In one of the most nerve-racking thrillers ever made, Henry-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear is like a full frontal assault on a viewers senses with its heart pounding suspense and unrelenting tension. Four men drive two trucks of nitroglycerin three hundred miles across a hellish landscape full of potholes, rock-stewn passes, rickety bridges and dangerously tight turns to put out an oil fire that is raging on the other side of the mountain. Any slight shake or rattle could detonate the nitroglycerin and kill everyone near its blast. The director Henri-Georges Clouzot has been labeled as 'The French Hitchcock' and his style of films have been considered some of the most thrilling and scariest films of the French cinema. Clouzot's style of film making was considered very highly controlled and it is said that a lot of people were scared to work with Clouzot because he was a tyrannical director who had a very short-temper on set, always demanding perfection. Tyrannical or not the director was a master craftsman of suspense and tension, and The Wages of Fear is considered one of the greatest thrillers ever made, with film critic Roger Ebert stating that The Wages of Fear's "extended suspense sequences deserve a place among the great stretches of cinema." The film stands alone as the purest exercise in cinematic tension ever carved into celluloid, a work of art so viscerally nerve-racking that one fears a misplaced whisper from the audience could cause the screen to explode. Clouzot's themes in The Wages of Fear are quite bleak on the primitive behavior of men, nature and society which is made brilliantly clear by the opening first frame. (Which is later appropriated once again in the opening of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch). The sequence opens to show several cockroaches tied together, as they are casually being tortured by half-naked children, on a muddy oily village in Las Piedras. A ice-vendor passes by, and so the children abandon the cockroaches to treats they can't afford, only to return to them, but a vulture has already taken its place. With a single stroke, Clouzot has already set in motion his primary theme—that the world is a primitive, cruel and animalistic place, and that men are constantly 'goal oriented', addicted in the quest to become heroic and adrenaline junkies, to competitively win gold or fortune no matter what the sacrifice is. Not only does The Wages of Fear brilliantly depict the primitive nature of arrogant macho mentality but it is also a savage commentary on greedy corporate imperialism, the rape of the land, the ridiculous folly of man, and how Americans exploit the use of poor foreign cultures. At the time of the films release, critics charged The Wages of Fear as being anti-American and Time magazine called the film, "a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made." Director Karel Reisz made a point in a 1991 article defending the film saying, "the film is anti-American, but only insofar as it is unselectively and impartially anti-everything."
In the opening shot of the film it shows several cockroaches tied together and slowly tortured by a half-naked child on an oily muddy street in Las Piedras. The child leaves for a moment to run up to an ice vendor and when realizes he can't afford what he wants he returns back to the cockroaches now getting eating by a vulture. This opening shot reminds me of Sam Peckinpah's opening of The Wild Bunch, in which it shows that the world is a cruel and harsh place.
The film centers on the fates of a handful of men who are stuck in a South American town saying, "Godforsaken land. Never thought I would be begging for work." The town, Las Piedras, is isolated due to the surrounding desert but it maintains contact with the outside world through a small airport. However, the airfare is beyond the means of the main characters (many of whom are also noncitizens without proper paperwork for work or travel). There is little opportunity for employment aside from the American corporation that dominates the town. The company, Southern Oil Company, called SOC, operates the nearby oil fields and owns a walled compound within the town. SOC is accused of unethical practices such as exploiting local workers and taking the law into its own hands.
The first half of the film develops the main characters by examining their daily struggles. Most of the action takes place in the town's cantina. Linda is a hard-working women who works at a bar scrubbing the floor, while Mario an optimistic French Corsican man flirts with her. Their boss Pepito bullies Linda and when Mario distracts Linda from doing her work him and several other unemployed people hanging around Pepito's business are kicked out with Pepito telling them, "I'm a citizen here, not a lousy foreigner! In the morning you can take a stroll down to immigration!"
