Alfred Hitchcock is the undisputed master of suspense, but French director Henri-Georges Clouzot makes a strong case for usurping his title with 1953's 'The Wages of Fear.' One of cinema’s darkest, most tension-filled works, this riveting study of desperation, existential despair, fraternal bonding, and corporate greed, all wrapped up in a gritty action movie framework, remains a timeless testament to the visceral power of fine filmmaking. (It’s also a terrific companion piece to Clouzot’s other gnaw-your-nails masterwork, 'Diabolique.') Few movies have wielded as much influence over time, yet in this country, 'The Wages of Fear' has never received the mainstream recognition it deserves. The cinema intelligentsia may sing its praises, but average Joe Netflix probably hasn’t even heard of this classic French thriller.
And yet most definitely he's been touched by it. Elements of 'The Wages of Fear' turn up in some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters, namely 'Speed' and 'Vertical Limit.' And William Friedkin's 1977 action flick, 'Sorcerer' (starring Roy Scheider), is a direct, if inferior, remake. None of the above films, however, contain half the substance of 'The Wages of Fear' or approach the level of gut-churning anxiety this movie pumps out. The pall of doom and dread hanging over its misfit characters is so intense, it's hard not to shift and fidget throughout the picture's tantalizingly taut second half. And Clouzot caps it all off with a devastating denouement you won't soon forget.
Much like the dead-end refugees in 'Casablanca,' the leading players of 'The Wages of Fear' are hopelessly stuck in the squalor of a foreign environment – in this case, a South American oil town. What brought them to such a hot, grimy, isolated purgatory remains a mystery, but everyone itches to get out. Prospects, however, are worse than bleak, and as time creeps by, desperation mounts. So much so that four men – Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli), and Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) – volunteer to transport truckloads of intensely combustible nitroglycerin across rugged terrain so the ruthless American oil company that has royally screwed them can extinguish a raging fire at one of its wells. If they survive the suicidal journey, a lucrative paycheck will buy their freedom, but the chances of that are dubious at best.
From the opening shot of a native boy torturing some cockroaches, Clouzot constructs a slow-burn thriller that takes its time ramping up suspense, but richly rewards viewer patience. The film's first half sets the table by shaping the characters' motivations and interpersonal dynamics, and putting in place the subtle yet weighty themes that drive the tale. More than anything else, 'The Wages of Fear' is a story about men and the desires that consume them, the recklessness that foils them, and the pigheadedness that prevents them from seeing what really matters in life. This motley quartet's complex bond has led some to detect an undercurrent of latent homosexuality, but however one interprets the relationships, it's fascinating to watch these distinctly different males confront the full emotional gamut as they endure unimaginable stress and the insidious effects of fear and desperation. Death, of course, constantly clouds the air; a bump in the road, rut on a bridge, or mistimed cough or sneeze could spell catastrophe, and Clouzot masterfully highlights every potential danger.
He also acutely attacks American greed and imperialism. His harsh portrait of a grasping, money-grubbing culture embodied by a heartless oil company willing to sacrifice human life to protect its bottom line – an element that still hits uncomfortably close to home today – prompted censors to cut several derogatory scenes before the film's 1955 U.S. release. Clouzot's existential slant struck a nerve, too, and caused further deletions, but helps punctuate the utter hopelessness that eats away at Mario, Jo, Luigi, and others. In all, the censors shaved off about 50 minutes of "offensive" footage, but thankfully, Criterion presents 'The Wages of Fear' in its entirety – complete and uncut – and the experience is indeed powerful.
