I’m starting to think that director Henri-Georges Clouzot enjoyed courting controversy.
As you’ll recall, his first major film, “Le Corbeau,” got him banned from directing in France for four years. His 1953 “The Wages of Fear” got him censored in the United States. The reason was chalked up to the film containing “anti-American” sentiments. And that’s true, but only to a point and only if you ignore the rest of the film.
Set in South America and focusing on a quartet of roughnecks hired to transport a dangerous and deadly shipment of nitroglycerine across perilous terrain, Clouzot’s film is anti-American, but only because America is grouped in with everything else. It’s more anti-everything, coming together to become one of the director’s most bleak, pessimistic films. The anti-American sentiments are simply the most visible, as it’s an American oil company that hires these roughnecks because they’re lowlifes whom no one will miss should their lives be lost.
It’s that sort of pessimism that drives the whole film. These men are stuck in a decaying South American village, the sort of hole that no one would choose to come to or stay in, and yet none are capable of truly leaving. Dangerous work such as this is the only way out, and so these men reluctantly sign on.
And it’s in establishing the town of Los Piedras and developing these four men that Clouzot’s film truly succeeds. Los Piedras is a true hive of scum and villainy, a decrepit location that no worthwhile person would ever be found. It has a verve and life to it that feels like it has some real history to it, and it is through this town that Clouzot fully establishes his pessimistic worldview.
The director spends an a full hour in the town, setting up his motley crew of workers before finally sending them off on their treacherous assignment, but it’s vital that we get to know these men as their wounded souls are what comprise what little bit of heart is found beating beneath the bleakness. It’s the remainder of the film that isn’t so successful.
It can be challenging coming to some of the films in this column with an unbiased perspective. Granted, a great many of them I have never even heard of, so it’s easy to watch those and judge them completely on their own merits. Some, however, have the weight of history and past critical reception hanging on them and those are more difficult to view in a way that feels clean, as it were. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” is one such film.
Described by many (not the least of which is the brilliant crime novelist Dennis Lehane) as one of the most intense “white-knuckle thrillers” ever made, a film that defined the genre from that point on, it was hard not to be hyped up to watch this. Sometimes (and, honestly, more often than not) these classic films really do live up to their status. “The Wages of Fear” isn’t a bad or even a mediocre or boring film, but I’m not sure it lives up to the status it has attained.
I was kept engaged all the way through thanks to the personalities of these characters and the performances by the actors, but there was something about the rest of the film that simply lacked real tension despite the stakes and danger being laid out in fairly explicit terms. Or maybe it was that this had one of the most bleak endings I’ve ever seen that left me cold to the film as a whole.
Clouzot has been a difficult director to attach myself to. I see the talent and I get why he’s gained the respect and place in cinema history that he has, but there’s been little that I’ve seen so far that I’ve dramatically connected to. I’ll be watching “Diabolique” next, a film that’s come highly, highly recommended from folks who know my taste well, so here’s hoping.
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.