A Frenchman and aging ex-gangster who ran bootleg named Jo arrives off a plane and bribes his way into Las Piedras and befriends Mario due to their common background of having lived in Paris. Jo realizes he is now stranded in town and asks Mario, "I'm dead broke. Anything doing here?" Mario takes Jo to the saloon where he works to meet his boss Pepito and when Pepito already knows Jo; Mario realizes Jo is a somewhat powerful man by reputation. The both of them become really close and Mario starts seeing him more than his girlfriend Linda as the two of them think of ways to make some easy cash to get out of town.
Mario tells Jo about being stuck in a dead-end town like Las Piedras and says, "it's like prison here. Easy to get in. 'Make yourself at home.' But there's no way out, and if you don't get out, you croak." When Jo asks around if there's an oil company in Las Piedras a man says that with Americans, "if there's oil around, they're not far behind." Bill O' Brien is the man in charge of the oil company S.O.C. and Jo knows him from his past. When he talks to Bill about a job Bill can't hire him because of his criminal background.
Mario's roommate named Luigi who is a jovial, hardworking individual is working to save enough to go home. He's jealous of the time Mario has been spending with Jo and doesn't like Jo because of Jo's tendency to want to come off as a tough bigshot. When Luigi heads to Pepito's bar to celebrate a job promotion Jo picks a fight with Luigi by humiliating him and pulling a gun out on him. He then gives Luigi the gun to see if Luigi has the guts to pull the trigger. Luigi gives him back the gun believing it's not worth it and leaves the bar with Jo yelling out, "A gun isn't enough. It takes guts."
The story takes a drastic turn when a massive fire abrupts at one of the SOC oil fields. It is reported that there are thirteen victims and three injured in the accident. O'Brien has a meeting with the safety commission on the accident when they arrive in Las Piedras. The SOC realize that the only means to extinguish the flames and cap the well is nitroglycerine. With short notice and lack of proper equipment, the only means of transportation are jerrycans placed in two large trucks. Due to the poor condition of the roads and the highly volatile nature of nitroglycerine, the job is considered too dangerous for the unionized SOC employees.
During the meeting O'Brien gets an idea and says to them, "There are plenty of tramps in town, all volunteers. I'm not worried...to get that bonus they will carry the entire charge on their backs. Those bums don't have any union, nor any families and if they blow up nobody will come around bothering me for any contribution." Even though the company knows the danger involved and that it could be a 50/50 chance of surviving they go ahead with O'Brien's plan and recruit truck drivers from the local community. The SOC announce the job openings to the villagers saying it is good pay and experience drivers sought apply at the SOC office. Despite the dangers, many of the locals volunteer, lured by the high pay which is 2,000 per driver. This is a fortune to them, and the money is seen by some as the only way out of their dead-end lives in Las Piedras.
Lines of people apply including Jo, Mario and Bimba who is an intense, quiet individual whose father was murdered by the Nazis, and who himself worked for three years in a salt mine. Luigi hears he is sick and has six months or a year to live because of a fatal lung disease, but applies without telling nobody. O'Brien gives a speech to the remaining men for the job saying, "it's a real tough job. I've got to get a ton of nitroglycerin to barrack 16." O'Brien then shows them the power of one little drop of nitroglycerin as it explodes in front of their eyes. He then says, "With a ton of that stuff under you, the slightest bump the slightest heat, you're a goner. Won't be enough left for you to even pick up. My trucks are ordinary trucks. No safety gadgets, no shock absorbers...nothing. You got to do it all with your arms and legs. You've been warned. Your taking your lives in your own hands."
One of the men that volunteered decides to back out after seeing the example saying, "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." Over hours of tests including driving an SOS truck the handpick drivers are Bimba, Luigi, Mario and a man named Smiroff who were the ones chosen. Jo doesn't get picked because O'Brien believes he is too old but O'Brien tells him in private, "If anyone backs out the job is yours".
Linda is furious that Mario took the job and believes it is too dangerous but Mario just coldly ignores her. The morning to leave all four of them arrive and get dressed in SOS uniforms and Bimba says, "even when they guillotine you, they dress you up first." Interestingly enough Smiroff doesn't show up and Jo instead arrives in his place. The other three drivers suspect that Jo murdered Smiroff in order to take his place. Mario has second thoughts and tells Jo that he thinks they made a big mistake because he is scared stiff but Jo reassures him and says, "Dont worry, Kid. I'll show you how it's done."
