Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Introduction

The first shot of The Wages of Fear defines the entire film. A boy torments cockroaches on the street, but he is suddenly followed by the shaved ice seller pushing his cart and announcing the flavors. After realizing this, he returns to his cockroaches, longing for what he cannot afford. He finds that a vulture has claimed his afternoon’s entertainment. With great suspense, Henri-Georges Clouzot makes films that comment on violence and unforgiving cynicism.

In a hopeless situation, he portrays human nature painfully. Clouzot is probably the best French filmmaker of his time, earning a place alongside such names in the French canon as Jacques Tati and Jean Renoir. Investigating his disillusionment with human nature, he explores how we seldom fulfill our destinies. In The Wages of Fear, he presents an antithesis to human potential. On the existential subject front, Clouzot’s film embodies the arrangement and execution of a draining white-knuckle thriller.

It is a work of art that challenges the viewer’s insight into his characters. Clouzot’s film confronts us with much more than a brief anecdotal setting. However, he provides an in-depth look at its focus: four homeless people paid $2,000 each by an American oil company. They haul two trucks loaded with nitroglycerin across an arid and unstable terrain to blow up a smoldering drill bit.

Escaping Hell

Set in the poor and squalid village of Las Piedras in South America, Clouzot’s four drivers are deliberately unpleasant but sympathetic. Each of them is in hiding, unemployed, and broke, waiting for an opportunity to escape their hell. They are not heroes by choice, as their position would not ask for a job in a muddy village. They have long been helping their cause. However, they are the “heroes” of the film in the sense of the protagonist’s narrative, so we care about their fate.

Mario, Jo, Luigi, and Bimba all caught a glimpse of the impossible opportunity presented by the American oil companies. They found everything they had been missing. Without any subtle feelings, Clouzot shifts the focus to the South. He sets his sights on the multinational oil company Standard Oil, which monopolizes America. Then, we meet Bill O’Brien, a foreman who has decided to hire homeless people instead of union workers to drive the unstable trucks that are bound to explode onto the flaming rig site.

Clouzot’s anti-American image goes beyond the heartless greed of the Western oil sales but also questions those who would give their lives for such a pathetic cause. According to Clouzot, the film is about men.

Striving for an Unknown Better

He has never made a film where the drama is completely limited to male characters. Nearly an hour of the film passes as they laze around in the poverty of Las Piedras. During this time, Clouzot avoids creating backstories and instead outlines despicable ways. The film explores how everyone fails to see what is in front of them. In Mario’s case, he ignores a female character and his love interest, Linda.

She seems to pant like a dog for Mario’s affection. Even though she loves him, he does not return it in pursuit of an unreasonable chance, and she crawls to greet him. It represents itself to Mario in the form of Jo, an aspiring rich man who is on the air but on a sinking ship, just like everyone else in Las Piedras. The relationship between the four drivers in Clouzot’s film is indeed very close, but no direct examples or dialogues are confirming this label.

In contrast, the book of Jesus sees Mario’s abandonment of Linda as a testimony to his blind longing to find something else. Mario and the others refuse to accept their fate. Despite their efforts being in vain, they strive for something better, even if they do not know what it is, as anyone who does not move forward will drag them backward.

Confronting Mortality

In doing so, Clouzot captures Linda from two conflicting subjective points of view. One perspective is from a husband who describes his wife’s beauty, while the other is from a director who places an actor within a narrative. Clouzot ensures that Linda’s face always appears clean, but he treats her like an animal—completely obedient and submissive—an archetypal, uncomplicated male fantasy.

Still, Mario discards her. In Mario’s rejection, Clouzot illustrates the fatalistic urges that drive Mario and his fellow drivers to disregard the value of their lives. In The Wages of Fear, the characters themselves serve as a test of emotional understanding. By portraying his drivers as lowly individuals, Clouzot sets up an exercise in human empathy. Thus, our ability to seek compassion for the fates of abusive people whom we cannot forgive is challenged.

During the 1930s, Clouzot, in his twenties, spent four years in a tuberculosis sanatorium, where he witnessed the suffering of people like himself. Eventually, he vanished as he recovered from a near-death experience. The reality of mortality surrounds us. According to his biographers, this period served as an incubator for Clouzot’s brooding tone. His understanding revolves around a deep comprehension of the limitations, complexities, and fragility of life and death.

Lowly Heroes

Clouzot’s extensive experience gave him an appreciation for life, hence why his fourth driver is hooked and bound for death by the volatile nitro of the SOC. He presents them as lowly heroes subject to the inexorable compulsion of death. In choosing a fatalistic mission, Clouzot makes the characters’ path no less terrifying. He thrillingly engages us. Split between the two trucks, the men divide themselves as insurance policies.

