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This is an extraordinary movie. From the opening scene showing the
squalor of a Latin American town with filth and vultures in the street
and naked children begging for food amid the oppressive, fly-stirred
heat, to the finale on a winding mountain road, it is just plain
fascinating. True, some of the action does not bear close scrutiny. One
does not siphon nitroclycerine nor does one avoid potholes or bumps in
the road by driving at forty miles per hour. No matter. Let's allow a
little license. And the title doesn't entirely make sense because the
wages of sin are death, but the wages of those who followed their fear
and did not seek to drive a nitroclycerine truck over 300 miles of bad
road are life. Again, no matter.
This is such an original movie, every scene like little or nothing you've ever seen before (and for sure will never see again), that the little inconsistencies and some stretching of what is possible are not important. This is man against nature, man against himself reduced to a simple task. It is life in the raw. One mistake and you are dead.
Yves Montand has the lead as Mario, a Frenchman stranded in this god-forsaken town with only one way out: get enough money to pay for airfare. Charles Vanel is the older, tin-horn dandy who ends up with a case of the shakes. Peter Van Eyck is the man with the nerves of steel who finds this little adventure a piece of cake after forced labor in the salt mines for the Nazis. And Folco Lulli is Luigi, the happy, singing baker who hopes to return to Italy with the two thousand dollars they are paying him to drive the nitro-loaded truck.
This is a film depicting the primitive nature of a macho mentality. There's a lot of posturing. Every event is a potential test of manhood. Status and privilege are flouted. The weak and the poor do not inherit the earth.
Henri-Georges Clouzet directs and somehow manages to come up with a work of genius. One wonders how. The story, on the face of it, would seem to belong in the slush pile of a ten-cent pulp fiction mag from the 1930's. The acting is good, very good in places, but not great. The cinematography is straightforward, but nonetheless very effective. It is lean and focused always, showing us what needs to be seen without drawing attention to itself: the invisible style, which is the best. Clouzet's direction is characterized by a vivid depiction of things that we can feel: the mud and filth in the streets, the desperation and the boredom, the cruelty and meanness of men, the oil on their bodies, the singular fact of a ton of nitro in the back seat so that every move is a neuron-exposing adventure. I think that the visceral experience from beginning to end and the fine pacing are the essence of what makes this a great film.
Clouzet's wife, Vera Clouzet, plays Linda who first appears scrubbing the floor in an open-air bistro. She is rather extraordinary herself, finely made up and creamy white like a star of the silent film era. She grovels a lot, especially for Mario. She provides the counter-point, the contrast for the testosterone action of the movie.
No student of film should miss this. It would be like missing Citizen Kane or Dr. Strangelove or especially The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which it vaguely and strangely resembles. "La salaire de la peur" is, regardless of its flaws, one of the best ever made.
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This movie is astonishing, a gritty story filmed in an ultra-real style that relies simply on the beauty of lighting and film to achieve its stunning effects. It seems from another world, which in a way, it is. The acting is superb: Montand's Mario is full of jerky movements and intense impulses but always maintains his Gallic savoir-faire, while Charles Vanel as Jo brings, at first at least, a type of macho to the screen that modern movie-makers simply do not comprehend. The rest of the cast, especially the camp chief, Luigi, and Peter van Eyck as Bimba are incredible, as is Vera Clouzot who is incomprehensibly but believably upbeat and innocent - and totally gorgeous - in the midst of the hellhole of a town they're all stuck in. Clouzot's directing is flawless - I don't think anyone has ever squeezed more tension with just a few essential scene elements. The trucks wheeze and grunt as well as they ever have in the movies - the only comparison is Spielberg's early gem, "The Duel", but Clouzot's automotive cinematics outdo even Spielberg. The stripped down existentialism of the characters, the starkness of their shared dilemma, the grim and grimy scenery, and the cinematography itself are all of a piece. The latter is what elevates this movie to the very top rank, including some of the most dramatic and effective black and white shooting I've ever seen. Yet it never becomes mannered or gratuitous - it is orchestrated with the rise - and rise! - of tension in the film. The final scene takes on a surreal as opposed to ultra-realistic quality that has its own logic. One last word about the acting - we don't see anything like it anymore. The self-conscious mannerism of method acting (which has had its own triumphs) and the toxic awareness of everyone from the actors to the audience, the camera, directors, etc. that each actor is a celebrity and potential artiste, has ruined that conviction that actors were once larger than life people before they went on-screen, that they came to acting as an outcome of living rough, unadorned, and yet imaginative lives as opposed to shooting for fame and fortune and celebrity within an artificial corporate star-making incubator.