All four drivers walk outside and watch the nitroglycerin tanks being put inside the two trucks by several SOS workers in which one almost tripping while holding one of the tanks scares Bimba. When the nitroglycerin tanks are placed on the trucks the two teams which are Jo, Mario and Luigi, Bimba flip a coin to see what truck will go first because each truck needs thirty minutes separating them in order to limit potential casualties. Mario and Jo are the ones to go first but before leaving Jo makes sure the tires and lights are in good working condition before taking off. While slowly driving off Linda runs out and hops on the side of the truck begging Mario not to go saying, "Mario, my darling, why are you doing this?" Mario again coldly kicks her off onto the road.
The second half of the film is an extended action sequence focusing on the drive to the oil field as Jo and Mario are in one vehicle, and Luigi and Bimba are in the other. While going through the woods, Jo smells oil and believes it's the engine so they stop the truck to let the engine cool down after only going ten miles. They quickly move when they notice the second truck with Bimba and Luigi approaching not too far from behind. While driving Luigi and Bimba discuss women and loneliness. Luigi asks Bimba how old he is and Bimba says 100 saying, "Just takes a few months to get to be a hundred. If you're in the right place at the right time."
Jo on the other hand isn't feeling very well driving and decides to pull over once again with the other truck stopping not to far behind. Luigi believes Jo is not sick and is actually scared demanding for Jo and Mario to start moving so they can get on their way. Jo refuses so Luigi and Bimba decide to go ahead of them as they get back in and head off. Mario knowing the terrain describes to Jo how tough the terrain is going to be up ahead near the coral where you can't slow down because of concrete the Americans have recently laid there. Heading towards the coral Luigi and Bimba speed up to be able to get over it and are successful.
Not to far behind when Jo is told to speed up he doesn't and Mario starts getting angry yelling, "push it man! Press on the gas!" Jo cowards out by slowing down the truck and not being able to get past the coral while Mario yells, "Are you crazy? You blew it! Why didn't you go? What happened?" Jo says it was the engine which is why the car slowed down and so Mario checks the engine to see if that's the problem and when he doesn't see a problem Mario gets in and tries by backing up the truck to get enough speed. While this is happening Bimba and Luigi stop their truck to check the gas because of hearing an unusual noise and while Bimba is checking out the problem Luigi decides to make a signal on the road to alert Mario and Jo that they have stopped just in case they are speeding down the road behind them.
Meanwhile Mario speeds up to get over the rough corral not knowing that Luigi and Bimba are closely ahead pulled over on the road and not seeing the signal that Luigi laid out for them. When Bimba fixes the engine problem him and Luigi get back in the truck and slowly take off at the exact moment Mario arrives over the coral with them luckily not hitting one another. Luigi and Bimba realize they can't keep going when they notice a stretch of road called the washboard which is a construction barricade that forces them to teeter around a rotten unsturdy platform above a precipice.
They successfully get around it but one of the rotten boards collapses which will make it much more difficult for Mario and Jo to accomplish. When Jo and Mario arrive they see the marked spot that was collapsed in on the platform and Jo believes getting around that is impossible. "This is the end of the line for me," Jo says, "How do you expect to get by here? You can't fly over it. Lets go back...right now." Mario tells Jo, "There's 2,000 waiting. You should have thought of that before. I didn't beg to come. I told you I was scared. 'Dont worry, Kid. I'll show you how it's done.' Remember? Were going through. Now get back there and guide me."
Mario backs up the truck way to the far edge of the cliff onto the unstable platform with Jo guiding the truck from behind. When Mario thinks he knocked Jo off the edge of the cliff, he then sees Jo cowardly try to hide and escape by climbing up the mountain. Mario gets back in the truck and tries to steer his way off the slippery wooden platform and in an amazing scene of suspense he snags the tire out of a broken hole in the bridge and drives off before the unstable bridge collapses behind him. Mario, who is angry at Jo's cowardice doesn't stop to pick Jo up as Jo tries to run and jump on the truck. "Screw you,!" Mario says to him. Mario finally slows down and lets Jo on and they take off as Mario lets him know how he feels.
