Le salaire de la peur [The Wages of Fear]

Le salaire de la peur [The Wages of Fear] (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953).

Véra Clouzot.

Charles Vanel.

From the first frame, for just about every second of footage, Clouzot's The Wages of Fear realizes the potential of narrative cinema at least as powerfully as any other examples I can call to mind, and I'm trying very hard to resist the temptation to say that it surpasses them. Does it have flaws? Yes, of course, both technical and moral. But they are flaws that one can read like the illogicalities of myth, or the stylistic aporiae of classical tragedy.

Four men must drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerine through 300 miles of treacherous South American terrain. A pretty basic premise, with its existential power virtually built in. The men are fugitives and castouts, removed from the contexts that would allow us to identify them as "sympathetic" or "unlikeable": they are the perfect noir protagonists, their civilized codes and sensibilities stripped away to make space for subtler, instinctual drives that have their own ethical dimensions. Neither they nor the audience know what these dimensions are until the moments of their realization, and the suspense lies as much in this as in the bumpy roads and rickety bridges (and there's plenty there to begin with).

There are three main classes of persons around whom the action circulates: the transient, largely European expatriates who find odd jobs and crooked deals where they can, spending the rest of their time drinking and loafing in the cantina; the American oil company that has come in to rip up the earth and exploit cheap labor; and the impoverished locals and indigenous peoples who get variously swept up (or trampled) in the influx. There are no heroes, and the only clear villain is a kind of generalized greed, manifested most frighteningly in the callous policies of the Americans, but supported at all levels by the meanest small-time players. The indigenous tribespeople and poor villagers are portrayed as naked, innocent, childlike--a treatment that skirts condescension by its insistence on a raw, presentational realism.

The 2005 Criterion DVD edition restores the film's original ending, which apparently was radically edited in the only version seen by many for years.

1 comment:

girish said...

Good to know about the Criterion dvd restoring the ending. I have friends who think well of the Friedkin remake (SORCERER) with Roy Scheider but since the dvd is full-frame, I've held off watching it.