If one truck explodes, the others can still proceed. With Luigi and Bimba trailing half an hour behind, Mario and Jo take the lead. As they embark on the journey, they strip themselves down to their simplest versions. Fear erodes the layers of the facade that Clouzot has constructed, gradually releasing them until nothing remains but raw humanity. It is here that we witness who survives and who crumbles into pieces.

Jo’s character exemplifies this best, as he has the most to lose after pretending to be a brave and experienced worker. When the truck begins its journey, its first test is a stretch of treacherous road. To avoid jostling the nitroglycerin, the trucks must either accelerate or drive slowly. Jo makes every excuse to persuade Mario to take the slower route.

A Complex Setting

After driving the first twenty miles, he lets the rear truck pass, intentionally slowing it down while complaining of nausea, stalling for time, and paralyzed by fear. Meanwhile, Mario no longer looks up to Jo. His experience and desire for money had come back to haunt him. Suspense lingers in the realm of possibility rather than visible action. Clouzot simply imparts knowledge to the viewer.

If the driver hits a deep bump or jolts the truck too forcefully, the nitro will shut off. Once on the road, the tension does not subside. Clouzot uses a complex setting to amplify the suspense, which also reflects their emotions. It is where the film’s machinery is always pumping. Filmed in Brazil with a small crew, the tyrannical director extracts every ounce of frustration, lightness, and raw emotion from his characters.

The performances they deliver bring rich textual dialogue to life, depicting despair, anger, and self-loathing. The culmination of demanding story setups leads to a chain of trials. These trials include navigating sudden turns that only the truck can manage, backing onto a rickety platform made of overhanging rotten wood, and clearing a boulder from the path by detonating a nitro-filled flask.

With thrilling precision and simplicity, Clouzot masterfully executes each sequence.

Poignant Serenity

In the film’s most poignant and serene moment, Jo rolls a cigarette for Mario as they push forward. Suddenly, the tobacco is blown from Jo’s cart, and a dusty mushroom cloud fills the air up ahead. The other truck is missing, and Clouzot delivers his punch. In Clouzot’s early days as a director, his career blossomed just before the Germans invaded France. Despite the perilous political environment, he refuses to silence his art.

He finds himself caught between the horrors of the Nazi genocide. Banned in France until after WWII, the film became the first of many Clouzot productions to carry merciless commentary. Surprisingly, The Wages of Fear‘s unyielding anti-American stance did not result in the film being banned in the United States. In 1955, US distributors made some edits to address any perceived controversial content.

By cutting nearly fifty minutes of footage, primarily from the first act, they aimed to dispel the notion of anti-Americanism. In these cuts, Clouzot establishes SOC as a local Las Piedras outlaw and portrays the international community as a victim of Western capitalism. It was not until 1992 that the film was restored to its original form, following the passing of the political fervor that had prompted the draconian editing.

Approaching Tragedy

More than its politics, Clouzot’s film serves as the antithesis of any optimistic or romantic narrative. Especially as only one truck remains, its pessimism appears to fade from the screen. Jo and Mario approach the spot where their co-driver met his explosive end. They encounter oil pipelines that have gradually deteriorated, creating gaping craters and destroying trees. Frustrated by Jo’s mounting fears, Mario sends him to inspect an oil lagoon, checking its depth.

As Jo creeps behind the truck, unable to stop for fear of getting stuck, he becomes trapped by a submerged tree branch. Powerless to free himself, Mario cannot slow down, and with seemingly involuntary speed, he grinds the wheels over his partner’s feet. After successfully maneuvering the truck out of their slick shack, both men are covered in oil. Jo dies within minutes of reaching their destination, leaving Mario as the sole survivor among the four.

Clouzot’s ending could be seen as a happy one, as we have followed Mario’s journey from the beginning. Having cheated death under impossible circumstances, he is now back in Las Piedras. Linda dances with joy, her love for Mario untainted by his desertion. Deliberately weaving on the road with exuberance, Mario is free from the threat of nitroglycerin.

The Power of Irony

However, his turns become too wide, the fences on the turns too sharp, and Mario crosses the line. The truck is destroyed in a blaze of irony. The political commentary and brutal narrative cynicism in The Wages of Fear demonstrate the unflinching nature of its creator. On set, Clouzot assumes the role of a dictator-director, a position many auteurs have embodied. However, Clouzot does not lose hope.

Although his critics may argue otherwise, his message is not misanthropic. For Clouzot, it represents a choice life often makes in vain.

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