All the actors – including Clouzot's wife, Vera, who portrays the devoted girlfriend Mario takes for granted and casts aside – contribute unforgettable performances, but the action always takes center stage. Tension, at times, is almost unbearable. Clouzot knows just how to manipulate the action to maximum effect, often using images alone to heighten the sense of urgency and peril. Seemingly simple obstacles become monumental challenges due to the cargo's explosive nature, and the men must navigate them with extreme caution and courage. Without special effects or gimmicky gadgets, Clouzot weaves a mesmerizing spell, using his characters, their dire situation, and brilliant technique to craft this engrossing entertainment. If only more contemporary directors would take a leaf or two from his book…If you love action movies, you owe it to yourself to check out 'The Wages of Fear.' The blockbusters of today should be eternally indebted to this continental thrill ride that satisfies on a variety of levels and, most importantly, respects its audience. Whether you absorb its themes or revel in its breathless narrative, this is one unforgettable film.
Criterion presents 'The Wages of Fear' in its original full-frame ratio, and the image quality is quite good. Though it's immediately apparent this is a 50-year-old film, the grain structure never overwhelms the picture; instead, it adds a gritty realism that enhances the story and subtly ratchets up tension. High contrast really pumps up the white levels, accentuating the barren, dusty settings and making us feel the blistering heat, but it seems just a tad over-pushed. On the whole, however, the gray scale possesses good variance, with blacks flaunting fine gradation from smooth and inky to more delicate shades of gray.
Clouzot shies away from too many close-ups, but the ones we do get provide all the sharp details we expect in 1080p. The clarity, of course, makes rear projection work more noticeable, but hardly hinders enjoyment or disrupts the edgy mood. Almost all nicks, scratches, and debris have been removed, which keeps our attention nailed on the narrative. This isn't a silky, lush transfer on a par with 'Casablanca,' but it accurately mirrors the film's harsh look and feel, and emphasizes the vibrant and dimensional qualities of black-and-white film stock in high definition. Those who own the previous Criterion edition of 'The Wages of Fear' may not be blown away by the improvements, but certainly won't regret trading up.
The PCM uncompressed mono audio can't hide the deficiencies of the original track, but it makes 'The Wages of Fear' sound about as good as it possibly can. The audio is surprisingly full-bodied, with crisp accents and subtle nuances providing a wealth of atmosphere. From noisy motorcycles, creaking wagons, and squealing dogs to whistles, buzzards, and sirens, all the essential details are distinct and properly prioritized. Unless you're fluent in French, understanding the dialogue isn't essential (although there are a few exchanges in English); still, conversations come through clearly, and annoying pops and crackles have been erased. A faint touch of hiss remains, but it's almost impossible to detect.
Dynamic range is understandably limited; at times, the audio flirts with distortion and occasionally sounds a bit hollow, but such rough edges are par for the course for a film of this vintage that was largely shot on location in remote areas. All in all, Criterion has done an excellent job sprucing up what must have been a messy track, and making it presentable.
Criterion always puts together a slick, attractive disc presentation, but strangely downplays the Blu-ray angle on the packaging. Aside from a small blue sticker on the case's outer cellophane, the only mention of Blu-ray is on the back cover. The company also foregoes the standard tinted Blu-ray case in favor of a thicker clear plastic case with identical dimensions. (None of this is a big deal; it's just an interesting buck-the-trend choice on Criterion's part that bears noting.) Inside is the standard Criterion booklet printed on glossy paper and containing beautifully reproduced photos, a cast and crew listing, production notes, and an insightful essay by novelist Dennis Lahane, author of 'Gone Baby Gone' and 'Mystic River,' and a big fan of 'The Wages of Fear.'
The disc supplements are of high quality as well, although an audio commentary would have been a terrific addition. The film flaunts so much cinematic style and narrative subtext, a scene-specific discussion would most likely have been as compelling as the movie itself. Still, what Criterion does include will satisfy those eager to learn about the production and its colorful director.
One of the masterworks of modern cinema, 'The Wages of Fear' deserves to be seen by everyone who appreciates great direction, top-notch storytelling, and good old-fashioned action thrillers. Criterion brings this gem to us complete and uncut, along with a high-quality video transfer, uncompressed audio, fine supplements, and classy packaging. Not just for classics lovers, 'The Wages of Fear' is a relevant, exciting, and altogether absorbing film experience, and deserves a spot on every serious movie buff's shelf. Highly recommended.