Thursday, January 1, 2009

Target #255: Le Salaire de la peur / The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

TSPDT placing: #206
Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by: Georges Arnaud (novel), Henri-Georges Clouzot (writer), Jérôme Géronimi (writer)
Starring: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter van Eyck, Véra Clouzot, William Tubbs, Darío Moreno, Jo Dest

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

For a brief period during the 1950s, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot captured the mantle of "The Master of Suspense" from Alfred Hitchcock, owing mostly to his two most recognised thrillers, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955). It's a difficult title to live up to, but Clouzot knows precisely what he's doing, even if he seems to lack Hitchcock's distinctive sense of showmanship. What I've always loved about cinema is its ability to manipulate reality, to elicit genuine emotions from situations that, in real life, would seem mundane, or even ridiculous. An example I've used before, I believe, is Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), in which a peaceful and benign forest is inexplicably transformed into an environment of intense mystery and foreboding. Now consider The Wages of Fear, when actor Peter van Eyck funnels what is probably water into a drilled hole in the rock. There's zero suspense in this simple act of pouring. However, taken within the context of the story, this water suddenly becomes nitroglycerine, and I got sore fingers from gripping the chair so tightly. The Wages of Fear contains two particular sequences that rival anything Hitchcock ever did in terms of suspense. In the first, to which I briefly alluded above, a small amount of nitroglycerine is utilised to demolish a huge boulder blocking the road, the slightest lapse in concentration certain to lead to disaster. In the second, Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Charles Vanel) wallow pathetically in a deepening pool of crude oil, drowning in the black tar that represents the United States' rampant capitalistic greed {the motif of oil epitomising greed is not an uncommon one in cinema, and most recently turned up in P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2006)}. What I think prevents Clouzot's film from being truly brilliant is the opening half-hour or so, which is not only unsuspenseful, but damn near uninteresting. Of course, I suppose, it's important to note the changes that take place in the characters both before and after their new job – the dominating Joe quickly reveals his cowardice, and the sycophantic Mario takes over the role of boss – but Hitchcock, at least, would have made these introductions far more compelling.

Towards the film's ending, I have conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it is a wonderful masterwork of cinematography and editing, as Mario's driving is intercut with the waltz of his acquaintances back in town, to the tune of Strauss' "The Blue Danube." There's an astonishing momentum to the camera movements; we foresee what is about to happen at least a minute before Montand's character does, but are powerless to stop it. He carries on his Dance Macabre (a figurative "waltz with death") until he loses control of the truck, begetting a spectacular, fiery plummet over the cliff edge. On the other hand, the entire incident – however satisfying filmically – doesn't seem like a natural progression of the narrative, possessing the air of a conclusion affixed only to achieve a surefire audience reaction. Unfortunately, similar cases of characters acting illogically litter the story, providing what might be described as mere cheap thrills: Mario continues to reverse the truck even after being told to stop, and Luigi, at one point, ludicrously decides to run towards an impending explosion rather than away from it.

Currently my #5 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)
3) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton)
5) Le salaire de la peur {The Wages of Fear} (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
6) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)
7) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
8) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)


Jump_Raven said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jump_Raven said...

Andrew, I think you missed the noir aspects of this film. The death at the end had to come. These people are going to die and it is going to be because a truck explodes. This sense of fatalism permeates the entire film and makes the ending work.

By the way, for somebody who is a self proclaimed novice you sure seem to know a fair amount about movies. I am also trying to get through TSPDT's top 1000 and am around 530 films done. If you need help finding some of them, I have quite a few of them on hand.

ackatsis said...

Hi there, Raven.

I find it interesting what you say here: "The death at the end had to come." That's kind of why I felt the ending didn't work - it seems as though it was only placed there to make a point, and it didn't feel like a natural progression of the story. Maybe it was just frustrating to see the character behave so idiotically after spending three days proving himself as a smooth operator.

Did he really have to die? I read one comment on IMDb that mused on what I probably would have considered a better ending: Mario arrives at his destination, having watched three of his comrades die horrible deaths, only to find that the oil well had already extinguished himself. Now there's irony for you!

As for my film experience... well, I'm certainly more learned than your average man on the street, but I'm still only on #255!