The Wages ofFear, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s famed French-Italian white-knuckle thriller was and is almost incomparable as an exercise in hair-raising. It is so well edited, choreographed, acted, and composed that one almost wishes to reduce it to the level of thriller alone (not that, with this skill, it would be “reducing” per-se). Yet Clouzot was not, nor was he ever, simply content to thrill. His scabrous films simply used the conventions of thriller cinema to chill to the bone, to indict and valuate, to scare, to hope, and to leave nothing in their wake. His 1953 work is absolutely one of the most thrilling films ever released, yet this does the texture of the piece a disservice. If it is Hitchcockian, and Hitch is the director Clouzot is almost always compared to, then it evokes Hitch on all his levels, not simply thrilling but tacitly provoking and confronting society’s very base construction and the nastier aspects of the human condition under a thin membrane of sharply composed set pieces.
At some level, however, that The Wages of Fear is so often reduced to a dark-hearted thriller perplexes more than with many other similar films from a man like Hitchcock, for Wages is unmistakably honest and open about its intentions. Hitch’s work was always sinister, sinuous, and diabolical, carefully weaving a tapestry around humanity’s worst fears and permeating our most crippling drives. Subtext boils to the surface in his films, but it is always fundamentally subtext. Clouzot was, for all his skill, not the serpentine snake that was Hitchcock, and subtext was not his game; he was not as comfortable with thematic nuance, and he was well aware of it. His films are filled with provocative commentary, but they approach us like bludgeoning, traumatic pestilence, so forceful and brash and unspeakable and unspoken for that they don’t quote Hitch with a clawing nerviness. Instead, they smash him wide own without an ounce of dead weight and with any flab boiled away in the destructive sun that would drive humanity insane.
Clouzot’s most famous film is so neatly divided into two distinct halves that it almost reeks of overly-precise artifice, but the bifurcated nature allows the film a more startling, engaged attack on the human soul and the corporate masters that drive us to take up their mantle of greed and dehumanization. Conventional wisdom says that, for a thriller, the slow-going first half is necessary for the second half’s fantasies to succeed – it develops the mood and creates texture for the characters as we come to see their tragedies and know what it means to them to have some minor hope of opportunity, no matter how dangerous. Here it serves another purpose as well. The first half builds up in a small South American village beset by poverty and always prey to an ambiguous but clearly oppressive American company looking for drivers to send giant boxes of nitroglycerine their way. Here, the film is quieted and almost neo-realist as it stores up an undeniable momentum. The village conditions are horrid and the American company is clearly there simply to destroy the land for their own benefit. Clouzot’s commentary is not nuanced in the traditional sense, but for the time, and still today, it exhibits a shocking forthrightness and caustic brutality about the distraught, destroyed conditions of neo-imperialism.
Conditions which undeniably serve to promote empathy with Clouzot’s four protagonists, and ultimately to bestow upon his film a small measure of humanist warmth to keep this dehumanization-and-existential-hate cocktail from spilling over into miserablism. Even still, his attitude toward the four men who will spend the second half of the film in a living hell not all that much more depressing (but much more exciting, rest assured) than the limbo they came from, is not per-se sympathetic. Clouzot doesn’t like them – he sees deep within their hearts, especially into his main man Mario (the irrepressible Yves Montand), and notices ambiguity when he doesn’t find greed and power-hunger. But he empathizes with them; he empathizes with Mario and his disgruntled hopelessness, his need to assert dominance on those he can when his impoverished surroundings dominate him so. He empathizes with Jo (Charles Vanel) and his aging desperation and desire to withdraw from and make amends for his past life. He empathizes with Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and his past sorrow, his loneliness, his quiet rage and silent fury. And he empathizes, perhaps most of all, with Luigi (Folco Lulli) and his earnest workaday spirit and existential crisis surrounding his own impending death by lung disease.
When Clouzot gathers these four men together, he throws them into a ride for their lives, tasking them with trucking two nitroglycerin-filled cars across a perilous mountainside from their home village to the American company’s oil well. This thrust will form the backbone of the narrative, and an opportunity for Clouzot to take his four men and menace them, provoke their fears and angers, and wait while they ride off to their doom. When this happens, so much work has been done to build up the men as characters and to understand the desperation of their situation that the film has less of an air of “thriller” than “moral parable with humans plucked out of society to expose their bare souls in interaction with each other”.
