The Wages of Fear

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #36: Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear.

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I no longer have any Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion films queued up at the library. After the inun­da­tion I’ve had with them over the last few weeks, I think it is time to take a bit of a break. Thank­ful­ly, the last film before this sab­bat­i­cal was anoth­er sus­pense­ful mas­ter­piece by Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot. The film is a hodge-podge of lan­guages, French, Eng­lish, Ital­ian, Span­ish and the odd Ger­man now and then; the poly­glot atmos­phere is one to be expect­ed in a place where risky busi­ness pulls risk tak­ers in for a chance to make a for­tune. Like any boom town, Las Piedras has more bums than boomers, pet­ty men too poor to leave, des­per­ate for any chance that will enable them to do so. The first hour of the film is a nec­es­sary expo­si­tion of this des­per­a­tion, in addi­tion to impor­tant per­son­al­i­ty quirks and rela­tion­ship estab­lish­ment that will ampli­fy in the more sus­pense­ful nitro­glyc­erin trans­port scenes. We learn about the vague­ly homo­erot­ic love tri­an­gle between Mario and Lui­gi [No, I am not kid­ding] that is bro­ken up by the appear­ance of Jo. Mario’s dis­dain for Lin­da [once again played by the knock­out Vera Clouzot, in more see-through cloth­ing] is prob­a­bly the great­est sign of his loss of per­spec­tive based on indo­lent dis­gruntle­ment.

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That the men are stuck in this predica­ment is based main­ly upon their lack of cit­i­zen­ship in an unnamed South Amer­i­can coun­try. The bul­ly­ing, moral­ly bank­rupt pres­ence of an Amer­i­can oil com­pa­ny doesn’t help mat­ters, and there are mul­ti­ple quotes that illus­trate just what Clouzot thinks about this sort of cor­po­rate shenani­gan. Where there is oil, Amer­i­cans are quick to fol­low. Liv­ing in the hell that is Las Piedras, the four afore­men­tioned men plus a Ger­man guy named Bim­ba make a deal with the dev­il [the South­ern Oil Com­pa­ny] to dri­ve two trucks full of hell­fire [nitro­glyc­erin] across hell to put out a fire. If they make it, they’ll get enough dough to leave Las Piedras far behind. The only prob­lem is the slight­est bump will explode the nitro. Obsta­cles include a 40 mile dash across some­thing called “the wash­board”; a hair­pin turn involv­ing a rot­ten bridge, blow­ing up a huge boul­der in the mid­dle of the road [and then piss­ing on the spot where it used to be], and dri­ving through a 3′ deep lake of petro­le­um, which is all that is left of one of the trucks after it explodes. Like all deals with the dev­il, no one makes it out alive, no mat­ter how safe they might seem. Espe­cial­ly once the dis­tor­tion of con­stant fear sets in and you start to feel safe in thumb­ing your nose [or John Thomas] at the dev­il.

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The wages of fear turn love to hate, uncov­er cow­ardice and pret­ty much ruin every­thing they can. As one man quotes ear­li­er in the film:

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.

Most of the mon­ey quotes are in Den­nis Lehane’s essay, which says pret­ty much every­thing that one needs to say about this film. What struck me about it was how its implic­it and explic­it cul­tur­al cri­tiques are just as applic­a­ble fifty years after the film was made, espe­cial­ly in regard to immi­grant labor issues and Amer­i­can cor­po­rate pol­i­cy [and, by proxy, Amer­i­can pol­i­cy as a whole] in regard to oil. And from an exis­ten­tial stand­point, the film is just as absurd and Camu­sian as Ter­ry Gilliam’s Time Ban­dits. Clouzot knows we’re all doomed, and the only way to deal with the irony of risk­ing death for a uncer­tain future is to laugh all the way to the grave.

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