The Wages of Fear passes the Test of Time

The Wages of Fear passes the Test of Time

Writer’s Note: Coming up is a history of one of the most popular and controversial movies of the 1950s. First I will give you the history of The Wages of Fear (French 1953). Then you will find my review of the uncut version, not seen in America until 1992. That will be followed by an interview with American director William Friedkin, who in 1977 made a remake of Wages of Fear entitled Sorcerer. Although a box-office failure, Sorcerer should be examined for its differences from the original, and the effectiveness of its action sequences. That will be followed by my second interview with Friedkin about a film that took him years to finish. Rampage, originally made in 1987, didn’t see release until 1992 for reasons you will soon learn. It  was based on a true murder case and probed how the court system in America allowed insanity to be a defendant’s plea no matter how heinous the crimes committed. Friedkin’s career has had its ups and down and you will learn some of the reasons through these exclusive one-on-one interviews.

The Real-Life Trauma of Making a Classic Action Film
Filled With Men Facing Traumas of Their Own

wagesoffear-poster“Seldom have we experienced such a ride and such a buildup of nervous tension,” wrote New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther. “You sit there waiting for the theater to explode.” Pauline Kael described it as “the most original and shocking French melodrama of the 1950s.”

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s The Wages of Fear, first released in France in 1953, immediately won the top prizes at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, and the British Film Academy’s best-picture award. In England, in fact, it broke all records as the most successful foreign-language film.

But the French version that the Europeans had so heartily honored, and the English-subtitled version that reached American shores two years later, were two different matters. From the original running time of two hours and 28 minutes, 43 minutes had been hacked by American censors who thought certain elements would disturb U.S. audiences.

Initially, the film was accepted for what it was, breaking all house records at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco . Yet, inconsistencies caused by the cuts began to create problems. In fact, critics aware of the film’s acceptance on its original release couldn’t understand why it now seemed so uneven in its unfolding. Why had 43 minutes hit the cutting room floor?

Okay, let’s take a look at The Wages of Fear. From my point of view it’s a dynamite movie about nitroglycerine. The volatile nitro must be driven over 300 miles of rugged South American road by four men and delivered to the site of a raging oil-well fire. All of the volunteer drivers are fugitives or derelicts who have been trapped in a flea-bitten Venezuelan village, Las Piedras. They’ve taken the dangerous job because they need the $2,000-per-man that a U.S. oil company has cynically offered.

Wages of Fear director Henri-Georges Clouzot.

On the surface, it’s a taut tale of suspense as the men sweat out every turn and bump in the treacherous road. The trucks haven’t been equipped with the required shock absorbers to transport nitro . . . so the slightest jostle could blow them to bits. But underneath the suspense and action of this tense odyssey, the film is also an existential character study of men who experience courage, fear and cowardice during the death-defying trip.

They also have to deal with their attitudes toward life and death, concluding that in the end it could all be meaningless. The film also makes critical comment on U.S. interests in Third World countries, portraying a callous disregard for human life–one of the reasons some of those 43 minutes hit the cutting room floor.

Clouzot’s script sprang from a novel by Georges Arnaud, a pseudonym for Henri Girard, who had been imprisoned as a youth because it was believed he had murdered his father, aunt and the family maid for an inheritance. He was finally cleared of all suspicion but, because the crime remained unsolved, he decided to leave France for Venezuela, where few questions would be asked about his past. One of his jobs? Driving a truck over mountain roads for an American oil company. What a coincidence. So, out of his own personal hazardous experiences, evolved the storyline for The Wages of Fear.

wagesoffearMaking the film involved much chaos for writer-director Clouzot. In the summer of 1951, the film’s crew built the squalid village of San Piedras (translation: The Stones) in the mosquito-infested swampland of Provence, a part of southeast France bordering on the Mediterranean. No sooner had shooting begun near the town of Camargue (whose terrain resembled that of Venezuela) than a series of floods washed away the newly constructed village. Simultaneously, the company financing the film went bankrupt and Clouzot was without further funding to rebuild the village.

