Friday, April 24, 2009

Movie Musings: The Wages of Fear (1953)

Those guys might have been lowlife scumbags but they sure knew what the hell they were doing.

I just finished watching a film by French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, "Le Salaire de la Peur" or "The Wages of Fear," made in 1953. I had never heard of it before but saw it in the Criterion section at a DVD store. As soon as I read a synopsis of the film I had to rent it.

In a squalid South American oil town, four drifters are recruited for a suicide job: transport two trucks loaded with nitroglycerin 200 miles over a mountainous road to a burning oil field. Any bump or hole could set off their cargo. Their reward if they survive? $2,000 U.S. dollars, a fortune. They meet plenty of obstacles including their own fears and conflicts. Through it all these men show an admirable resourcefulness and courage.

The film is renowned as being one of the most suspenseful films ever made, and it had me on the edge of my seat once the action got started. The first half hour or 40 minutes is slow, showing the men, their circumstances, and the people in the town. The only way to describe the town is that it's an absolute shit hole. You can't blame them for wanting to leave.

The film was criticized for showing an uncaring American oil company in a foreign country that brazenly exploits the local workers. These scenes were cut when the film was released here in 1955. I was surprised at how honest these scenes were and applaud the director for showing what we now know U.S. corporations can be like.

It was also criticized for being sexist because one of the female characters is shown as a beautiful but bullied woman who scrubs the floors while on her hands and knees. Her man treats her badly and pushes her around.

The film is gloriously shot in black and white, and the editing is superb. I found myself rewinding to watch some scenes and pausing to look at certain moments in detail. Part of the pleasure is watching the characters' emotional journeys. They start out with a swagger, high and mighty and self-confident. Soon they become sweaty, dirty, bickering men, terrified of falling rocks and puddles. How each character reacts to this fear varies: wallowing in cowardice and single-minded ruthless survival both rear their ugly heads. Through it all the men are tied together for they can't survive without each other. Towards the end of their journey there is nothing left but compassion and tears. This is marvelous storytelling.

The film comes full circle with a twist proving its existentialist leanings.

William Friedkin, the great director of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," did a remake in 1977 called "Sorcerer." I'm looking forward to watching it and doing a comparison with this film.

Highly recommended.

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