Monday 22 January 2007

The Wages of Fear (1953) Henri-Georges Clouzot

Life in the Venezuelan village of Las Piedras seems to be pretty quiet. The heat is excessive so while local kids dance in the streams of water, everyone else lounges in the sun, casually throwing stones at dogs, lusting after the local waitress or pouring water over themselves. In fact everything is casual: the local immigration clerk lounges around with no shoes on; the driver of the water truck seems to be asleep; people steal, love, do precisely nothing with the quiet air of the siesta. It's pretty obvious that those Europeans who have found their way here have done so through some dubious means, probably because they shouldn't be anywhere else. However they're stuck there because there's no work, thus no money and it's too expensive to get out. Only the oil company has money and they aren't hiring lowlife westerners.

Or at least they aren't hiring until a bad accident kills five people, and they need to transport a ton of nitroglycerin to derrick 16. Bill O'Brien, the man in charge, will pay good money to Europeans to do the job , in order to avoid paying off the families of local labourers who while exploited are still union workers. The big problem is that the nitro is volatile, the roads in terrible condition and the trucks not equipped with necessary safety equipment, so O'Brien sends four men in two trucks, both loaded with enough nitro to do the job just in case the other truck doesn't get through.

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot builds his story wonderfully, so the four are well defined characters before they ever set off, even though we aren't filled in on their reasons for being in Las Piedras. There's Mario, played by the singer/actor Yves Montand in his first major dramatic role; the dangerous yet cowardly Jo with a huge chin, played by Charles Venal, who had one of the longest careers of any actor: from 1910 to 1988, three more even than Lillian Gish and second only to German Curt Bois; Folco Lulli as the hard working Luigi, with perhaps only six months to live; and Peter van Eyck as a very capable Dutchman called Bimba.

The village reeks of authenticity even though it's really in southern France and was specifically constructed for this film. We can feel the mud and the sun and the lethargy, let alone the danger and the tension and the insane rivalry between the drivers of the two trucks. The ending is a good one, though I saw it coming, but all in all Henri-George Clouzot does a marvellous job, and I'm intrigued to see the later version of the same source novel, filmed as Sorcerer by William Friedkin in 1977. I'm also even more intrigued to see Les Diaboliques, Clouzot's other Top 250 film, made two years after this one, which shook up everything and led to the birth of Psycho.

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