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The Criterion Collection presents
The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur) (1953)

"With a ton of that stuff under you, the slightest bump, the slightest heat, and you're a goner. There won't be enough of you left to even pick up."
- Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 24, 2005

Stars: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck, Folco Lulli, Vera Clouzot
Other Stars: Antonio Canta, Luis de Lima, Jo Dest, David Moreno, William Tubbs
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Manufacturer: Zoetrope Aubry Productions
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, brief nudity)
Run Time: 02h:27m:54s
Release Date: October 25, 2005
UPC: 037429203224
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

During the mid-1950s, Henri-Georges Clouzot helmed two suspense masterpieces that still pack a punch even today. The later of these, Les Diaboliques (1955), still has life in it as can be seen by the recent Hollywood remake. But even that film doesn't have the viscerally terrifying and relentless character of The Wages of Fear. Shorn of nearly an hour of footage to remove any leftist thought during the 1950s, the film was restored in 1991 and issued by Criterion as one of its first releases on DVD. Further restoration has made revisiting this title worthwhile, and Criterion includes a second disc full of extras to sweeten the deal.

In the South American town of Las Piedras, the people live in squalor and without hope, their lives controlled by the Southern Oil Company. When an oil well catches fire 300 miles away, SOC hires four rootless men to drive a pair of trucks full of nitroglycerin to the site, in order to get the fire under control. These men, Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Bimba (Peter van Eyck), and Luigi (Folco Lulli) take the job since it pays $2000, when that was a huge amount of money, even though it's in many respects a suicide mission. They must face numerous obstacles and threats, all while carrying enough high explosives to obliterate them if they hit one bump wrong.

The drive itself covers about 60-percent of the film, nearly 90 minutes, and it's almost purely white-knuckle suspense. The visuals are quite eerie, with Expressionist effects such as the characters' faces illuminated only by the dashboard glow from below. That's amplified by the settings, such as a nightmarish bamboo forest along the roadside that doesn't seem to have any substance but is nevertheless completely opaque, making a prison of sorts. One sequence plays out at a tight turn; in order to make the turn, the trucks need to back awkwardly onto a partial bridge that is rotting away. Not only that, but the surface of the bridge is covered with mud and oil, making it a slippery ticket to oblivion. When Mario's truck gets caught on one of the guy wires of the bridge, the tension is almost intolerable. Slipperiness makes a reappearance later on as a truck must face an ever-growing pool of oil across the road. Mario and Jo must somehow make their way through, both of them sinking beneath the putrid surface that results in one of the most memorable images of the film as they struggle to get to safety.

Although the characters are introduced during the opening sequence, it's not until we go on the drive with them that we really get to know them; high stress proves to be highly revealing. While Jo is a big talker, his cowardice is stripped bare as he is reduced to a quivering wreck who wants nothing more than to run away. Mario has been seen as a brute in the animalistic way he treats his girlfriend Linda (Vera Clouzot), at one point making her beg like a dog on all four; but on the trip his well-concealed kind and sensitive side is revealed. Montand took something of a chance with this character, quite different from his usual musical comedy image, but it works. Luigi, who had been diagnosed with cement inhalation (another victim of Southern Oil), seems to have nothing left to live for in the town, but the trip makes his affection for life real, and his character provides what little humor there is in the film. Bimba is revealed to be a model of Germanic ingenuity and efficiency as he develops a makeshift way to explode a 50-ton boulder in their way.

But there is little cheery about this film, which on the whole is fairly misanthropic about the world beyond the closely interpersonal relationships developed by the drivers. One of the memorable scenes is the opening, as a half-naked boy tortures a group of cockroaches on a thread. He holds a godlike control over them, just as Southern Oil holds control over the protagonists; perhaps it's also meant to be a metaphor for the perverse cruelty of God himself. The film is almost unrelentingly bleak in its outlook from the wretched conditions of Las Piedras to the grim finale in the wake of celebration. But it's undeniably powerful filmmaking.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The black-and-white photography looks splendid in this restoration. There's hardly a flaw to be seen, with a crisp aspect that's not aided by significant edge enhancement. Greyscale is excellent, with deep blacks and good white levels. The picture is a big step up over the previous release, and by itself would make this a worthwhile purchase.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 audio is mostly French language, though some segments in Las Piedras are in Spanish and English, depending on the speaker. The English language lines are not subtitled. There's mild hiss, but nothing one wouldn't expect on a 50-year-old picture.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Production Notes
2 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:12m:48s

Extra Extras:
  1. Censorship visual essay
Extras Review: But there's an entire disc of extras devoted to the film and Clouzot generally. The longest is a 2004 French television biography of Clouzot, The Enlightened Tyrant (52m:29s), which provides an excellent overview of the director's career. The feeling one gets is that Clouzot was another of a long line of terrible people who made great art, though it does make a point that he was very unfairly accused of collaboration for Le Corbeau. Brother Marcel Clouzot makes no bones about the level of informing that was common amongst the French people under the Vichy regime, to the point it disgusted even the Nazis. The film also includes an astonishing retelling of the struggles between Clouzot and Brigitte Bardot during the filming of La Verité (1960). The other three supporting films are more closely devoted to the feature. Assistant director Michel Romanoff gives his reminiscences about the filming in a 22m:24s documentary. Biographer Marc Godin discusses Clouzot's influences and notes that the man had absolutely no sense of humor, which explains a lot about the grim character of this and other of his films. Finally, there's a 1988 interview with Montand, in which he discusses how he got involved with the film, and acting with Clouzot (4m:59s).

There's a visual essay on the censorship of the film, discussing the thematic material removed and including clips from the deleted scenes that exemplifies the reasons it was done. A 24-page booklet includes a pair of essays, an analysis by Dennis Lehane and a set of text comments from the cast and crew. The layer change is completely seamless, but the chaptering could have been a bit more thorough. It would have been interesting to have William Friedkin provide a commentary for the film; he admired it so much he remade it as the under-appreciated Sorcerer, and getting his take on the original would certainly have been intriguing.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

One of the great masterpieces of suspense, with a beautiful new transfer and restoration, and an entire disc of extras, makes this a definite upgrade recommendation.


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