It is an absolutely grueling experience, a limbo where humans can die at any moment, through no fault of their own, and a work that at some fundamental level redraws and critiques the idea of a thriller in the Western world at its bare essentials. It is not for nothing that the fates of the characters have almost nothing to do with their success or failure in the obstacles they face; they come arbitrarily, without build-up, and with a sense of hopeless fact. The very base idea of a thriller is so often that our heroes need to best insurmountable odds, that their fate is determined by their skill. Clouzot is set on achieving perfection to this extent and then undercutting and critiquing all he achieves by positing that nothing these four men do, no matter how hard they try, really means anything in the grand scheme of things, and has little bearing on their lives. Thus, one of the most nihilisit commentaries on the state of the world under modern capitalism, and this world of four men in two trucks is without a doubt Clouzot’s version of the world we live in, is born unto this earth. At a level then, The Wages of Fear is less thriller than the most startling and committed anti-thriller ever filmed.
Except it is such, and I emphasize such, a phenomenal thriller at the raw level of structural mechanics, bolstered by a psychotic edge coming from the way the four humans’ personalities and worries are derived from the slightest ways in which they interact with the physical problems set up before them by Clouzot’s monomaniacal directorial hand. The film’s second half can technically be divided into four major set-pieces, but they unfold like a breathless rush of ruthless adrenaline. The best bit belongs in the history books, involving the four men in their two nitroglycerine filled trucks backing up onto a rickety, rotted platform in order to effectively overcome a treacherous turn along the mountain road. Clouzot allows the scene to breathe even as we are afforded no such opportunity. He takes his time, giving us every detail, most importantly the facial expressions of the four men and the sweat threatening to take over what once was face. It’s downright interminable, a masterclass in editing and framing mechanics. It’s not filmmaking we watch and digest; it’s filmmaking that happens in front of us, and we can do nothing about it.
Clouzot affords us no respite – he establishes only one-note and plays the hell out of it, and his visual and aural craftmasnship (he works a five-act opera out of the truck engines as they sputter, rev up, stall, and exert all manner of foreboding noises) is the centerpiece. This is a film of pure style, but the style is so ruthless and unforgiving we can’t hope to see this as a flaw. It’s a caustic horror show, a glum work of bitterness and frailty all wrapped in severity and misanthropy that doesn’t begin and end so much as exist in a state of inhumanity.
Within, Clouzot’s visual craftsmanship is less that of standout imagery than raw, efficient energy and ruthlessly tight filmmaking. He isn’t interested in memorable images that take on a new light outside the film of their origin – they all serve his immediate goal of being one small portion of a larger tapestry, connected via harsh, unforgiving edits that spew acid. One image stands out as one of the most horrifying of all film images – a shot of one of the men struggling to escape an oil-filled crater, covered in the liquid black nothingness American companies search out for wealth but which here squeezes him lifeless as another man tries to pull him up. The way the two flail around captures an unintended poetic animalism, with the tar-covered man appearing no longer human but monster, rising up out of the muck with gasping eyes as white as pearls realizing the glimmer of death amidst the eternal blackness of the oil covering his body.
This image is the penetrating capper to a film of raw, apocalyptic fury and pure craftsmanship, with a back 90 minutes a fully formed film on its own, perhaps one of the greatest ever. It’s tightly coiled, venomous madness with a confrontational critique of neo-imperialism to boot. The Wages of Fear may be the birth of the high-concept thriller, a film that stakes its claim on a premise realized by grueling, sadistic perfection and built up almost entirely to stand arm hairs on end. It is perhaps the genre’s modern birth. And it is likely, to this day, perhaps the most pure film ever made in the genre, and one of the best. That Clouzot is also busy alloying his film to one of the grand filmic genre-critiques, and that he so capably undercuts and challenges everything his film stands for right under our noses without us ever knowing until the gut punch of a final scene…well, that’s just the icing on the cake. A most caustic, acidic icing, ready to burn down the core of its base if the structural elements weren’t so sturdy. And with Clouzot, this delicate, corrosive trapeze act – thrilling and anti-thrilling in perfect harmony lest one tip over and the whole thing fall under with it – is the perfect analytic encapsulation of the literal and figurative balancing act the film’s characters live their lives by. It’s a film on the knife’s edge, and with Clouzot, would anyone have it any other way?