The Wages of Fear

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


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.


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.


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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