The Wages of Fear
February 10, 2006
When The Wages of Fear (1953) was released in the United States in 1955, almost 50 minutes of footage was removed because censors deemed them to be “anti-American.” The film’s director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, was known for his pessimistic worldview and his film was definitely critical of American multinational corporations and their effect on the rest of the world. It wasn’t until 1991 that U.S. audiences could finally see The Wages of Fear as it was meant to be seen and this is the version that Criterion has lovingly restored for this DVD.
Four men are hired by the Southern Oil Company, a large American-owned multinational, to drive two trucks of nitroglycerin 300 miles across treacherous terrain to put out an oil fire raging on the other side of a mountain. The company has been systematically stripping the land of its precious resources. The men live in a small, desolate town that lies in the shadow of the oil company. Everyone is dirt poor and life is harsh. The men are lazy except when it comes to avoiding work at which they excel.
We never find out what brought the four doomed protagonists of the story here but in Dennis Lehane’s essay, included in the accompanying booklet, he observes, “we know it must have been sins of a particularly unforgivable nature, because no one opts to live in hell unless the alternative is demonstrably worse.” As Mario (Montand), one of the four men says at one point, “It’s like prison here. Easy to get in. ‘Make yourself at home.’ But there’s no way out.” They are strapped for cash with no prospects. In other words, they have nothing left to lose and therefore prime candidates for this dangerous job.
Clouzot spends the first hour establishing the world that these characters inhabit and the relationships between each other. He also does a fantastic job of establishing the political climate of the area. A group of locals gather to protest the oil fire because it is always their people who are killed and never the Americans who run it. When a truck shows up with the wounded and dead it is mobbed by the locals. Chaos ensues as distraught relatives frantically search for loved ones.
The crass, uncaring company is represented by O’Brien (Tubbs) who hires the four men because they aren’t affiliated with any unions nor have any families – they are expendable. He doesn’t care about the workers or what happens to them. He only cares about making money. Clouzet backs this up with unforgettable imagery like a shot of the oil fire, smoke billowing out of control in the background, with the natives looking on in the foreground.
Once the men accept the job, Clouzet gradually cranks up the tension. Just watching the loading of the nitro onto the trucks is a nerve-wracking experience. En route to their destination each bump, each puddle in the road must be navigated with the utmost care. Clouzet conveys tension through the expressions on the men’s faces: the anguished looks, the sweat rolling down their faces and the fear in their eyes. A near collision is a heart-stopping event and each wooden plan on a rickety old platform is cause for concern and trepidation. We care about what happens to these men because we have spent so much time with them. Initially, they are generally unlikable but once they are on the road and forced to work together in order to stay alive, we sympathize with their plight.
The ending of Wages of Fear anticipates the nihilistic cinema of the ‘70s and one can see why William Friedkin wanted to remake it into Sorcerer (1977). Clouzet created a masterful thriller that shows just how much one can accomplish without CGI – all you need is actors with expressive faces, the chops to become their characters and the ability to make us believe what they’re going through. This dangerous journey strips these men down to their cores, to the most basic level. They face life and death situations and see each other at their best and worse possible moments. We really come to care for these guys and it’s all due to casting and the strong story that draws one in.
There is an interview with “Michael Romanoff” the film’s assistant director. He talks about what it was like to work Clouzot and on the film itself. Romanoff was only 27 years old and Clouzot worked hard and rarely slept. The tough shoot mirrored the journey that the four men make in the movie. Romanoff discusses the casting and how Montand rehearsed until he forgot his musical background because it wasn’t believable for the role.
Also included is an interview Clouzot biographer Marc Godin. He gives a brief sketch of Clouzot’s career and reputation leading up to The Wages of Fear. Collaborators describe him as a short-tempered, angry man. Godin describes Clouzot as a Formalist and discusses some of the filmmaker’s thematic preoccupations.
There is an interview with “Yves Montand” that was done for French television in 1988. At the time of Wages of Fear he had quit movies but Clouzot coaxed him back with a role in the movie. Montand was attracted to good stories and this is what ultimately drew him to Clouzot’s film.
“Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant” is a 52 minute retrospective of the filmmaker’s life and career. He is described as a manipulator that got what he wanted from people for his movies. The documentary shows how his personal life and experiences informed his work. Friends, family and collaborators talk about Clouzot in this excellent doc.
“Censored” takes a look at the cuts made to the U.S. version released in 1955 through a series of text screen and clips. Almost 50 minutes was cut out for what was perceived at the time as “anti-American” statements, mostly footage in the first half of the movie with the portrayal of company man O’Brien and showing the dirt poor living conditions of the natives.