You low-down rat! You got the jitters. Mr. Big Shot's got the shakes. Some tough guy. A real Al Capone! You're scared stiff. You're a woman. Maybe you were a man once in my grandma's time. Now you play if safe and shoot a guy in the back cause you don't like risk. Cause I know what risk is."
"Cause I know what risk is. You just plunge ahead. You think you're invincible. You can't see 10 feel ahead of you. I see every pebble, every hole that could send us sky-high. I've died 50 times since last night. I can see the explosion up here. I see myself blown to bits. Cause I've got brains in my head!"
When Mario tells Jo to just quit on the job and leave Jo says he is going to stay because he needs the dough but Mario tells Jo that he is doing all the work. Mario then pulls over and orders Jo drive so he does at least some work towards the money they're working for. The next obstacle the four drivers run into is a big boulder on the road. Luigi and Bimba stop the truck when seeing the 50 ton large boulder from an earlier avalanche sitting in the middle of the road blocking their way. Luigi says, "This is too much. We're jinxed. Lousy rock! How'd you ever get here!"
Bimba has an idea to blow it up with some of the nitroglycerin that they are carrying with them on their truck. When Mario and Jo pull up they see what the other two are doing and Mario orders Jo to back up the two trucks for safety. "Ok. Now clear out" says Bimba not wanting to take any unnecessarily risks as he carefully pours the nitroglycerin through a leaf into a bottle and then lighting a fuse with a match. Bimba then runs to take cover but not before realizing that the trucks are not farther back enough just in case of falling debris. Luigi impulsively runs out to try to back up the trucks but it's too late as the fuse already ignites the nitroglycerin. The explosion occurs and luckily all the fallen degree misses the trucks and the tanks of nitroglycerin. Mario and Bimba thinking Luigi got killed in the sudden blast run out to see if he is OK. They are relieved to find him unharmed and the four of them get back in the two trucks and continue on their journey.
While Luigi and Bimba are driving ahead of the others Luigi tells Bimba how he is one of the bravest people he has seen. Bimba says, "ever work in a salt mine? The Nazi's gave me three years of it. I was half dead when I got out." Bimba starts shaving and when Luigi asks why Bimba is shaving Bimba says, "Before he was hanged my father asked to take a shower. It runs in the family. I've never come to the table without washing my hands. If I've gotta be a corpse, I want to be...presentable." While Mario and Jo are behind them Jo is rolling tobacco and in one of the most disturbing scenes in film, the tobacco lightly blows away as a bright white light flashes throughout the sky. Mario and Jo suddenly hear an explosion and see smoke in the distance realizing Luigi and Bimba have ignited the nitroglycerin and have died.
The two of them stop the truck, and Mario says, "no more Luigi." Jo says, "play with fire and you end up getting burned! It could have been us." Mario coldly reacts by saying, "forget it. They took a chance and lost. That's life." Jo can't believe Mario is reacting to his friend's death like that and angrily jumps out of the truck. Mario stops the truck and chases after Jo down by throwing a rock at him and then beating him down. "It might not be right, but I'm the strongest, so it buys me some time. Get up!" orders Mario. Jo asks why he is doing this to him and Mario says, "You still don't get it. I need your help. It's just you and me now. So your going to stick with me to the very end. Get back to the truck."
Mario and Jo arrive at the scene of the explosion only to find a large crater rapidly filling up with oil from a pipeline severed in the blast. Jo says, "I wonder what happened. We'll never know. I'm sure even they didn't know." Jo finds Bimba's cigarette holder and nothing else. Mario orders Jo to test the bottom of the pool of oil and clear anything in the way before he takes the truck across it. Jo exits the vehicle and helps Mario navigate the truck through the oil-filled crater. The truck, however, is in danger of becoming bogged down and during their frantic attempts to prevent the truck from getting stuck, Mario runs over Jo after Jo collapses into a pool of oil getting his leg crushed. Although the vehicle is ultimately freed from the muck, Jo is mortally wounded.
