Alfred Hitchcock, meet Frederick Nietzsche.
Cinema can demonstrate all that is good and bad about humanity. Unfortunately, the past couple decades have seen directors bathe films in the suds of easy sentimentality, with only a handful of outliers willing to dive into the abyss of the nihilistic, selfish tendencies that us human beings are always guilty of. The last movie I saw that accomplished this in a masterful way was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” where oil tycoon Daniel Plainview uses the black stuff to fill the hole where his heart should be, his love of commerce matching his contempt for everyone else.
But in 1953, the great French director Henri-Georges Clouzot made a film that was a clear inspiration for Anderson’s opus: “The Wages of Fear.” And let’s just say that Clouzot isn’t exactly a people-person either. What do you get when you have four men drive two trucks loaded with unstable nitroglycerin through the most treacherous of conditions? The answer: a bruising tour-de-force in the cinematic art of suspense; a film so simple in its construction yet such an unflinching slow burn that without overt judgment, brings to the forefront all of man’s hubris and temptation, in the guise of the odd job from Hell.
In a sun-baked, decrepit village in South America, we are introduced to a small group of men who obviously don’t belong there. First there’s the easy-going Mario (Yves Montand), a Frenchman who is in this God-forsaken land for some unknown reason, but yearns to escape and return home. He shares a one-room shack with Luigi (Folco Lulli), a boisterous Italian man who mixes cement for the Southern Oil Company, unaware that this work is slowly killing him. Bimba (Peter van Eyck) is an Aryan-looking refugee from the war, who does not fear death, and feels that this world has nothing left for him, and then there is Jo (Charles Vanel) the aging, selfish wastrel who develops a relationship with Mario.
The fates of these four men are transformed and linked by a job opportunity from Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs), an oafish, soulless American representative of SOC. O’Brien needs four drivers to drive two trucks packed with nitro 300 miles to the end of the nearby oil pipeline to blow out a refinery that recently collapsed. Why does he look for locals? “No unions and no families,” he says. Each man will be paid $2,000 to make their way across rickety roads, hairpin turns and rocky mountainside passages.
The first thing someone used to modern movies may notice when watching this film is how much time it takes to get to its central premise. It isn’t until minute 45 of this 148-minute movie that the job, the main premise of the story, is even mentioned. This opening section is slow, but good God does Clouzot reward your patience later on. The first act of “Wages of Fear” is in place to do two things: establish who these characters are and what they want, and to establish the philosophical themes that Clouzot is using this somewhat pulpy conceit to explore, and how those two elements bleed into each other.
Mario is a fascinating protagonist because underneath his charismatic and funny veneer, he’s kind of despicable. He’s selfish and is only out for himself; these traits are deepened further as the film progresses, but at the beginning, we know that he only cares about his own wants and desires, and has no patience for anyone else, especially women. The only woman in this movie is a waitress at the local bar named Linda (Vera Clouzot), who is a nagging, mindless and only exists to provide company to the other men. When Mario calls her over, she crawls to him on all fours and allows him to pat her on the head; later on he insults the dress she made for a date they were supposed to go on and Mario doesn’t care about hurting her feelings. Linda is not only treated like a dog, she actively acts like one. Montand is extraordinary, blending these elements together to create an indelible portrait of the modern male under siege.
Jo is similar to Mario. He is someone who will do anything to get what he wants. When he isn’t chosen by O’Brien to be one of the four drivers, he disposes of the man who was picked ahead of him under mysterious circumstances. His hubris blinds him to his own limitations, as he spends the entire journey to the refinery complaining and dealing with the physical toll the journey takes on his weakened body. Bimba isn’t developed as much, but Luigi is a man who is so desperate to get paid for this job, even though it is from SOC, the same company that destroyed his lungs leaving him with 6 months to live. It’s all about the quick fix with these guys.
That’s how Clouzot pretty much sees all of society. This film was heavily edited when it was first released in America due to allegations of “anti-Americanism.” It is true that all of the Americans in this film are boorish and ignorant, only invested in corporate interest. But Americans are only part of the problem, in Clouzot’s mind. “Wages of Fear” finds fault with everyone: sexist, selfish men, Western imperialism, the marginalization of native people from their homeland, etc. This film touches on topics that would send more humanist filmmakers like John Ford, Ron Howard, Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg running for the hills, retreating to the notions of family values and good always triumphing over evil that they sometimes cling to like golden idols.
This setup may sound like a dull, ponderous lecture from a mad Frenchman on how human royally suck at the dominant species business. I was worried about that at the start, to be honest. But once those explosive-packed trucks, sorely lacking in any safety equipment, start inching their way along this winding nightmare of a pipeline, “Wages of Fear” becomes an agonizing and brilliant work of suspense. No movie I’ve ever seen has ever tortured an audience with such slow, painful suspense with such casual finesse. As anyone who has played “Crash Bandicoot” knows, nitro can blow up real good with just the slightest touch. So the stakes are already sky high. But watching these trucks slowly go down this road, with the slightest bump bringing the possibility of instant death, is utterly gut-wrenching. The obstacles they face on this path become increasingly cruel and bleak. A hairpin turn forces the drivers to turn the trucks using a bridge of rotting wood, loosely hanging off the edge of a steep hill. They use the nitro itself to blast a boulder out of the road. A wide oil pond looms and is getting deeper by the second. A section of road known as “the washboard” is so bumpy it can only be approached extremely slowly or dangerously fast. It’s hard to breathe while watching Clouzot put the entire process of these potential breakdowns on-screen with nothing to distract us. There’s no pounding music, no fancy editing. Just simple, composed shots of wheels going over stones, snagged cables being pulled until they snap, etc. This is cinematic suspense in its most raw form.
But the exploration into the souls of the men in “Wages of Fear” are Clouzot’s other concern. The nitro isn’t the only unstable force along for the ride; it’s the misplaced, warped notion of manhood. Mario and Jo’s relationship is fascinating, especially to modern eyes. There is a hint of romantic learning in their interactions with each other. Are they gay? Do they even have the capability to love another person outright? Vanel’s work as Jo is the counterpoint to Mario. He cheats his way into this job, yet he tries to run off at every possible opportunity. He has no problem leaving Mario behind when he is stuck on the bridge, yet Mario doesn’t hesitate when Jo becomes horrifically injured. Their relationship is a symbiotic twist on the nature of the “bromance.”
After Clouzot spends 100 minutes tightening the proverbial screws, he continues his war against convention and bliss with an denouement that is a sick mockery of a happy ending, a fever dream that turns into a culminating nightmare. Fifty years before Cormac McCarthy declared there was “No Country for Old Men,” Henri-Georges Clouzot determined there was no country for men period. Jo says about a nitro explosion that the victims “probably didn’t even know it happened.” From the incomparable demonstration of suspense to the film’s wicked parting shot, “The Wages of Fear” wants you to feel every moment of man’s slow damnation.