The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

If Henri-Georges Clouzot’s stark Diabolique was wicked, The Wages of Fear is grueling sadism. It’s difficult for even a seasoned viewer of thrillers to name another film whose audience is so gleefully tortured, taunted and mocked. This is cinema of a truly staggering variety, hauntingly real in its methodical first half, agonizingly suspenseful in its second — it runs 144 minutes, but trust as you stick with its leisurely first act that none of those are wasted time. The length is so that Clouzot can wrap you up slowly in his tangled web of suspense. In the day and age of savvy viewership we’re all warned about things like this beforehand, but you just can’t imagine how intense this film gets even if you’ve already seen Diabolique and Le Corbeau.

The film revolves around several bored, angsty drifters in a South American town (a melting pot of heat and confusion, with at least four languages widely spoken) who are given an employment opportunity they can’t afford to refuse: the dangerous transport of nitro-glycerine three hundred miles away in a pair of trucks over rough, unpredictable road. Further details are pointless; just be promised that the movie will excruciate you up to its final moments. “Unforgiving” would be putting it too lightly, “cynical” lighter still, “thrilling” and “disturbing” trite beyond belief against the scope of the production. It’s wrenching.

Some say that Clouzot is like Hitchcock — a comparison both directors welcomed — except devoid of all respect for mankind; in a sense, this makes for a surprisingly entertaining motif, as Diabolique would later prove. But Wages does, in fact, have some sort of a beating heart, or else it couldn’t make so much of the risks its characters take and the dear cost they end up paying. Perhaps in a story sense, it is flippant and crass and even nihilistic, especially at the end — though one could easily argue otherwise — and yet it remains an essentially honest human story, a coal-black portrait of masculinity tested in Deliverance-like terms, an examination of camaraderie, betrayal, casual sexism, selfishness and caring among men. It’s about the shallow proof and measure of manhood, and it’s about how little these supposed ruggeds truly know about the stakes of the world. It may be cruel and coldhearted, but it does have something potent and true to say about boys left alone with their egos. And, like its close thematic cousin Treasure of the Sierra Madre, something stronger yet about capitalism and poverty: how destitution breeds doom, devastation, how working oneself to the bone for peanuts is finally a comically futile exercise.

The Wages of Fear is gorgeously photographed in black & white, flawlessly performed, unrelentingly gritty, and endlessly exciting, but most of this is kind of easy to miss as you find yourself throttled and dazzled by one amazing setpiece after another. This is a movie of sheer cinematic virtuosity, one of the finest shockers ever crafted, and a story that will leave you numb, beaten, destroyed. Please, please don’t miss it.

[Slightly fleshed out from my original 2007 review.]

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