One of cinema’s most revered thrillers, La Saliare de la Peur or The Wages of Fear is the acknowledged masterpiece of the brilliant French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-77). It is also the film that made popular music hall singer Yves Montand into a movie star. Clouzot’s sixth film and the predecessor to his terror classic Diabolique, it was voted the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1953 and Best Film of 1954 by the British Film Academy. Unfortunately, it was excessively trimmed for United States distribution, in part because of scenes that denounced American business interests for exploiting workers in Latin America. As Parisian critic Pierre Kast protested at the time, “It is impossible to remove a single episode without distorting the ultimate significance of the film.” Now, thirty-seven years later, Criterion proudly presents the full, reassembled picture, Clouzot’s stunning original cut. In this version, the early sequences have their clarity restored, the characters are more fully developed, and the film comes across as being much more political.
Clouzot’s ironic suspense films are often compared to those of Alfred Hitchcock. But Wages of Fear more recalls John Huston’s 1948 Mexico-set The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, another grim adventure about penniless men who seek quick riches to escape their deadend existences. Clouzot’s picture is also about courage and cowardice and the expendibility and precariousness of human life. Sordid and despairing as are the director’s other films, Wages of Fear was adapted from a novel by George Arnaud. Whereas Arnaud set his story in Guatemala, Clouzot’s existential film takes place in an unspecified Latin American country and a fictional village, Las Piedras. The refuse of the earth find themselves in this hellhole, though it’s hard to figure out how anyone could wind up here. Now everyone dreams of fleeing, but they haven’t the money. Four tough vagabonds—Corsican Montand, aging Parisian Charles Vanel, German Peter Van Eyck, and fatally ill Italian Folco Lulli—get the opportunity to escape the squalor when an American fuel company offers them $2,000 each to hurriedly transport two truckloads of nitroglycerine over 300 miles of hazardous mountain roads. The firm figures that since these aren’t union men, no one will squawk if they don’t survive the suicidal task.
The journey, which comprises the second half of the film, is heartstopping. Three sequences rank with the most nerve-wracking in movie history: the trucks must back onto rotting planks over a mountain ledge; Van Eyck uses nitro to blow up a giant boulder that blocks the road; Montand drives his truck through an expanding pool of spilled oil while Vanel swims in the black liquid, clearing a path and trying to get out of the way. Georges Auric’s score and Armand Thirard’s cinematography, which dramatically opposes light and shadow, add to the tension. And Clouzot’s editing style “based on constant shocks,” punctuates the narrative perfectly. Consequently, as the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “You sit there waiting for the theater to explode.”
Clouzot considered Wages of Fear to be an epic about courage. On the surface it is about how these four men test themselves for money on the dangerous, death-defying drive. They try to exhibit grace under pressure, be equal to their companions, be brave, be “men.” They all succeed but Vanel, who loses his nerve—Jean Gabin turned down the part because he was afraid to portray a coward (Vanel won the Best Actor award at Cannes). They reveal admirable traits on their journey, convincing us that even the lives of the dregs of society have worth. Still they don’t warrant our respect—though Montand, Van Eyck, and Lulli extend it to each other -- because they were irresponsible to have accepted this assignment. Brave or cowardly doesn’t matter: Death comes to everyone and is heroic for none. In this film, Clouzot viciously attacks corporations that continually exploit individuals—especially non-union workers in Third World countries—and let them gamble with their lives sop the company profits. But he’s equally disappointed in men such as our “heroes” who risk their lives for all the wrong reasons. Ironically, placing money and machismo over their own well-being puts them in complicity with the vile companies that exploit them, and will thrive long after these men have been blown to smithereens.