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|Wages of Fear, The
by MP Bartley
Oh wait a minute you already have. Some of you may have seen a lamentable 70's thriller, 'Sorcerer' by William Friedkin and starring Roy Schneider. This is the original, a European production, mainly French with some Spanish and UK input, by Henri-Georges Clouzout (what, like Inpsector Clozout?). Some of you may have seen it, but when shown it's generally hacked down from its original 2and a half hour form to a more bite sized hour and a half. See it in its original length for all its Gallic goodness.Las Piedras is not a nice place to be. It's a dismal little shantytown in South America, and if you're residing there you're either unemployed and broke, a criminal, dying or a combination of all three.
"Hey Hollywood! It's Foreign and It's Great Why Haven't You Re-made It Yet?"
Mario (Yves Montand) is one such man, as is his room-mate Luigi (Fulco Lulli). They're both struggling to escape their lives when Jo (Charles Vanel) an old acquitance of Mario's arrives in town and immediately drives a wedge between the men. this acrimonious threesome relationship threatens to spill into bloodshed until a job offer arrives. An American oilfield some miles away has caught alight. The only way to put it out is to blow it out like a candle, using an even bigger explosion. The only nitro-glycerine is in Las Piedras and to get it to the oilfield would mean transporting it over hazardous terrain where one jolt would blow the carriers to kingdom come. But in a place like Las Piedras, you're as good as dead anyway so Mario, Jo, Luigi and the German Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) agree to take the lucrative but deadly job of ferrying the nitro-glycerine in trucks to the oilfield.
It's a set up ripe for dramatic possibilities, obviously explaining the attraction to Hollywood. It would be easy to imagine, say John McTiernan, remaking this with Colin Farrell, Jean Reno, Brendan Gleeson and Kiefer Sutherland for example. No-one tell him though. We all remember 'Rollerball'.
But I digress. 'The Wages of Fear' is littered with incident, but Clouzout takes the first hour to patiently draw the characters, and show the sheer squalor of Las Piedras, thus explaining why they would volunteer for such a mission. It's shot in glaring sunlight which finds no forgiveness in black and white, and the sweat practically drops from the characters and out of the screen. You might want to have a cold drink handy when you watch this.
Clozout also finds time for a little satire that still rings true today. When Jo remarks bitterly at the wealthy American presence "Where-ever there's oil, there's Americans", it's an uneasy moment. These men have lived in hell, so taking nitro across a mountain is like a day in the park for them. Desperate men do desperate deeds.
Ultimately, it's a 'men on a mission' movie and the mission is what we really want so Clozout rolls out hazards to block the way. There's rotting bridges, swamps and memorably a stretch of bumpy road that the two trucks can only pass by slowing down to either 10 miles an hour or accelerating to 50. Which wouldn't be too difficult if the truck in front hadn't decided to crawl along at 10 while the truck behind steams up behind it at 50...
After using the first hour to build up an air of social depravity and realism about the situation 'The Wages of Fear' would be severely unbalanced if the remaining time tipped into Dan Dare theatrics. So the hazards are presented logically and slowly. There's no hordes of thieves trying to raid the trucks, no jumping over broken bridges here. Just set-pieces that almost painfully at times, mount up the tension and slowly squeeze out the life in the men. If it was re-made now, it would take a director with some guts to let it rely on what amounts to three set-pieces to provide the action. Thankfully Clozout has the guts and provides 'The Wages of Fear' with an air of desperate realism.
He takes an almost perverse pleasure at showing the agonizingly slow journey it becomes at times. He also displays some trickery with the narrative. When one truck has a nasty accident, we learn it in a simple, yet shocking fashion, which doesn't show guts but 5 minutes later shows one character almost drown in oil.
The actors also bring a great deal to the parts which aren't particularly deep, but still spring some surprises as to who becomes a coward and who makes brave decisions for the good of the group. Van Eyck and Lulli are relegated to secondary characters but make the most of their moments, while Vanel's cynicism is a good contrast to Montand's romanticism. Montand is one of those typically French actors who looks the personification of moody and brings presence while seemingly doing very little. There's not much for them to work with, but work with it they do, giving their situation a bit of character while never cheapening it.
However, the fact remains that none of the drivers are particularly likeable thus making 'The Wages of Fear' a very hot film with a cold centre. It never fully drags the audience into the characters predicament leaving us like spectators at a dangerous stunt at a show, rather than making us travel with the characters.
And it gets further flawed as the film ends. To reveal the flaw that brings the film down a notch or two, would be to reveal the end, so if you don't want to know, skip to the closing statement.
No really. A MASSIVE spoiler.
Don't say I didn't warn you....
Ok, I don't mind films when all the main characters die. In fact I love it when a film has the balls to do it. But not when Mario finally dies in such a stupid fashion! Having delivered the nitro and collected his money, he's driving back singing along to himself. He's having such fun singing, he starts careering his truck along the mountain tip in a giddy fashion. That's right, the terrain they were so painstakingly careful to traverse, he just zooms along like he's in Wacky Races. And then he falls off and dies.
It's a shame that this doesn't come off, and may make people smirk if nothing else, as it's a brutal, cynical end to what's a brutal, cynical film. You know from the start these men are basically living out a death sentence anyway, but for Mario to go in such a ridicolous way...it negates a lot of the effect.
Far be it from me to tell a director what to do, but had Clozout ended the film when Mario crawls out of his truck, and collapses in front of the blazing oil field shooting up into the night, it would have been a much more effective and poetic ending. But hey, if there's another remake, I guess they can change that.'The Wages of Fear' has reputation as a little known classic and it certainly has a lot in its favour. It's taut, it's grimy and it's enthralling. But the final 5 minutes do let it down somewhat. And like a lot of foreign films, it's seemingly acquired a greater repution than it deserves, simply because it is foreign and in black and white. It's unlikely to change your world, but it should certainly be seen and should be known more for its own merits, than for a hamfisted re-make.
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originally posted: 06/17/03 10:31:00