When the two get back on the main road Jo talks about how weak he feels and how he smells like rotting flesh as he tiredly lays his head on Mario's shoulder. Mario tells him to keep fighting because they are almost at the oil site. When Mario notices Jo slowly getting weaker he has him start talking about the area in Paris that they both have visited in the past. Mario describes a tobacco shop on the corner of a street in Paris that they both know of. Jo struggles to say, "In my time there was a fence there. I never knew what was beyond it." Mario tells him that there was nothing but an empty lot. During the night Jo is quietly sleeping until he wakes up and asks Mario about the fence again as his last word is, "There's nothing!" as he dies right before the two of them arrive at the oil site.
In the climax of the film, Mario and Jo arrive at the oil field, Mario and Jo are hailed as heroes, but Jo is dead and Mario collapses from exhaustion in front of the raging oil fire. Upon his recovery, Mario heads home in the same truck, now freed of its dangerous cargo. He collects double the wages following his friends deaths, and refuses the appointed chauffeur SOC offers by saying, "no thanks. When someone else is driving...I'm scared."
The final scene cuts between Mario jubilantly driving down a mountain road, and a party at the cantina back in town where Linda and Mario's friends eagerly await Mario's arrival. Mario swerves recklessly and intentionally, having cheated death so many times on the same road. He takes one corner too fast and plunges through the guardrail to his death below. At approximately the same moment Linda, dancing in the cantina, appears to faint.
I first saw Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece The Wages of Fear when the restored version was released in the U.S., in 1991. But my awareness of it began a bit earlier, when I was twelve and saw the unfortunate American remake, Sorcerer, which sent me investigating articles about the original and searching out what Clouzot films I could find: the grim, sublime Le corbeau (1943); the strangely touching police procedural Quai des Orfèvres (1947); the tingly, unforgettable Diabolique (1954). Throughout this process, The Wages of Fear was available on video only in truncated form, shorn of all political undertones that the U.S. distributor had deemed “anti-American” during the film’s original U.S. run, in 1955 (two years after the French premiere), so I held out for the unpillaged original.
Even so, nothing could have prepared me for the seismic assault of it. Here is a film that stands alone as the purest exercise in cinematic tension ever carved into celluloid, a work of art so viscerally nerve-racking that one fears a misplaced whisper from the audience could cause the screen to explode. As obsessively attentive as Clouzot is to the narrative spine of the story—four men drive two trucks of nitroglycerin three hundred miles across a hellish landscape of potholes, desiccated flora, rock-strewn passes, hairpin turns, and rickety bridges with crumbling beams to put out an oil fire raging on the other side of the mountain—he is just as savage in his commentary on corporate imperialism, American exploitation of foreign cultures, the rape of the land, and the ridiculous folly of man. Critics at the time charged that The Wages of Fear was virulently anti-American (Time magazine, in 1955, called it “a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made”), but this is missing the ravaged forest for the blighted trees. As director Karel Reisz pointed out in a 1991 Film Comment article, the film is “anti-American,” but only insofar as it is “unselectively and impartially anti-everything.”
I agree with Reisz about this impartiality—Clouzot’s camera may as well be the eyeball of a lizard, for all the emotion it shows the humans who enter its field of vision—but the charge of “anti-everything,” while certainly valid on a surface level, fails to take into account one of the basic tenets of cinematic humanism as employed by Clouzot and John Huston and Stanley Kubrick, among others: that by removing all hint of subjectivity from the point of view, one thus removes any stain of sentimentality. This erasure of sentiment does not cancel out empathy. In fact, in that very void, we, the viewer, are forced to decide what our capacity for empathy is. What remains in Clouzot’s chilly remove from his main characters is a fascinatingly odd mixture of contempt and love, one akin to that of a father who has closed off all outward displays of emotion for his children because he fears the heartbreak that could destroy him should anything tragic befall them.
