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THE PERENNIAL success of Hitchcock at the box office shows fear to be a popular commodity. In the American film world, shock and suspense are synonymous with Hitchcock. In France, the leading master of fear is Henri-Georges Clouzot.
The Wages of Fear (1953) has been generally and rightly acclaimed as Clouzot's most accomplished film to date. The sharply and subtly drawn development of the often implicit relationships between characters takes place in a cauchemaresque and lurid atmosphere to form a totality more impressive than Hitchcock's greatest. For Hitchcock, the most important thing is suspense, so that many other things, such as depth and flexibility of character, are sacrificed to the single aim of scaring the collective pants off his audience. Suspense is an essential element in Clouzot as well, but the three-dimensionality of his characters, and the constantly changing impressions one has of them, bolster the credibility and the validity of the plot.
The Wages of Fear is about four men who are employed by some pretty unattractive American big businessmen who run an oil company in South America. Their harrowing task is to transport truckloads of nitroglycerine to an oilfield to blow out a blazing fire there. Clouzot takes great pains in getting across the proper atmosphere. The first half of the film or so is devoted to probing the squalor, primitivism, and baseness of the town. Clouzot had spent some time in Brazil working on a documentary, and his intimate familiarity with the repellent conditions in towns used as bases for American business ventures is boldly apparent in the film. He built an entire town from scratch for his set north of Nimes in France, and was even toying with the idea of moving the set to North Africa to evoke the appropriate atmosphere. The set is reminiscent of the milicu one generally sinks into in a Graham Greene novel - remote, desolate, and treacherous.
THE ATMOSPHERE which Clouzot creates unifies, envelops, and relentlessly corrodes every human being that fate has placed there. Any human pretensions or illusions they may have borne are gnawed at and peeled away until they are reduced to the level of pure animalism which is their reality. Clouzot had explored this Bunclesque notion of human degradation in Le Corbeau, a film be made during the war, in which a series of anonymous letters written to the residents of a small provincial town lead them to suspect and maliciously attack one another. The Nazis used the film to demoralize the French and many French critics later attacked the film for its anti-French sentiments. But these criticisms missed the point. Clouzot is not anti-French, but mocking the human condition. His choice of a Corsican (Yvcs Montand), a Frenchman, an Italian, and a German for the four truck drivers makes his depressing judgment apply to all humans.
The deaths which befall each of the major characters take place almost incidentally and make their heroic, existential, death-defying gestures almost futile. Two of them are killed when their truck is blown to pieces. The explosion takes place a long way from the other truck, but the wind it produces is so great that it whisks away a cigarette from the mouth of one of the drivers.
Another impressive scene is the one in which a truck has to be turned around on a wooden platform hanging over the edge of a cliff. The cutting and soundtrack of this scene prove Clouzot to be a master at editing and timing suspense scenes. (Yvcs Montand is the hero of this scene.)
Clouzot's world is as exciting as it is black. All men are equal in the long run, because all their efforts are reduced to nought by the impersonal fate which guides their lives. The Wages of Fear is probably the best film noir in twenty years, so fans of Hitchcok, Sartre, Poe, Graham Greene, and Ambrose Bierce should not miss it.