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.