The cast and crew languished for many months. Like the characters in the film-to-be, they hung around Camargue with nothing to do but watch flea-bitten dogs on the main street. Clouzot’s ensemble of actors drank in saloons, played cards and searched for novel ways to kill time, feeling the frustration of the characters they were there to portray. Crew members were no better off.
Everyone was broke and disgusted, ready to give the whole thing up as a lost cause. But Clouzot got lucky and found Italian money to finish the picture. And then came the difficult, sometimes hazardous truck sequences, which exhausted the actors and taxed Clouzot’s directorial talents to the fullest.

Even with a masterpiece in the making, Clouzot still faced post-completion chaos. His full-length version was shown only for a short time in France before it came under fire for its “anti-American” stance and underwent censor’s splicing. The unkindest cuts of all were the changes to the American version, where in some states the film was shown without its downbeat ending, recut to end happily rather than tragically.

Clouzot (1907-1977) has been described as France’s “ruthlessly pessimistic” master of suspense, and no one argues that Wages remains his finest work. Of the eleven films he made during a career that stretched from 1943 to 1968, only two others remain well-known in America and stand out as other examples of his mastery of suspense. The Raven (1943) is the cautionary tale of a village in southern France that is terrorized by an anonymous poison-pen letter writer, and Diabolique (1955) is a horror thriller in which the ghost of a murdered school headmaster seems to return from the beyond to terrorize his murderers.

Clouzot acknowledged that he had set out to make an “epic” with Wages, whose main theme, he said, was “courage and its opposite.”

Yves Montand in Wages of Fear.

Part of the strength of Wages stems from a carefully chosen cast. The film made an international star of Yves Montand, who recently died (November  9, 1991) in France. Cutting a virile image with an arrogant attitude, a sweat-stained shirt, a bandana and a cigarette dangling from his lips, Montand stars as Mario, a down-and-out Frenchman who learns the meaning of courage on the dangerous trip and starts to discard his superficialities and solidify into a real man.

Charles Vanel, a French character actor whose career spanned eight decades (1892-1989), and who portrayed the police inspector in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, is Mario’s old friend Jo, a gangster on the run whose hardened exterior begins to turn to jelly – in contrast to Mario’s newfound confidence.

Peter Van Eyck

Peter Van Eyck (1911-1969), a blond German who had once worked as an arranger for Irving Berlin before becoming an actor in the 1940s, portrays a tough Dutchman, Bimba, who has survived a Nazi labor camp. The fourth volunteer, Luigi, is played by Italian actor Folco Lulli (1912-1970), whose career was limited mostly to playing insensitive, brutish characters.

Two other cast members are important. William Tubbs (1907-1953) plays O’Brien, a tough-talking American employee of the Southern Oil Co. He expresses an imperialistic attitude, and shows a complete contempt for the locals.

veraclouzot3Beautiful, sexy French actress Vera Clouzot (Henri’s wife) plays Linda, a village prostitute who shares her favors with a saloon owner and Montand. (Vera would make only two other films with her husband, Diabolique and Les Espions, before her death in 1960 at the age of 46.)

Scene after scene stands out:

* The opening shot, of captured cockroaches scurrying under a child’s supervision, reminds one of the opening scene of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Obviously, Wages has left its influence on many other film makers over the decades.

* Van Eyck must arrange a complicated explosive device and fuse to destroy a boulder blocking the roadway, and he must handle the nitro with great care. It is one of the most hair-raising sequences in the film.

wagesoffear-2meninmud-2* Montand drives his truck through a huge pool of oil in the jungle road while Vanel, submerged up to his neck in oily muck and trying to clear wreckage from the pathway, is pinned under a churning tire.

* A hairpin turn in the mountain road forces Montand to back his truck out onto a temporary platform (hanging out over a ravine) that sways under the vehicle’s weight.

* One truck is moving slowly along a stretch of road while the second truck comes up behind it at top speed. The first truck can’t speed up and the second truck doesn’t dare slow down. The distance closes . . .

And what was cut from the American version in 1955? Much of O’Brien’s dialogue, including a sequence in which he ignores the pain of a bandaged fireman. Also cut was a character named Bernardo, who is so depressed when his visa expires that he hangs himself. Then there is a naked youth walking down the puddle-pocked main street of San Piedras. Gone are most of the scenes capturing the depressive poverty-stricken atmosphere of the village. Gone are Bimba’s veiled remarks to homosexuality. And finally, any piece of dialogue that could be construed as “anti-American.”

