Hitchcock, but unlike the latter, totally lacking in humour. He was a meticulous worker, planning every film shot long before production actually began. He also had a reputation as a tyrant on the set, often working his actors and technicians to the point of exhaustion until he got what he considered perfect results.

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The Wages of Fear was critically hailed upon its original release and is is unique in that it won both the Golden Bear and the Palme d’Or. It was also a hit with the public. Leslie Halliwell wrote in his Filmgoers Companion: the film “showed that France could make a big commercial thriller as well as anybody, and very nearly forced acceptance of continental movies in British cinemas: it was given a full circuit release, sub-titles and all, but not enough others in a similar category came along to make foreign films a habit, and dubbing finally won the day.”

In 1982, Pauline Kael called The Wages of Fear “an existential thriller—the most original and shocking French melodrama of the 50s. … When you can be blown up at any moment only a fool believes that character determines fate. … If this isn’t a parable of man’s position in the modern world, it’s at least an illustration of it. … The violence … is used to force a vision of human existence.”

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