Picture the scene: a flea-bitten South American town where children walk unclothed through the rutted streets and vultures lazily watch them; where the airstrip is nothing but the hard baked earth, the airport a shed and the customs official gimlet-eyed and corrupt and wanting his kick-back from every new arrival; where expatriates sweat it out under an unforgiving sun as they wait for an opportunity to get the hell out of there; where the local bar provides the only social outlet and tempers threaten to flair into violence.
It’s here that Mario (Yves Montand) is killing time, arguing with the locals and enduring the clinging attentions of bar girl Linda (Véra Clouzot). Then fellow Parisian Jo (Charles Vanel), swish in his tropical suit and talking a tough line of macho BS, arrives. Mario and Jo strike up an immediate (and borderline homo-erotic) friendship. They drink together, bemoan their surroundings and start some shit with Luigi (Folco Lulli), an Italian who is perhaps the only sympathetic character in the whole film.
Jo has an ‘in’ with Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs), foreman at the Southern Oil Company plant just outside of town, an American outfit who are laying a pipeline across the country. Jo’s pleas for a cushy number and some easy money fall on deaf ears, however.
Then an oil fire blazes out of control at a rig miles away from the plant and O’Brien makes an on-the-spot executive decision at an emergency meeting: load up two trucks with a tonne of nitro-glycerine apiece, get non-union drivers (ie. ones who won’t be missed if they get blown to smithereens), send them across 300 miles of bad road (or at times no road) and hope that at least one truck arrives. (Take dynamite to a fire? you may ask. A conflagration as severe as an oil well fire can really only be extinguished one way: trigger an explosion that consumes the oxygen around the fire.)
So O’Brien puts the word out that he’s looking to hire four drivers, at $2000 a man, to take their lives into their own hands. See why it’s called ‘The Wages of Fear’?
The, ahem, lucky four are Mario and Jo in one truck, Luigi and German ex-fighter pilot Bimba (Peter van Eyck) in the other. Now, bear in the mind that this was a French production made just seven years after the end of the war. The Italian and the German remain calm and resolute as they encounter one pitfall on the road after another, while the two Frenchman prove themselves callous (Mario) and cowardly (Jo).
That said, it was the anti-American sentiment that generated the most controversy on the film’s release. The choice of Southern Oil as the name of the oil company didn’t go over too well with Standard Oil, and the depiction of American bosses as anti-union, indifferent to the indigenous workers who die in the fire and unconcerned as to the fate of Mario and co. led to about twenty minutes’ worth of cuts being made for its US release.
Which is harsh. This is, after all, an Henri-Georges Clouzot film – and for H.G. Clouzot, despair at the human condition went beyond mere matters of nationality. From ‘Le Corbeau’ (1943), a venal study of provincial jealousies and poison pen letters, to his last film ‘La Prisonnière’ (1968), an examination of voyeurism and sexual objectification, Clouzot painted portraits of nihilism on the blackest of canvases. There is, in his filmography, simply no hope. I mentioned that Luigi and Bimba stay calm and resolute in the face of adversity; more so than Mario and Jo, they’re the closest ‘The Wages of Fear’ has to heroes. Doesn’t prevent ’em from going up in flames though.
Oh, sorry. Should have put a “SPOILER ALERT” warning there. But like I said before, this is an H.G. Clouzot film – you didn’t expect a happy ending, did you?
There is a whole article to be written about why Clouzot was cinema’s master miserablist. His first films were produced by the Continental Film Company, a Goebbels-authorised propagandist production company operating in Nazi-occupied France, which essentially branded him a collaborator (even though ‘Le Corbeau’ can be read as a very subtle comment on life under occupation). Nevertheless, he was barred from film production after ‘Le Corbeau’ until 1947. He suffered ill-health throughout his life, including a four-year spell in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. He was a perfectionist who demanded the absolute from his cast and crew (on ‘The Wages of Fear’, Montand and Vanel contracted conjunctivitis after filming a scene that has them floundering in a pool of crude oil) that created tension and bad feeling on set. You could easily call him the French Kubrick … except that his continued fame owes much to his status as the French Hitchcock.
Gloomy old sod or no, Clouzot could create a scene of suspense second to none. Personally, I’d rank ‘The Wages of Fear’ as a more accomplished nerve-shredder than anything Hitch did. Four set-pieces in particular induce sphincter-tightening, knuckle-whitening, squirmy agitation every time I watch it: the drivers speeding up to 40mph to take a stretch of pot-holed road (any slower and the bumps and jolts would set off the nitro); a mountain pass with a bend so tight that navigating it necessitates backing onto a rickety wooden platform overhanging a sheer drop (you’ve heard the expression “cliffhanger”; this film makes it literal) – there are two trucks, so Clouzot puts you through the whole risky manoeuvre twice; a landslide blocking the road that sees Bimba utilise some of his cargo to blast the way clear; and a nasty bit of business involving a ruptured pipeline, a deepening pool of crude oil, a slip (again quite literally) on Jo’s part and a heartless decision on Mario’s.
And then, when it’s all over and the payload delivered, Clouzot signs off with barbed irony that’s both utterly inevitable and a slap in the face. I don’t think I can honestly say that I know of a film so bleak that manages to be so tense, exciting and, in places, even exhilarating. It makes ‘Ice Road Truckers’ look like a Sunday drive.