The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953 (out of 1955))

Finally watched this picture last night.
Over the years I’ve rented it from two different libraries, and netflix – only to find the disc so scratched, each time, that it wouldn’t play past the 50 minute mark. This, and the fact that I find it hard to take pre-color movies seriously, has kind of built the movie up in my mind into a great white whale. I didn’t like the first fifty minutes enough to buy it. So it’s just plagued me for years.
But, At last, the delightful Corvallis Librarians purchased a brand new edition.

Sooo, I’ve been anticipating this movie for so long, and re-watched the first 20 to 45 minutes so many times (before disc hangs) that it’s hard to review. I’ve since watched William Friedkin’s spicy remake (Sorcerer, 1977). I’ve since learned to better appreciate/adore the merits of classic cinema. So now my thoughts on this flic are more muddled than the oil pit in the penultimate climax.

Maybe it’s one of the greatest movies ever made? Or maybe it’s bloated-overlong trash with some astonishing ideas that history has already forgotten? eh. hmm.

Is the main character – Mario, (a sweaty frenchman with a constant little neck kerchief) – the coolest French stereotype ever? or a bad joke? When i learned that he was being played by a pop singer of the time, Yves Montand, it further complicates the evaluation. This explains why he’s kind of a shitty actor, smiling too much and failing to match intensities with on-location actors, while he’s against a rear projection screen. But he certainly has the perfect look. And there are moments where he totally blows me away with grim intensity. Maybe this is all due to the director’s skill.

Heri-Georges Clouzot just gets better and better the more I read about him. An angry mood swinging perfectionist who supposedly lifted german expressionist techniques during his time there writing French-language versions of German films (he was fired in 1934 for having jewish friends). After 5 years in a sanitorium in switzerland, fighting tuberculosis, he returns to Nazi-occupied france and starts writing for the Nazis (“for the money”. He writes screenplays, and finally directs one, that fill the void left by Nazi’s banning all American Cinema at the time). The second film he directs, La Corbeau (the Raven) seriously pisses off just about everybody (the right-wing Vichy regime, the left-wing Resistance press, and the catholic church). Clouzot is fired 2 days before it’s release, and later (after the liberation of France) is banned from filmmaking for life. Other french filmmakers/artists protest (Sartre, Cocteau, Carné), and this is reduced to 2 years.
He goes on to make 3 ok movies, and a dark short film about a concentration camp survivor torturing a nazi, before Wages of Fear. He also maries this hot lady, and takes a film crew along on their honeymoon to Brazil, where he gets in trouble with the Brazilian government for documenting the suffering of the poor. When he comes back, he settles in to make Wages of Fear and then Diabolique – the two movies for which he will be best known. He fucks around until French New Wave becomes the new french fad, and film critics basically piss on his work. His final film, La Prisonnière (1968) is about a photographer who takes masochistic submissive pictures of young women, and finds a woman who really likes being in them. He’s planning to make a big pornographic movie next, but dies.

When you learn that Clouzot was blacklisted for working with the Nazis, does Wages stand out as an awesome thumbing of the nose at those who said he had no value as an artist? This movie’s tagline could easily be “Stress Fear and money can destroy even the hardest men.”

Apparently there was some controversy over the edits made for it’s 1955 American release. Are these realllllly an attempt to tone down anti-american sentiments? and the arguably may-be-gay man affection? I’d say no, as the movie was already pretty damned long, and these are both secondary plot lines to main characters. Who still get damned intimate (glose?) in their doomed slaving for the American oil corporation. but who knows.

And the final shot. WTF. To my modern eyes this last sequence is totally awesome and makes no damned sense. Feels like the director just smoked a bag of crack and decided to crap on the audience for bothering to sit through his entire 147 minute epic. instead of abruptly saying “fin” it should have just say “fuck you”.

…but does this weird ending make it even more awesome? Like a 1950s era punk rock?

Damn. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Uh anywho. I’m rambling. Ebert wrote a fine review.

I would argue that the epic oil pit scene is actually the tense scene to end all tense scenes. Though several of these “tensequences” left me leaning forward an gritting my teeth. … which kind of blows me away. … That this flick from almost 60 years ago is more hardcore and poignantly political than anything we’ve seen in the last decade. To me this movie seems to say “Casablanca was for pussies.”


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