Monday, April 11, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Wages of Fear / Le Salaire de la peur

After a decade as a screenwriter, Henri-Georges Clouzot rose to great acclaim as the "French Hitchcock" in the 1940's and 50's. If anything however, his ability to turn the screw in a taut thriller exceeded even the master himself. With film's such as Diabolique and today's flick of the day, The Wages of Fear, Clouzot established himself internationally as a director of thrillers par excellence. 
The film's plot centres on a small group of men who are stuck in a small town in South America for various reasons, a lack of funds being a central theme. The town is a desolate strip in the middle of a barren desert, its only real link to the outside world a small airport. The men cannot afford the airfare and don't have any documents if they could. They are stateless workers, lost in the desert. The only opportunity for employment in the town is to work for an American oil company, SOC who control the town, paying workers a pittance and taking the law into its own hands if necessary. The first half of the film examines the men's daily struggles, largely taking place in the cantina where they spend their days. The four main protagonists are Mario, a Corsican and Jo a fellow Frenchman who together bond over their love of Paris. There is also Bimba, a quiet intense Dutchman and Luigi, a happy go lucky Italian with a strong work ethic. Before long, news reaches the town of a massive fire at one of the oil wells in the desert. The only way to put the fire out is to use nitroglycerine, itself highly explosive. SOC needs four men to transport it across the decidedly treacherous roads as it is considered too dangerous for their employees. Lured by the offer of $2,000 per man, the stateless souls fight to take on the job. So the four men set off into the wilderness. Two trucks packed with nitroglycerine. As the miles pass, the tension mounts, with each twist and turn they risk certain debt.
The film is worth seeing for the extended transport sequence alone. It is so tense, you sit on the edge of your seat, awaiting an explosion to take them all away. Clouzot has filled in the audience on the background of each of the characters, and why they are in the desert, meaning there is a genuine interest in their fate. It is one of the great sequences in cinema. 

"When I was a kid, I used to see men go off on this kind of jobs... and not come back. When they did, they were wrecks. Their hair had turned white and their hands were shaking like palsy! You don't know what fear is. But you'll see. It's catching, it's catching like small pox! And once you get it, it's for life! So long, boys, and good luck."

The oil company are portrayed as the worst kind of American imperialists and this led to a number of scenes being cut from the American release after accusations of anti-Americanism. Something not unfamiliar to Gaullist France. The American's are anti-union and only hire the "bums" as "those bums don't have any union, nor any families. And if they blow up, nobody'll come around bothering me for any contribution".
The film was remade in 1977 by the New-Hollywood wunderkind, William Friedkin, as Sorcerer. The film was a flop for one very obvious reason, it's rather glaringly inappropriate title. Fans of Friedkin's The Exorcist were undoubtedly disappointed not to find a single Sorcerer on display. The original is by far the better of the two film's, anchored by a fine performance from Yves Montand. Is there anybody more quintessentially French then Yves Montand?
One of the best film's to come out of France in the 1950's and possibly Clouzot's best work, it sets the scene with its opening half before heading for a thrilling finale. It is well worth a look.

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