A completely novel plot. Happened upon this on late night TV about 10 years ago. Thought I had seen all the best of the classics and then this came on. "Where have you been all my life?" was the overwhelming question. What an incredibly beautiful and stark movie at the same time. Absolutely unprecedented. Everything about it--especially the cinematography (check out the scene with the turnabout for the trucks) is superior. If you care about plot, allegory, intelligent directing and acting, this is one which is second to none. Nitroglycerine being transported across the Venezuelan countryside. . .who comes up with this stuff? The remake (Sorcerer) is decent, but doesn't even come close. Outstanding flick.
This movie is a true masterpiece in every way! When I rented the DVD and read the story it sounded familiar, because I had watched the newer version before in color with Roy Scheider, which was good as well. But watching the original film truly blew me away. This movie is well made in every detail. It puts a lot of detail-work in the creation of the characters, and once you think that is over and the "regular action-part" starts, it becomes even better and the story takes a 90 degree turn! After I had finished watching the entire movie, I needed at least 5 minutes just to "digest" it and rethink this fantastic film. If you got a chance to watch it, don't miss it! It is entertaining from the first to the last minute!
Whoever it may be to rightly claim that he invented the action thriller
genre (Méliès, I suppose), Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Le salaire de la peur"
is an indispensable milestone on the exciting route to the best films of
that kind in the 70's, 80's and nowadays. In its tenseness, as symbolized by
the danger of explosion of the lorries' loads, it has hardly been surpassed.
The plot is perfectly worked out from start to end, the leading players act in some of their best parts ever, the (almost) absence of music supports the brutal realism and the consequent choice of authentic outdoor settings contributed a lot to the film's deserved success. Historically, it ranges between neorealismo and nouvelle vague, and yet it is its pure action and suspense that make it worth watching for younger audiences who wouldn't go in for just the artistic way. - Only flaw I can see is the curious, rather artificial change in Vanel's character which has no comprehensible motivation, at least for me whenever I see it.
Apart from that, Clouzot's wife Véra (also well-known from his "Les diaboliques") plays to the "most breathtaking angles" gallery when she bows down to scrub the floor of Dario Moreno's gin joint. It's a man's world after all and there are male perspectives on human survival only. Well, it's existentialism, mates. Altogether, the black and white photography is gripping. The gun scene between Lulli and Vanel is one of the best montages in film history, and there is more excellent editing in "Salaire" (including the finale) that completely fits the hot atmosphere.
Georges Arnaud's novel LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR has been filmed twice, by Henri-Georges Clouzot as THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953) and by William Friedkin as SORCERER (1977). While both films are worth seeing, the earlier version is the one regarded as a classic, and rightly so. Although SORCERER goes into more detail about the political climate and the various misdeeds that led the four desperate protagonists to the South American hellhole where they accept high-paying but life-risking jobs driving nitroglycerin through treacherous terrain, WAGES... distinguishes the men's personalities better, giving the audience more rooting interest in them. Both films have excellent casts, with charismatic leads in Yves Montand (WAGES...) and Roy Scheider (SORCERER), plus WAGES... also provides feminine charm in the form of beguiling Vera Clouzot as the café waitress who loves Montand. Both films have tense action sequences as well, but somehow for all the staging and skillful editing, SORCERER's action scenes seem strangely slow, slogging along in the mud just like the protagonists in their less-than-state-of-the-art trucks. Both versions have enough good things in them to be worth a look, but if you only have the time and resources to check out one of them, it's WAGES... that really pays off!
This is richer, tenser, more atmospheric, and in all ways a better film than
Clouzot's next one, "Les Diabolique" - which is saying a lot. I've never
understood why Clouzot isn't more highly regarded. Indeed, for a long time
I simply couldn't believe that he wasn't.