In a 1955 article in the magazine Film Culture, movie historian Edouard I. De Laurot wrote that “the shots deleted from Wages form an animated fresco of the many prejudices and taboos that still haunt our cinema.”

The film’s theme inspired an unofficial remake, The Violent Road (1958), a now-forgotten, low-budget programmer directed by Howard Koch and starring Brian Keith and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as drivers taking a dangerous rocket fuel over mountain roads. It is nevertheless an effective film. And of course there was to be Sorcerer, the 1977 American remake.

And now, allow me to present my review of The Wages of Fear, when it was played in America in 1992, unedited for the first time.

Wages Earns Its Reputation: Classic French Thriller Passes the Test of Time

ef755890caae008573bb709404370aafThe Wages of Fear is like a well-toned prizefighter who leaps to his feet at the first-round bell and charges from his corner, relentlessly delivering a flurry of powerhouse punches. The film immediately knocks you out. At least that was my reaction when I saw an uncut version at the Castro Theater in San Francisco in the early months of 1992.

From its first frames of imprisoned cockroaches, writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 French classic propels you into a grim milieu where desperate, lost men flirt with violence and death for profit.  For years The Wages of Fear has been recognized as one of the great suspense-action thrillers, ranking with Alfred Hitchcock’s best as it depicts four men who, to escape their terrible existence in the squalid Venezuelan village of San Piedras, drive trucks loaded with canisters of nitroglycerine over a treacherous mountain-jungle road.

In America, those audiences who saw the film when it was released in 1955 saw a horribly bowdlerized version that was missing 43 minutes. Much of the crucial footage was cut because of the film’s powerful anti-American stance in depicting the indifference of a U.S. oil company foreman to the inhabitants of a Third World country. This element still seems less important; the bulwark for this masterpiece remains Clouzot’s handling of the odyssey on which strong men turn to jelly and weak men grasp newfound courage.

205b581a11a9791288aee84abf6d6de8Based on a novel by Georges Arnaud, who actually drove dangerous roads in Venezuela for an American oil company, The Wages of Fear is essentially an existential portrait of men under duress, with an eventual twist of nihilism that gives their efforts a sense of hopelessness.

The first half of the film establishes the plight of four derelicts who are stranded without money for the trip home. The film made a star of Yves Montand in the role of Mario, a displaced Frenchman with a dashing, virile image who underneath is nothing but braggadocio. His friend Jo is a Parisian gangster on the run who arrives in the dreary town still thinking he’s a tough big shot humiliating village weaklings. Charles Vanel is excellent in this pivotal role.

Folco Lulli in The Wages of Fear.

Peter Van Eyck was cast against type – a blond superior Nordic playing a sympathetic Dutchman named Bimba who’s been toughened by torture in a Nazi slave camp. The fourth character is a boisterous, rotund Italian named Luigi (Folco Lulli), the one stereotype in the film.

The only major female character (played by the beautiful, earthy Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife) is a favorite village prostitute who is treated by Mario with disdain. She brings a vitality to Linda and a sense of pathos when Mario coldly rebuffs her.

When an oil well explodes and burns out of control, the Southern Oil Co. needs nitro. The cynical American foreman O’Brien (William Tubbs, in his final role, playing a villain to the hilt) offers $2,000 to drivers to haul the deadly cargo over 300 miles of rugged terrain.

Desperate, seeing this as their ticket home, the four set out on one of the most harrowing journeys on film. Slowly the men begin to show their true colors as they face one taut cliff-hanger after another. The once hardened, unbending Jo turns cowardly, while Mario finds new strength of character. Bimba falls back on what he’s learned from the Nazis–what is this but another test of survival?


Clouzot  never takes his foot off the gas. At one hairpin turn, the trucks have to back out onto a rickety, makeshift ramp. In another riveting scene, Bimb must blow up a boulder blocking the roadway, using the volatile nitro for the job.  The most painful and excruciating sequence has Jo, up to his neck in black much, trying to clear a path for the truck as Mario inches it through an oil pit.

The Wages of Fear is so tautly directed by Clouzot, and so effectively written by Clouzot with Jerome Geronimi, that it is an almost flawless movie, leaving you drained by fully satisfied.


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