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The Wages of Fear: No Exit

“Just takes a few months to get to be a hundred. If you’re in the right place at the right time.”

I first saw Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece The Wages of Fear when the restored version was released in the U.S., in 1991. But my awareness of it began a bit earlier, when I was twelve and saw the unfortunate American remake, Sorcerer, which sent me investigating articles about the original and searching out what Clouzot films I could find: the grim, sublime Le corbeau (1943); the strangely touching police procedural Quai des Orfèvres (1947); the tingly, unforgettable Diabolique (1954). Throughout this process, The Wages of Fear was available on video only in truncated form, shorn of all political undertones that the U.S. distributor had deemed “anti-American” during the film’s original U.S. run, in 1955 (two years after the French premiere), so I held out for the unpillaged original.

Even so, nothing could have prepared me for the seismic assault of it. Here is a film that stands alone as the purest exercise in cinematic tension ever carved into celluloid, a work of art so viscerally nerve-racking that one fears a misplaced whisper from the audience could cause the screen to explode. As obsessively attentive as Clouzot is to the narrative spine of the story—four men drive two trucks of nitroglycerin three hundred miles across a hellish landscape of potholes, desiccated flora, rock-strewn passes, hairpin turns, and rickety bridges with crumbling beams to put out an oil fire raging on the other side of the mountain—he is just as savage in his commentary on corporate imperialism, American exploitation of foreign cultures, the rape of the land, and the ridiculous folly of man. Critics at the time charged that The Wages of Fear was virulently anti-American (Time magazine, in 1955, called it “a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made”), but this is missing the ravaged forest for the blighted trees. As director Karel Reisz pointed out in a 1991 Film Comment article, the film is “anti-American,” but only insofar as it is “unselectively and impartially anti-everything.”

I agree with Reisz about this impartiality—Clouzot’s camera may as well be the eyeball of a lizard, for all the emotion it shows the humans who enter its field of vision—but the charge of “anti-everything,” while certainly valid on a surface level, fails to take into account one of the basic tenets of cinematic humanism as employed by Clouzot and John Huston and Stanley Kubrick, among others: that by removing all hint of subjectivity from the point of view, one thus removes any stain of sentimentality. This erasure of sentiment does not cancel out empathy. In fact, in that very void, we, the viewer, are forced to decide what our capacity for empathy is. What remains in Clouzot’s chilly remove from his main characters is a fascinatingly odd mixture of contempt and love, one akin to that of a father who has closed off all outward displays of emotion for his children because he fears the heartbreak that could destroy him should anything tragic befall them.

“If I’ve gotta be a corpse, I want to be presentable.”

If so many of today’s “bleak chic” auteurs seem to have fashioned their dire worldviews by skimming Cliffs Notes of Friedrich Nietzsche while listening to Trent Reznor in well-appointed suburban basements, it’s important to note that Clouzot didn’t come by his pessimism in a vacuum. Clouzot’s career in film was just beginning when Germany invaded France, and one can’t help but imagine the effect it had on him to toil at his craft in a suddenly subjugated homeland, while all around him stood the worst aspects of human nature—not only the genocidal bloodlust of the Third Reich but also the soiled moral lassitude of the Vichy government and various everyday collaborationist Frenchmen.

It was in this atmosphere that Clouzot would make Le corbeau, a film that managed to outrage both the Nazis—under whose auspices it, like many other French films during the occupation, was made—and the French. The Nazis, apparently, were appalled by its bleakness and by its depiction of their behavior during the occupation. The French, similarly, found their representation (as provincial informers) offensive, and deemed the film collaborationist. After the war, it would be four years before the blacklisted Clouzot was allowed to direct again. With Le corbeau, however, he had managed to commit the artist’s most triumphant miscalculation: he had made a work so unsettling in its archetypal truths that it offended everyone. All sides assailed him and none would champion him. From that point on, Clouzot would consistently attack the hypocrisy built into every “decent” society, the moral bankruptcy disguised as moralism that is so often the grimy engine that chugs relentlessly underneath otherwise gleaming bodywork.

Plagued by shaky health that would force him off projects throughout his life, ostracized by some in French society who never forgave him for Le corbeau, and intimately associated with the identity crisis that plagued most of postwar Europe, Clouzot would bring to bear in all his subsequent films a uniquely ironic disappointment in man’s inability to fulfill his own potential. But it was never more extravagantly crystallized than in The Wages of Fear.

“It’s like prison here. Easy to get in. ‘Make yourself at home.’ But there’s no way out.”

When we enter the world of The Wages of Fear, we do so by way of an opening shot (later appropriated by Sam Peckinpah for the opening of The Wild Bunch) in which cockroaches are tied together and casually tortured by a half-naked child on an oily, muddy street in the oily, muddy village of Las Piedras. A flavored-ice vendor passes by, and the child abandons the cockroaches to covet treats he can’t afford. But still he has to look, to lust after the unattainable. Once the vendor passes, the child returns to the roaches, but a vulture has already taken his place. With a single stroke, Clouzot has set in motion his primary theme—that men are constantly searching the horizon to the detriment of all else in their immediate world. Men are “goal oriented,” addicted to the “quest,” itching for the “heroic” opportunity. Or so we tell ourselves. Clouzot says no. Men are wanderers. Adrenaline junkies. Mortally terrified of home and hearth.