“If I’ve gotta be a corpse, I want to be presentable.”
If so many of today’s “bleak chic” auteurs seem to have fashioned their dire worldviews by skimming Cliffs Notes of Friedrich Nietzsche while listening to Trent Reznor in well-appointed suburban basements, it’s important to note that Clouzot didn’t come by his pessimism in a vacuum. Clouzot’s career in film was just beginning when Germany invaded France, and one can’t help but imagine the effect it had on him to toil at his craft in a suddenly subjugated homeland, while all around him stood the worst aspects of human nature—not only the genocidal bloodlust of the Third Reich but also the soiled moral lassitude of the Vichy government and various everyday collaborationist Frenchmen.
It was in this atmosphere that Clouzot would make Le corbeau, a film that managed to outrage both the Nazis—under whose auspices it, like many other French films during the occupation, was made—and the French. The Nazis, apparently, were appalled by its bleakness and by its depiction of their behavior during the occupation. The French, similarly, found their representation (as provincial informers) offensive, and deemed the film collaborationist. After the war, it would be four years before the blacklisted Clouzot was allowed to direct again. With Le corbeau, however, he had managed to commit the artist’s most triumphant miscalculation: he had made a work so unsettling in its archetypal truths that it offended everyone. All sides assailed him and none would champion him. From that point on, Clouzot would consistently attack the hypocrisy built into every “decent” society, the moral bankruptcy disguised as moralism that is so often the grimy engine that chugs relentlessly underneath otherwise gleaming bodywork.
Plagued by shaky health that would force him off projects throughout his life, ostracized by some in French society who never forgave him for Le corbeau, and intimately associated with the identity crisis that plagued most of postwar Europe, Clouzot would bring to bear in all his subsequent films a uniquely ironic disappointment in man’s inability to fulfill his own potential. But it was never more extravagantly crystallized than in The Wages of Fear.
“It’s like prison here. Easy to get in. ‘Make yourself at home.’ But there’s no way out.”
When we enter the world of The Wages of Fear, we do so by way of an opening shot (later appropriated by Sam Peckinpah for the opening of The Wild Bunch) in which cockroaches are tied together and casually tortured by a half-naked child on an oily, muddy street in the oily, muddy village of Las Piedras. A flavored-ice vendor passes by, and the child abandons the cockroaches to covet treats he can’t afford. But still he has to look, to lust after the unattainable. Once the vendor passes, the child returns to the roaches, but a vulture has already taken his place. With a single stroke, Clouzot has set in motion his primary theme—that men are constantly searching the horizon to the detriment of all else in their immediate world. Men are “goal oriented,” addicted to the “quest,” itching for the “heroic” opportunity. Or so we tell ourselves. Clouzot says no. Men are wanderers. Adrenaline junkies. Mortally terrified of home and hearth.
How else to explain how our four “heroes” ended up in a hellhole like Las Piedras? They weren’t born there, and no one would live in Las Piedras by choice. While we’ll never discover what has driven them there, we know it must have been sins of a particularly unforgivable nature, because no one opts to live in hell unless the alternative is demonstrably worse. But since nothing is worse, the men have long since found reason to rue their decision and pine for escape. The four men are Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli), and Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), and Clouzot presents them as if the poverty and hopelessness of Las Piedras have already stripped them of many of the attributes Homo sapiens like to believe separate them from their simian forebears.
“Even when they guillotine you, they dress you up first.”
The four men are hired by the Southern Oil Company, a ruthless, American-owned multinational that has already laid waste to Las Piedras and, by extension, Central and South America. The company is personified by O’Brien (William Tubbs, reminding one of a puffier Lee J. Cobb), who hires the men for the suicide mission and makes a blustery speech about how they should be paid a top wage, even as one suspects that he assumes only two, at best, will survive. To co-workers who argue against hiring “bums” to do the job, O’Brien counters: “Those bums don’t have any union or any families.” When informed that the Safety Commission is coming to investigate the fire, he replies, “Put all the blame on the victims. They’re done for.” And yet even as one perceives Clouzot’s icy rage at the callousness of Western corporations (“If there’s oil around, they’re not far behind,” one character quips about the Americans in town), one can also feel his seething despair at the men who would willingly hand over their lives for such a pointless mission.
