The Wages of Fear is a masterpiece of suspense by director/co-writer Clouzot, which keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat with each bump and turn in the road. It is not hard to see why it won multiple awards, and why, even today, it features in many Top Ten best film lists. Not bad for a film made 65 years ago.
The film features four men driving volatile nitroglycerine across 300 miles of perilous terrain to extinguish an oil fire, on a mission that could kill them at any moment. It is starkly divided into two segments: the unusually lengthy preamble and the drive itself. In the first section, Clouzot stretches time so we get to know the downtrodden characters and their pitiless lives. It is a whole hour before the action-packed driving starts, but when it does, it becomes the catalyst to exchange disenchanted apathy for an intense rivalry, and relationships are tested by betrayal, sadism, and violence.
Across his work, Clouzot was preoccupied with the disintegration of moral, mental and physical integrity, and, like Hitchcock, his films are known for their suspense and exploration of murder. He spent five years in a sanatorium from 1935, read compulsively and observed a variety of illnesses. He was unable to fight in the war but watched impotently as his country was overtaken by Nazis. He seemed to be fascinated by the very edges of life, by characters under extreme duress. Tension builds from the opening shot, every scene raising the stakes. This idea of dissolution and subsequent disturbing re-assembling of a life finds common ground with several concurrent arts, such as with Picasso’s Cubism and the Brutalist architecture of Le Corbusier. In France, Existentialism was also gaining much ground, when intellectuals noted how fractured and futile life can be, and how remote they felt from themselves and their communities. Such themes play out in The Wages of Fear. Clouzot pushes the boundaries of relationships between people to breaking point, and documents how they become abusive.
The opening sequence alone is an object lesson in setting a tone of ingrained sadism. A half-clad boy in squalor uses lengths of cotton to torment and confuse cockroaches. An ices seller has a mangy dog tied to his cart on a too-short leash. An old man pelts rocks at the dog making her cry out in pain. A pot-holed track forms the makeshift street of a cobbled-together trading post in Butthole, South America: the middle of nowhere. The small, multicultural population has arrived from all across the world and are now tethered there, too poor to escape. Scruffy, downtrodden men sit around waiting for work, bickering. Without home and culture, alienation has set in until the normal structures and mores of their previous lives have drifted away, meaningless. Infrastructure is patchy. Supplies only come by charter plane and people live hand to mouth. Vultures look on, waiting for their soon-to-be prey to capitulate. Disease kills some; others starve. A man drops dead in the street. One character’s existentialist last words are “There’s nothing!” The world of the film shows us how alienated men without purpose become cruel and mercenary. They struggle to define themselves: they are not workers, they are not providers, husbands or fathers. Their lives are fractured and, echoing Sartre’s sentiments: their freedoms are a curse. Clouzot seems to examine the very nature of masculinity.
In survival mode, traditional relationships may become fluid. The film shows us homosocial partnerships that flirt with homosexuality. Mario (Montand) lives with Luigi (Lulli), an Italian who merrily completes domestic chores. In 1955 the New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther spoke of the “unspeakable perversion” between Luigi and Mario before the latter throws him over for an older man, Jo. Nowadays, they might merely be termed ‘metrosexual’.
Initially, Jo practically chest-beats his masculinity but after the drive starts, it becomes clear this is all for show and he becomes compromised. Charles Vanel was deservedly awarded Best Actor at Cannes for his compelling performance of a man whose faux machismo falls away piece by piece until he becomes the whipping boy of his former protégé. Jo was a role turned down both by French hardman actor, Jean Gabin, and by Picasso, both of whom were concerned about appearing weak. Mario is the standard, handsome lead but also just another man having to cope without his home comforts. He has a casual relationship with Linda (Vera Clouzot), but his affections change after the arrival of Jo. In an interesting sequence, it appears a seduction is being played out. When Jo first arrives in a battered 1920s taxi, people crowd around the well-dressed ‘big shot’. (He can’t be that much of a big shot, however: at the airport, one of his fellow passengers is a goat). Mario approaches, tracing his finger along the bonnet and looking at Jo coquettishly as both whistle. If we ignore the sound, they’re basically pouting at each other. Mario throws off Linda to spend time with Jo, who says women are a waste of time. Luigi is a family man without a family, making the best of his situation by creating a kind of domesticity with Mario. Bimba (Van Eyck) demonstrates a strong and determined masculinity. Aryan in appearance, he could be mistaken for a runaway Nazi, except we learn they previously imprisoned him.
In town, the majority male populace sits around, waiting to hear about jobs. There is no sense of personal drive; they seem impotent to change their fate. The miasma of cooped-up testosterone, defeat and barely concealed rage swills around the place, constantly threatening to overpower and choke. In one tragic sequence, a young man fails to find work. He hangs himself from a tree being used as a Catholic grotto to Mother Mary, just after writing a letter home to his own mother. That’s not just dark, that’s Clouzot dark: layered meanings, multifaceted pain.
