“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.”

– Dick in Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear)

The Wages of Fear is a 1953 French film noir-style road movie-cum-thriller, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring rising film star and singer Yves Montand, and based on a rather macho 1950 novel by Georges Arnaud. The film lifted Clouzot’s status from a rather shady figure of postwar French cinema, with some unresolved wartime connections (he worked for the German owned French studio Constellation) to a leading figure of late “classic” French Cinema – before the nouvelle vague broke and changed everything forever!

The Wages of Fear immediately attracted massive international attention and was widely influential: Violent Road (aka Hell’s Highway), directed by Howard W. Koch in 1958, and Sorcerer, directed by William Friedkin in 1977 (ironically, the year Clouzot died), were American sort-of remakes that utterly failed to reach the tense brilliance and visual muscle of the Clouzot original, a work that brought him international recognition, and immediately landed him the gig of directing his most successful thriller: Les Diaboliques (1955).

This place is a dump. The movie opens with a series of shots of a deadbeat South American town sweating in the deadly heat, clearly at the end of some road to nowhere. A small boy is toying with some tethered insects, a drunken fight breaks out, the scenes of mounting tension and casual brutality tighten the sense of a sweating stick of dynamite about to go off – which of course, it is. The scent of sweat is palpable, not unlike that found in the opening montage of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) a few years later. Slackers lounge around the local bar, working the occasional odd job, and the camera lazily moves in on Mario, a drifter played by Montand as a good time boy at the end of the line; charismatic, but a real burnt out case.

These manly street games are suddenly interrupted as a plane zooms low over the main street (a terrific shot in anyone’s cinema), before landing at the rundown airport on the edge of town. Down the rickety stairway swaggers Jo (Charles Vanel, soon to be the creepy cop in Les Diaboliques), apparently some big shot crim in an equally big Stetson, who strikes up a friendship with Mario. This is the central relationship of the movie – not the doomed love affair between Linda (played by Vera Clouzot in the only female role in the entire film) and and Mario – as this is above all a movie about the “things between men”.

Suddenly, there’s a real disaster as an oil well, owned by the big Yanqui company SOC, goes up in a fireball, killing and injuring numerous people. The oil bosses (in hindsight, perhaps a surrogate for the notorious United Fruit Company operating in South America at the time with CIA support) will pay big money for someone to drive in the highly unstable nitro-glycerine needed to snuff out the deadly roaring fire. Of course, Mario, Jo, and their fellow travellers (Peter Van Eyck as the Dutchman Bimba and Folco Lulli as the fridge shaped and homesick Italian Luigi) line up for the suicidal gig – the blazing well is about a day’s drive away over some of the most treacherous roads imaginable. The company wants two trucks to double the odds, and drivers with no family around to create problems or demand insurance payouts!

Now the film is really underway, segueing from sweltering village scenes to those of tightly ratcheted tension. In a series of brilliantly choreographed and filmed vignettes, Clouzot and his cinematographer, Armand Thirard, assume utter control of the mounting scenes of danger. Across the film, Mario and Jo gradually reverse roles, with the tough old crim losing his dominance and Mario growing in macho confidence as the odds against them mount exponentially at every twist of the increasingly deadly, crumbling roads.

The action scenes are as good as any shot until the digital age and the trucks themselves become characters, as did the old Leyland Badger in John Heyer’s marvellous documentary The Back of Beyond, released a year later (1954), and set in an equally hostile outback Australia.

One sequence sums up the power of this great film and is itself unforgettable – unless you blink and miss it. Jo rolls out a cigarette when suddenly the tobacco seems to fly off the paper. Why? The scene and its payoff is one of the great moments in cinema metaphor – and imagination.

As novelist Dennis Lehane (Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River) noted after first seeing the movie in 1991:

[N]othing could have prepared me for the seismic assault of it. Here is a film that stands alone as the purest exercise in cinematic tension ever carved into celluloid, a work of art so viscerally nerve-racking that one fears a misplaced whisper from the audience could cause the screen to explode.  (1)

Not that every critic and commentator, then and now, were without reservations as to the power and intent of the movie. In 1955 Time called it “a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made” (2) and others at the time charged that The Wages of Fear was virulently anti-American. As director Karel Reisz pointed out in a 1991 Film Comment article, the film is “anti-American”, but only insofar as it is “unselectively and impartially anti-everything” (3).

Clouzot is not only Alfred Hitchcock’s equal (in The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques) in creating atmosphere and tension but brings a swagger and brute virility to the mise en scène that few films in the history of cinema have equalled and Hitchcock himself certainly would never have even attempted!

Endnotes

  1. Dennis Lehane, “The  Wages of  Fear: No Exit”, essay included in the DVD booklet of The Wages of Fear, The Criterion Collection, New York, 2009.
  2. “The Wages of Fear”, Time 21 February 1955.
  3. Dan Yakir, “Clouzot: The Wages of Film”, Film Comment vol. 17, no. 6, November–December 1981, pp. 38–39. 

Le Salaire de la peur/The Wages of Fear (1953 France 131 mins)

Prod Co: Vera Films Prod: Raymond Borderie Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot Scr: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi, adapted from the novel Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud Phot: Armand Thirard Ed: Madeleine Gug, Henri Rust Art Dir: René Renoux Mus: Georges Auric

Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck, Folco Lulli, Véra Clouzot, William Tubbs

About The Author

Jonathan Dawson recently retired as Associate Professor in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Griffith University (Queensland) and is now Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. He has written and directed scores of films, television series and documentaries. He is also a major contributor to Ian Aitken’s The Encyclopaedia of Documentary Film, including the essay on Australian documentary cinema. Sadly, in the intervening years since writing this piece, the author has passed away.