Mario, in particular, is an extremely dislikable protagonist. He treats his lover, Linda (the “perfect woman” in an emotionally stunted man-child’s fantasy, and played with knee-knocking sensuality by Clouzot’s wife, Véra, in all her dark-eyed, languid uncoiling), as if she were a dog, literally petting her on the head as she crawls to him on all fours in their first scene. Linda, it must be said, is a willing accomplice. She is all sexual supplicant to Mario, no matter how repeatedly she’s debased for her efforts, and is last seen lying prostrate, her eyes closed, awaiting the return of her lover.
Mario’s treatment of her, however, speaks to a man consumed with self-loathing, so much so that he is incapable of seeing that the sole good thing in his life, maybe in the entire history of it, kneels before him, willing, as Linda says, to rob for him, kill for him. That Mario rejects this so flatly speaks, as others have noted, to his repressed homosexual bond with Jo, but even more so to Clouzot’s mortification at the treasures men leave behind in order to pursue goals of far more dubious value.
The other men are depicted just as unsentimentally. Jo, a strutting, petty tyrant, attracts or repels all around him with his casual cruelty yet will later be revealed as the weakest of them all. Bimba, looking like a poster child for Hitler’s Aryan ideal, is so tightly wound and fatalistic that he’s expecting death before he even gets behind the wheel. And Luigi, ostensibly the warmest and most humane of the quartet, seems at best a holy fool, because even if he survives the trek, he’ll most likely die from diseased lungs, ravaged by exposure to cement during his tenure with the Southern Oil Company.
“You don’t know what fear is. But you’ll see. It’s catching. It’s catching like smallpox. And once you get it, it’s for life.”
The journey section of the film begins at the hour mark, and from that point on—for eighty-seven minutes of Homeric obstacles and knuckles so white you expect them to burst through the skin—it never relents. Each man who, as Jo puts it, rides with a “bomb on his tail” attempts to adapt to the never-ceasing thump of sheer terror as the trek begins with a full-out dash across the “washboard,” a road so ungainly, slick, and rutted that the only way to drive it without vibrations is at under six miles per hour or over forty; a turn so tight that to make it, they must back up onto what remains of a rotting bridge that hangs, as if by hope alone, over an abyss; and a gut-scouring set piece in which they must use some of the nitro to blow up a fifty-ton boulder in their path, and still make the fuse long enough to reach safety.
The entire journey, in fact, is a primer in what Clouzot and Alfred Hitch-cock understood above all others—and something I always felt that I, as a budding novelist, learned at their knees: that tension exists in the absence of shock, in the suggestion of dire possibility, as opposed to any presentation of calamity, which often ends up looking rather pedestrian. After the boulder, there is a pool of oil to drive through, in which Mario, determined not to get stuck, purposefully crushes the leg of Jo, who is guiding him . . . and still gets stuck. As each crisis is averted, the toll on the men’s nerves (particularly Jo’s) grows worse. It’s a refreshingly authentic concept—that exposure to terror does not make one less fearful, as most heroic films purport, but more so. You can’t conquer fear, only temporarily elude it. So each encounter represents merely another wink from Death. But the four men know all too well that Death, sooner or later, will open his eyes.
“Mario, my darling, why are you doing this?”
A film in which one character dies saying, “There’s nothing!” is bound to be attacked (as this one was and continues to be) for being both misanthropic and atheistic, but I’ve never felt that Clouzot was saying, “This is the world,” but rather, “This is the world we’ve made.” (A vision that condemns what man is, in despair over what man could be, is, perversely, a hopeful one.) It was we, after all, who helped make a world in which men risk all for the simple need to do so, are willing to lose all because it confirms their self-defeating interpretations of “fate,” destroy all because all is, well, destroyable. These men are, one can’t help feeling with a tragic sense of waste, children—torturing bugs to kill time while they wait for the vendor to come hawk delicacies they can never afford to purchase.