On the drive, the set pieces are landmark moments that build on the tension of the first part. Uneven roads, perilous structures, and obstructions mean the men must team together – or not – to progress. The obstacles effectively draw out character. Clouzot shows us who is the bravest among the quartet, who will bond together and who will torture, who will support and who will betray as cracks appear in their relationships.
Why accept this suicide mission? The men have reasons based more on desperation than a desire to become a career truck driver. Firstly: the pay. They’ll get $2000 – about $18,000 today – a fortune to those who cannot pay a bar bill. The jackpot gives an indication of the level of risk and the fact that no legitimate employee on the books would accept the conditions. Competition among the “bums” in town is intense, however. It is intimated that one of the successful candidates has been injured or killed, in order that another can take his place. Money means to escape from purgatory. Like a doily covering a mantrap, there may be superficial niceties, but beneath is a ruthlessness arising from the self-hatred depicted in section one. At home, the majority of the men would be destined for modest small town ambitions of a secure job and a family. Out in the wilderness, the choices of brutalised men are dramatic and stark: kill or be killed.
The viewer is left in no doubt whom Clouzot blames for this. The US, as capitalist agents of business colonialism, have occupied a foreign land, built an oilfield and begun systematically removing wealth from the indigenous folk by taking oil and only employing westerners. With uniforms, armed police, and a company that looks like a military base, Clouzot’s message is clear: Americans will steal your wealth and kill with official sanction.
The US character O’Brien sums up this attitude when discussing an incident of what appears to be corporate manslaughter:
Put all the blame on the victims…I’ll attend to the reporters…the witnesses too.”
or his take on recruitment:
“There are plenty of tramps in town, … those bums don’t have any union, nor any family, and if they blow up nobody’ll come around bothering me…”
Unsurprisingly, the US release cut chunks from the film.
Although the film deserves its plaudits, aspects of it are problematic. Race and gender, and their intersection provoke the most questions.
People of colour only feature as incidental background players. In one gratuitous sequence, an African woman showers naked, and the accompanying feeling is that of the white colonial male gaze, pretending to be official documentary study, but in actuality, becoming aroused. It is here that the racist/sexist Venn diagram intersects. The diagram also contains Mario thinking about white pin-ups while having sex with African girls. Elsewhere in the film, people of colour sit on the floor while the whites have chairs, although agency isn’t explicit. During the driving segment, however, Clouzot films both a South American family in a roadside dwelling and tribes-people witnessing the oil fire. Both scenes have a documentary flavour that almost excludes the feeling of exploitation. Both seem to carry a similar message: that of indigenous people bearing witness but unable to prevent the destruction of their country.
The most developed female role is Linda, a white girl described as “half-savage” by Mario. She crawls across a wet stone floor to kiss his hand, happily receiving a pat on the head, like any family dog. In other sado-masochistic moments, she is threatened with being beaten and whipped by her employer and is routinely berated by others. Linda states she would prefer a beating from Mario. (I know: problematic). Worse: she is ordered upstairs by her manager to service his sexual needs, to which she deferentially replies, “Si, Señor.” Clouzot shows Linda as a victim of sexual and physical abuse. Lower on the ladder of power, and intellect, she is an easy target for broken men to attack. Clouzot was clearly in love with his wife though, and the sexualised moments are in soft focus, which, unless he’s glorifying sado-masochistic tendencies, blurs his intention. At one point, Assistant Director, Michel Romanoff had to advise him that he must clearly separate his roles of director and husband.
The film was made eight years after the war, but the long shadow of conflict spreads over the film. Indeed, Romanoff described the picture as “like a war campaign.” It is easy to see how people scattered from their own cultures, thrown together by international events, still carry deep wounds from life’s smaller battles and take it out on the less powerful in their microcosm: non-whites, women, and animals. It makes for disturbing viewing. Clouzot’s friend, Picasso said, “A work of art must make a man react… It must agitate him and shake him up.” Clouzot manages to pack the film with both victims and perpetrators of harm, and it is clear that war doesn’t end with a peace treaty.
I believe Clouzot meets Picasso’s criterion for art. Absorbing the full implications of this extraordinary and gruelling film leaves the viewer agitated at the more subtle yet enduring effects of conflict. The film is sharply divided into stark linear segments and is replete with unsparing elements designed to repel both character and viewer, as if shoved away, like outsiders. The Wages of Fear may be cinema’s first Brutalist-Existentialist film. In today’s western world of changing masculinities, it is still all too relevant and compelling.
This just in… Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump are working on a remake of The Wages of Fear, to be released 2019. The couple, who have previously collaborated on A Field in England, Free Fire, High Rise, Kill List… will re-work the original Arnaud novel rather than previous films. The film will be set in Africa and will feature some female leads.