Criterion Sunday 36: Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953)

You can understand, watching it, why The Wages of Fear is so well-regarded as a thriller, but it takes its time to get going. For about the first hour, the film is firmly engaged in scene setting, flitting amongst its close-knit group of down-on-their-luck European grifters stranded in a remote Mexican town where the only way in and out is an airfield. Their problem is that they don’t have enough money for an airfare and the only local source of jobs is a US-run oil corporation that shuts itself away from the rest of the squalid town and doesn’t want anything to do with the local population. A leader of sorts emerges with Frenchman Mario (Yves Montand), who is soon joined by the older Jo (Charles Vanel), hopping off a plane hoping for a break, but quickly finding himself stuck like the others he meets. Director Clouzot picked a remote French location to film, near the Spanish border (so the voices heard are as likely to be Spaniards as Mexicans), but he sets up his one-horse town well, with some scene-setting lifted almost wholesale by Sam Peckinpah for The Wild Bunch (kids taunting some bugs in the first shot, for example). The sense of mud and heat is pervasive and intense, so only when this has had a chance to really sink in does Clouzot and his fellow screenwriter (his brother, using a pseudonym) introduce the plot: some locals are needed by the American company to convey a dangerous shipment of nitroglycerine in trucks across the mountains to put out an oil fire. It’s a simple setup and the kind of thing that’s influenced generations of stripped-down action films: you’ve got the omnipresent danger (here, the nitroglycerine) hanging like Damocles’ sword, and you have an equally combustible mix of strong-willed personalities (or weak-willed ones, as Jo increasingly turns out to be). But in allowing some time to set his scene, the film ends up being something of an attack on the futility of capitalism — a society in which its inhabitants are trapped by a lack of money, and whose only salaried opportunity to escape is almost literally rigged to kill them. Whatever happens, no one wins: such are, after all, the wages of fear.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot; Writers Clouzot and Jean Clouzot [as “Jérôme Géronimi”] (based on the novel by Georges Arnaud); Cinematographer Armand Thirard; Starring Yves Montand, Charles Vanel; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 13 May 2015.


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