Conventional ideas about courage are blown apart in The Wages of Fear (La salaire de la peur), an existential thriller directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) that places man in a tense battle with his environment, his machinery and with himself.
A group of men are stuck in an isolated town called Las Piedras somewhere in Latin America. There are no trains and no highways out. The airport is close by but no one can afford the fare. Escape is always just out of reach. As the Corsican, Mario (Yves Montand, in his first dramatic role) notes, while standing beside an open grave, ‘It’s like prison here. Easy to get in … But no exit. If you stay, you croak.’ Most die of hunger while they lose the will to live. Men from all over the world, congregated here, in a place not dissimilar to hell.
The Wages of Fear has a startling opening scene – a close-up on cockroaches tied together and tortured by a half-naked child, battling each other in the dirt (a similar scene opens Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, 1969). The child turns his attentions to an ice vendor and a vulture swoops in. Clouzot establishes one of the narrative’s key ideas here of the harm men do to others when greed takes over. This is a man’s world – the film’s one female character, Linda (Vera Clouzot), Mario’s crudely discarded lover, is treated like a slave by her boss at the tavern, where she works and seems to provide other services too. Another character declares, ‘Women are a waste of time,’ and in the universe of the film, they are also disposable.
Clouzot’s film, adapted by he and Jérome Geronimi from Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel, La Salaire de la Peur, is built around human desperation. The Southern Oil Company (SOC) – one of the few employers in town – operates the nearby oil fields. As Mario observes, ‘Wherever there’s oil, there’s Americans.’ The Americans have plundered the land, exploiting its resources and its people. Soon enough this imperialistic tragedy is magnified by a fire at one of the oil fields in which several local men die. And then an advertisement appears: ‘Experienced drivers required for dangerous work.’
Many of the town’s itinerant men, including Mario, are lured by the promise of cash – $2000 a piece – to complete a high-risk job. Four men are needed to transport two trucks carrying nitroglycerine through the jungle to the oil field to try and extinguish the out of control blaze.
The film’s opening sequences, establishing characters and place are reminiscent of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), starring Humphrey Bogart. Like the men in Huston’s film, the men in The Wages of Fear push themselves to their limits, but for what. Of the four men the SOC eventually hire, one can ask: Is there anything unique about them or are they just men who see no other way out; men with nothing to lose? Are their actions heroic?
Mario, an unlikable protagonist if ever there was one, has fond memories of Paris life around Pigalle. It seems he wants money to return to its pleasures of the flesh. Jo (Charles Vanel), a Frenchman, is an ex-gangster, with whom Mario quickly feels a strong bond. The Dutchman, Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), uses his experience with the Nazis as a touchstone for his current predicament; and the jovial Italian, Luigi (Folco Lulli), who has just discovered he is dying. We never learn what these men are doing in Las Piedras and we never will.
Clouzot presents a suicide mission – a 300-mile journey over treacherous terrain, rickety bridges, and always with that deadly cargo right behind them. Mario drives with Jo; Bimba with Luigi. The men, as the SOC foreman Bill O’Brien warns, are taking their lives into their own hands. If either truck overheats, the nitro can explode; if they hit even the slightest bump in the road, it might blow then too. And another man, Dick, has warned them:
‘You don’t know what fear is. But you’ll see. It’s catching. It’s catching like smallpox. And once you get it, it’s for life.’
The men’s journey through the jungle, sometimes at an excruciatingly slow pace, is a journey for each man into their own heart of darkness. Their courage and friendship is tested. Fear is with them at every turn, over every bump. They try to be brave, to behave as ‘men’ must, and to varying degrees succeed, except for Jo, who begins to feel the cold sickness of fear almost immediately and then sinks further and further into cowardice as the mission goes on. Each man has a ‘bomb on his tail’ as they race towards the money.
The Wages of Fear is distinct from Clouzot’s earlier films Le Corbeau (1943), Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Retour à la vie (1949) and the later terror classic Les Diaboliques (1955), for the extraordinary way it builds and sustains tension. The film is distinguished by three heartstopping sequences. One involves each truck having to make a turn so tight that they can only make it by backing all the way to the edge of a rotting bridge, suspended over the abyss. The second, and most intense, when an impasse appears in the road. A massive boulder has fallen from the mountains. Bimba and Luigi decide to blow it up and out of their way. Mario and Jo eventually catch up. What follows is almost unbearably tense, as Luigi creates a hole in the rock for Bimba to siphon some of the nitro into. He lights a fuse and the men run back. But worried that the explosion may trigger further rocks to fall, Luigi returns to extinguish it. The rock blows up, we don’t know if Luigi is okay. Throughout this sequence, and others, Clouzot launches a visceral assault on the viewer’s nervous system that is almost too much to take. The final nail-biter involves attempts to drive a truck through an expanding pool of oil. I’ll say no more than that.
The Wages of Fear is all oil and mud and washed out landscapes that look and smell hot. Armand Thirard’s cinematography is brilliant from the beginning, the scorching white light of the film’s opening third a perfect fit for the slowness of the narrative’s development. This is black and white photography that flattens out the landscape, giving it a tangible sundrenched appearance. When the ‘action’ starts, and the locations darken, the images take on an increasingly sinister and frightening aspect.
The Wages of Fear is an extremely unsentimental film. While performances from the four main men are all excellent, it’s a film in which we feel quite distant from each character. We are denied access to their subjectivity, their inner worlds. Yet these are not characters for which you feel nothing, it’s just that Clouzot seems to deny any responsibility for shaping what it is an audience might feel. Ambiguity is a powerful cinematic tool. When tragedy strikes it’s with a whimper not a bang – utterly unexpected and predictable both at once. Because of this it’s not simple to decide how to feel about it.
The men’s resolve is tested to the end. But it’s their physical courage, ultimately, that has been confirmed. There is little morality or moral courage on display. And by the film’s end, physical courage is also attendant on a certain amount of reckless stupidity. Whatever each man has risked has been purely out of self-interest; they have not behaved courageously or heroically on behalf of others or for the greater good. There is no heroism in death. As Jo concludes, fatalistically, in a bleak summation of the human condition, ultimately, ‘There’s nothing.’
The Wages of Fear screened as part of ACMI’s Samurai Cinema season..