How else to explain how our four “heroes” ended up in a hellhole like Las Piedras? They weren’t born there, and no one would live in Las Piedras by choice. While we’ll never discover what has driven them there, we know it must have been sins of a particularly unforgivable nature, because no one opts to live in hell unless the alternative is demonstrably worse. But since nothing is worse, the men have long since found reason to rue their decision and pine for escape. The four men are Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli), and Bimba (Peter Van Eyck), and Clouzot presents them as if the poverty and hopelessness of Las Piedras have already stripped them of many of the attributes Homo sapiens like to believe separate them from their simian forebears.

“Even when they guillotine you, they dress you up first.”

The four men are hired by the Southern Oil Company, a ruthless, American-owned multinational that has already laid waste to Las Piedras and, by extension, Central and South America. The company is personified by O’Brien (William Tubbs, reminding one of a puffier Lee J. Cobb), who hires the men for the suicide mission and makes a blustery speech about how they should be paid a top wage, even as one suspects that he assumes only two, at best, will survive. To co-workers who argue against hiring “bums” to do the job, O’Brien counters: “Those bums don’t have any union or any families.” When informed that the Safety Commission is coming to investigate the fire, he replies, “Put all the blame on the victims. They’re done for.” And yet even as one perceives Clouzot’s icy rage at the callousness of Western corporations (“If there’s oil around, they’re not far behind,” one character quips about the Americans in town), one can also feel his seething despair at the men who would willingly hand over their lives for such a pointless mission.

Mario, in particular, is an extremely dislikable protagonist. He treats his lover, Linda (the “perfect woman” in an emotionally stunted man-child’s fantasy, and played with knee-knocking sensuality by Clouzot’s wife, Véra, in all her dark-eyed, languid uncoiling), as if she were a dog, literally petting her on the head as she crawls to him on all fours in their first scene. Linda, it must be said, is a willing accomplice. She is all sexual supplicant to Mario, no matter how repeatedly she’s debased for her efforts, and is last seen lying prostrate, her eyes closed, awaiting the return of her lover.

Mario’s treatment of her, however, speaks to a man consumed with self-loathing, so much so that he is incapable of seeing that the sole good thing in his life, maybe in the entire history of it, kneels before him, willing, as Linda says, to rob for him, kill for him. That Mario rejects this so flatly speaks, as others have noted, to his repressed homosexual bond with Jo, but even more so to Clouzot’s mortification at the treasures men leave behind in order to pursue goals of far more dubious value.

The other men are depicted just as unsentimentally. Jo, a strutting, petty tyrant, attracts or repels all around him with his casual cruelty yet will later be revealed as the weakest of them all. Bimba, looking like a poster child for Hitler’s Aryan ideal, is so tightly wound and fatalistic that he’s expecting death before he even gets behind the wheel. And Luigi, ostensibly the warmest and most humane of the quartet, seems at best a holy fool, because even if he survives the trek, he’ll most likely die from diseased lungs, ravaged by exposure to cement during his tenure with the Southern Oil Company.

“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.”

The journey section of the film begins at the hour mark, and from that point on—for eighty-seven minutes of Homeric obstacles and knuckles so white you expect them to burst through the skin—it never relents. Each man who, as Jo puts it, rides with a “bomb on his tail” attempts to adapt to the never-ceasing thump of sheer terror as the trek begins with a full-out dash across the “washboard,” a road so ungainly, slick, and rutted that the only way to drive it without vibrations is at under six miles per hour or over forty; a turn so tight that to make it, they must back up onto what remains of a rotting bridge that hangs, as if by hope alone, over an abyss; and a gut-scouring set piece in which they must use some of the nitro to blow up a fifty-ton boulder in their path, and still make the fuse long enough to reach safety.

The entire journey, in fact, is a primer in what Clouzot and Alfred Hitch-cock understood above all others—and something I always felt that I, as a budding novelist, learned at their knees: that tension exists in the absence of shock, in the suggestion of dire possibility, as opposed to any presentation of calamity, which often ends up looking rather pedestrian. After the boulder, there is a pool of oil to drive through, in which Mario, determined not to get stuck, purposefully crushes the leg of Jo, who is guiding him . . . and still gets stuck. As each crisis is averted, the toll on the men’s nerves (particularly Jo’s) grows worse. It’s a refreshingly authentic concept—that exposure to terror does not make one less fearful, as most heroic films purport, but more so. You can’t conquer fear, only temporarily elude it. So each encounter represents merely another wink from Death. But the four men know all too well that Death, sooner or later, will open his eyes.

“Mario, my darling, why are you doing this?”

A film in which one character dies saying, “There’s nothing!” is bound to be attacked (as this one was and continues to be) for being both misanthropic and atheistic, but I’ve never felt that Clouzot was saying, “This is the world,” but rather, “This is the world we’ve made.” (A vision that condemns what man is, in despair over what man could be, is, perversely, a hopeful one.) It was we, after all, who helped make a world in which men risk all for the simple need to do so, are willing to lose all because it confirms their self-defeating interpretations of “fate,” destroy all because all is, well, destroyable. These men are, one can’t help feeling with a tragic sense of waste, children—torturing bugs to kill time while they wait for the vendor to come hawk delicacies they can never afford to purchase.

This piece was originally published in the Criterion Collection’s 2005 edition of The Wages of Fear.

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