One charge that hangs over his head is misogyny. With regards to "Les Diabolique" this is simply ridiculous; with regards to "The Wages of Fear", I can see how one could harbour the uncomfortable feeling that there is, perhaps, something in it. But what, really, does the evidence amount to? The fact that one of the heroes is inexcusably cruel to his girlfriend? It's not as if the film endorses this, or invites us to take pleasure in it, or even, for that matter, allows us to. The characters are all flawed, and the film doesn't seek to deny it. It does, however, make an attempt to explain it. That town in the middle of nowhere is, we feel, really in the MIDDLE of nowhere; it must be the dustiest and most demoralising place on Earth. After a while we feel as if we could start kicking someone, just to break the monotony.
There's no doubt that the initial monotony gives the rest of the film half its strength. William Wyler once said that if you want to surprise or shock an audience the best thing you can do is bore them half to death beforehand - and although I can think of absolutely no reason why this should be so, allowing for a little exaggeration, it's true. The seemingly aimless opening sequences help make every single frame, from the moment the nitro-glycerin is mentioned, electric.
So much is, in retrospect, amazing. There's the way Clouzot manages to show us the humanity in these seemingly squalid people. (Even the oil magnate, just when we think he's the world's most heartless capitalist, reveals he has a heart with an unexpected remark, and yet the remark doesn't feel at all out of character - it's the kind of masterful characterisation film-goers live for.) Then there's the obstacles these drivers must face. All are memorable; most are so perfectly realised they deserve to be called mythic.
Clouzot rarely gets the attention he deserves. He made not one, but two of the greatest thrillers of all time, 'Les Diaboliques' and 'The Wages Of Fear', both perfect examples of how to make genuinely suspenseful movies that build up an amazing amount of tension. Most so-called thrillers made in Hollywood these days are thrillers in name only and could learn a lesson or two from these movie classics. 'The Wages Of Fear' could even be described as an action movie, but it is a CHARACTER DRIVEN action movie, and that's what makes it so special. Modern audiences with MTV attention spans might find the plot a little slow, but I think the first half of the movie, which deals with the motley collection of exiles in a poor Latin American town, is not only fascinating in itself, but really makes a massive impact on the second half. By taking his time introducing the characters and exploring their relationships and possible motivations, Clouzet adds depth and meaning to the rest of the exciting story, something very rarely achieved in this type of movie since. The cast, every single one of them, are flawless. The four leads, Mario, the fairly decent guy played by yves Montand, his new best friend the shifty M. Jo (Charles Vanel), his old pal the kind hearted Luigi (Folco Lulli), and the enigmatic Bimba (Peter van Eyck), are all brilliant. Great performances, taut and imaginative direction, crisp and impressive cinematography, and a handful of the most riveting sequences ever committed to film make 'Wages Of Fear' a truly unforgettable experience. Suspense movies don't come much better than this! Simply a masterpiece.
"The Wages of Fear" was awarded by unanimous verdict the Grand Prix at 1953 Cannes Film Festival where it won over 27 films, some of which were made by Jacques Tati, Alfred Hitchcock, and Luis Buñuel. Cluozot's own screenplay (based a novel by George Arnaud) focuses on four down-and-out European adventurers (Yves Montand, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck, Charles Vanel) who stuck nearly penniless in a festering town in an unnamed South American country. An oil company need a load of highly dangerous and explosive nitroglycerin to be delivered to a remote well fire 300 miles away burning out of control. The route is through jungles and over crude and treacherous mountains and those men are desperate enough to take the chance. None of these men is heroic or generous, they are in for the money. The four were chosen by the managers of oil company because "if something happens to them, no one would care, they have nobody to worry about them". Henri-Georges Clouzot's view on humanity is not particularly optimistic but he finds a way to make a viewer care about disenchanted but desperate characters. Thanks to Clouzot's ability to create not only a gripping action film but a powerful study of failure, the four men will stay for long time in our memory.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In Clouzot, relationships are arenas of conflict: violent, callous, and
often destined to sink into a whirlpool of deceit and destructive
Clouzot forms with "The Wages of Fear" two teams of four desperate European expatriates who agree to drive two trucks of nitroglycerine across miles of rocky mountain matched with craters to a site of an oil refinery fire so that the oil company can then blow the pipeline and put out the blaze...
The audaciously slow, atmospheric opening establishes both characters and the malignant influence of US oil interests in a dusty South American village, before the odyssey begins The tension never stumbles: friendship falls prey to financial greed, honor to a sweaty fear of sudden death
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