The Wages of Fear, Blu-ray (1953/2009)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Starring: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Vera Clouzot
Studio: The Criterion Collection 36 [Release date: Apr. 21, 09]
Video: 1.33:1 B&W
Audio: English, French & Spanish PCM mono
Extras: Interviews (recent) with asst. Director Michel Romanoff, Clouzot biographer Marc Godin, 1988 interview with Yves Montand; “Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant” 2004 documentary on the director’s career; “Censored” analysis of cuts made to the film for its 1955 U.S. Release; Printed booklet with essay by novelist Dennis Lehane
Length: 147 minutes
I was looking forward to seeing this classic French thriller again after so many years; with terrific acting, a gripping story, in black & white and with no special effects it is probably one of the most suspenseful films ever made. I saw it in my college classic film group which I helped organize – on scratched, super-low-res 16mm. So being a Criterion restoration I knew it would be excellent. However, I was surprised to find it was part of the classic film specialists’ new Blu-ray series. (The outer box I received doesn’t have anything blue on it – it only says Blu-ray Edition on the back.) I wondered how much better an old B&W classic film with a mono soundtrack could be in the new hi-res format. Well, though I didn’t have a standard DVD to compare, the Blu-ray has to be a visual plus. The depth and detail and freedom from noise in the screen images look like the film was shot yesterday, and no longer is Criterion using Dolby processing on their films’ mono original tracks – this is uncompressed PCM mono, resulting in cleaner reproduction of the carefully-restored, noise-reduced original optical track of the film.
Clouzot was attracted to not only the story of Le Salaire de la Peur but also to its locale – a generic South American country. He had earlier attempted to shoot a documentary film in Brazil involving his Brazilian wife Vera, but that didn’t work out. However, most of The Wages of Fear was actually shot in the Carmargue region in the south of France – not in South America at all. Shooting took two years due to a flood in the area and other problems. The top French actor Jean Gabin was supposed to be one of the four truck drivers at the center of the film, but he refused the part when he learned his character died onscreen. This was the first feature for singer Yves Montand, and in his interview he relates how helpful Clouzot was in training him in the part of Mario. Clouzot wanted him to completely forget about music performance – “You’re a truck driver now” he told him.
The story concerns four desperate and hopeless men stuck in a backward South American town who jump at the chance to earn $2000 each for driving a truckload of nitroglycerin 300 miles on a bumpy road to help put out an oil well fire. It is in effect a suicide mission – the two trucks are sent out with some distance between them in case one of them blows up, and there are many crosses along the road indicating where previous attempts failed. The oil company manager assumes that only two of the men, at best, will actually make it. The relationships between the four men are given some background early in the film, and the challenges of their nail-biting job only emphasizes matters. They consist of two French, a German and an Italian man, which contrasts the different cultures. The older Frenchman, Jo, who is paired with Montand in one of the trucks, has arrived in the town as a confident and demanding presence – although he is broke and escaping from some sort of crime. But as the pair’s bad luck begins to mount, he is overcome by fear, becoming almost a walking corpse. Clouzot avoids any subjectivity and sentimentality in his presentation of the characters. The booklet essayist compares the director’s approach to that of Kubrick and John Houston in this regard. It is up to the viewer to decide how much empathy with the characters one has. And by the conclusion, the viewer cannot avoid feeling empathic to both Jo and Mario, though both were depicted early on as dislikable.
I don’t doubt that another reason I found this viewing of the film years later to be so much more involving is that I’m finally seeing the entire film as released in France originally. Brutal editing was done on the original U.S. release, mainly on the premise that it was an anti-U.S. film. Clouzot was regarded as a Communist, though in the extras his former assistant director says he was neither left nor right, but more of a "Clouzotanist." Film Comment observed that it was an anti-American film, but only insofar is it was “unselectively and impartially anti-everything.” Among the material chopped out was some of the scenes in the town of Las Piedras, showing the squalid conditions of the natives and the callousness of the American oil company executives of Southern Oil. There was also subtle editing of what was felt suggested a homosexual bond amongst the four men. All of the bonus features are worth viewing; most of the talking heads expand on and make excuses for Clouzot’s tyrannical personality. But he certainly created some effective films!
– John Sunier