Henry-Georges Clouzot's themes in The Wages of Fear are quite clear and also very bleak on human nature and society. Men are 'goal oriented' and are addicted in the quest to become heroic and win gold or fortune no matter what the sacrifice is. It never is explained how the four main characters ending up in a dead-end town like Les Piedras but they must have committed unforgivable crimes to end up at a place like that. Besides Luigi who seems like the most humane character, the four men are unlikable and dirty. Mario for instance treats his girlfriend Linda like a dog who will do anything he commands. Even in the beginning of the film Linda is on all fours like an animal cleaning the floors of the saloon flirting with her lover.
Linda lets Mario talk down to her, ignore her and toss her aside like an object. Mario even rejects a night out with her just to spend time with his new friend Jo and has no idea that the one thing in his life that truly loves him is already in front of him. Jo is a petty tyrant who tries to pull of this tough guy image and yet is later revealed to be a coward and a weakling. He is tough enough to shoot a man in the back with a pistol but when it comes to working with others to get through a life and death situation; he wimps out. Bimba is a tragic victim of the holocaust and is so disconnected with others believing death is there before he even gets behind the wheel. And even though Luigi is the one of the four that you can truly relate to because of his humor and kindness, even if he survived the journey he will most likely die from a lung disease anyways.
One of the most underrated French directors, Clouzot has been known mostly for his suspense thrillers. Like The Wages of Fear his other masterpiece is Diabolique which is a story about a wife and mistress who commit the perfect murder but after the murder is committed, the body disappears, and strange events begin to plague the two women. Diabolique is considered one of the greatest horror films and the one film that Alfred Hitchcock truly admires. Even Le Corbeau: The Raven was a well made thriller about a French village doctor who becomes a target of a man sending him poison-pen letters which are accusing him of practicing abortions; which was also a film that managed to outrage the Nazi's.
Unfortunately Clouzot’s position in the French film industry after the mid fifties seemed to change dramatically and well established directors found themselves loosing their footing by younger, reckless and more experimental filmmakers who were colleagues at Cahiers du cinema which included Frances Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette who were against the trend of the older directors and their styles. They were trying something different and didn’t resort to the old way of French filmmaking like Clouzot did which was considered more safe, respectable material, such as adaptations of classic French literature, and where Clouzot’s way of film making was considered very highly controlled. A lot of people were scared to work with Clouzot because it was always rumored that he was a tyrannical director who always wanted complete obedience and perfection and was said to have a very short-temper on the set of his films.
With the great success of The Wages of Fear, Clouzot reached international fame, and was able to direct his next masterpiece Diabolique. The Wages of Fear also inspired two remakes titled Violent Road and Sorcerer, which are greatly inferior American remakes of Clouzot's masterpiece. The Wages of Fear was critically hailed upon its original release with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times writing "The excitement derives entirely from the awareness of nitroglycerine and the gingerly, breathless handling of it. You sit there waiting for the theatre to explode." The film was also a hit with the public gaining 6,944,306 Admissions in France where it was the 4th highest earning film of the year. In 1982, critic Pauline Kael called it "the most original and shocking French melodrama of the 50s." In 1992, critic Roger Ebert stated that "The film's extended suspense sequences deserve a place among the great stretches of cinema." In 2010, the film was ranked #9 in Empire magazines The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema. The Wages of Fear accomplishes things that many of the great Alfred Hitchcock films accomplished; and that was that real horror and fear existed in the absence of it. The mere suggestion or possibility of terror makes the tension even more unbearable for an audience making the horror much more effective. The death of Luigi and Bimba from far away and in the viewpoints of Mario and Jo, with them only seeing a bright light and hearing an explosion in the distance is much more effective in scaring an audience then actually showing the truck and the men inside of it exploding in front of the camera. The Wages of Fear is such a perfectly crafted thriller that while watching it, it's nerve-wracking suspense will make audiences members jump on a slight movement or jump. The heightened tension gives the audience the impression that they themselves are carrying nitroglycerin on their backs; and any sudden sound could detonate it.