The Wages of Fear

France/Italy 1953, 153 mins
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away the film’s ending.

Clouzot’s masterly account of a quartet of desperate and/or greedy misfit expatriates agreeing to transport two truckloads of nitro-glycerine through the South American jungle is impressive for its audacious pacing, its sour depiction of human aspiration and squalor, and its nail-biting tension. Utterly devoid of sentimentality and heroic clichés, this is gleefully dark, misanthropic filmmaking, with the cast fitting the bill to perfection.

How different would history’s lists of film festival winners look if laureate were anointed by audiences vote rather than by illustrious juries? Between 1952 and 1955, the Golden Bear victor at the Berlinale was decided by festivalgoers, and the result was a quirk in awards history: 1953’s winner, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 153-minute nerve-shredder The Wages of Fear, remains the only film ever to clinch the top prize at both Berlin and the Cannes Film Festival.

It was a mid-career triumph for Clouzot and a launchpad for Yves Montand, a chansonnier and former supporting player who became an international movie star on the strength of his performance here as Mario, a rakish reprobate desperate to flee the Latin American backwater of Las Piedras, a kind of purgatory for criminals lying low. Mario gets his chance – along with three other grimy expats living in the town – when an American oil company with operations in the region offers four drivers $2,000 each to transport two trucks’ worth of lethally combustible nitroglycerine across 500 kilometres of perilous terrain.

Everything about the film is bravura, from its opening stretch (it spends 35 minutes simply painting a lively if pessimistic picture of conditions in Las Piedras, before setting up the high concept) to the white-knuckle journey itself, steeped in sweat, petrol and, increasingly, blood. By the end of the trip, what began as a collaborative endeavour has taken on a Darwinian dimension. The truck driven by Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli) has blown sky-high without warning on an ostensibly safe stretch of road, and Mario and Jo (Charles Vanel, who went on to win Best Actor at Cannes for the role) have managed to navigate through a viscous lake of petroleum that’s gushed from a burst pipe, at the cost of Jo’s left leg, crushed by one of the truck ‘s enormous wheels. As Jo, back in the passenger seat, succumbs to his injury, Mario rolls up to their destination and delivers the payload alone.

The nitroglycerine has a perverse purpose: igniting it strategically is the only way to dam up the gas pocket that’s been feeding a series of roaring, uncontainable explosions for several days, at huge cost to the American oil major. By structuring the narrative around the nitroglycerine, Clouzot – like Georges Arnaud before him, who wrote the novel the film is based on – frames proceedings with the bleak implication that destruction and conflagration are essential to man’s methods. It renders Mario’s victory against the odds depressingly hollow and bitterly ironic, stripping it of the heroism that might have accompanied the undertaking.

But the ironies are just beginning. The next day, Mario, who’s been paid Jo’s share of the money as well as his own, bids adieu to the derrick managers, nonchalantly rejecting the chauffeur they offer him: ‘No thanks – when someone else is driving, I’m scared.’ We seem to be in for a triumphant homecoming: the workers merrily wave him goodbye; Mario casually splashes through the petrol lake that claimed Jo’s life; and 500 kilometres away, Mario’s ardent lover Linda (played by Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife) is told by the local bar proprietor that her paramour is on his way. Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’ waltz is playing on the wireless; Clouzot begins cross-cutting between the waltzing barflies of Las Piedras and Mario, who, listening to the same tune on the truck radio, is conducting a waltz of his own, insouciantly swerving his juggernaut steed this way and that along the high mountain passes.

The waltz may conjure images of ballroom gentility, but it began as a dance of the underclass, its practitioners’ clasping of each other’s bodies seen by many as vulgar. So it’s a perfect choice of music here: for all his freewheeling, Mario is locked in fate’s tight embrace, and as the cross-cutting intensifies, so does his metaphysical pas de deux with Linda. She faints on the dancefloor, and he careens off a cliff. Thanks to Clouzot’s mordant montage, this is the most intimately bonded the two lovers have ever seemed.

It’s an ending so cynical it undercuts the political bite of the opening third. Is Mario’s fate inevitable, a consequence of his worthlessness under multinational capitalism? Or is his senseless death the result of his own bottomless appetite, not for money but for adrenaline, for life itself? From Las Piedras (Spanish for ‘the stones’) to the rocks of oblivion at the foot of a cliff: his odyssey has taken him nowhere at all.
Arjun Sajip, Sight and Sound, March 2024

In 1953 The Wages of Fear established Clouzot’s international reputation and made an acting star of singer Yves Montand.

Montand said that Clouzot originally cast Pablo Picasso in the role of truck driver Jo, eventually played by Charles Vanel: ‘Clouzot wanted an old guy who looked so tough that young people would never question his machismo. Picasso was perfect for that, and he agreed to play it – until he read the script and found he had to show cowardice. “Picasso cannot be a coward!” he told Clouzot.’ Of course, Picasso was fully occupied playing the role of Picasso, which he did to perfection for Clouzot in the documentary Le Mystère Picasso (1956).
Paul Ryan, Sight and Sound, September 2003

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Production Companies: Compagnie Industrielle et Commerciale Cinématographique, Filmsonor (Paris), Véra Films, Fono Roma
Executive Producers: Raymond Borderie, Henri-Georges Clouzot
Producer: Georges Lourau *
Production Manager: Louis Wipf
Unit Production Managers: H. Jaquillard, L. Lippens
Unit Managers: Favre, Vergne, Lemoigne
General Administration: Charles Borderie
Assistant Director: Michel Romanoff
Italian Assistant Director: Roberto Savarese
Script Supervisor: Lily Hargous
Adaptation/Dialogue: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérome Géronimi
Based on the novel by: Georges Arnaud
Director of Photography: Armand Thirard
Camera Operator: Robert Juillard
Cameramen: Louis Née, Jean Lallier
Assistant Camera Operators: Dicop, Florent, Pater
Stills Photography: Lucienne Chevert, J. Clouzot
Editors: Henri Rust, Madeleine Gug, E. Muse
Art Director: René Renoux
Assistant Art Directors: Pierre Tyberghien, M. Desage
Costumes: Suzy Berton *
Make-up: G. Bouban
Music: Georges Auric
Sound: William Robert Sivel
Sound Assistants: Arthur van der Merren, P. Zann

Yves Montand (Mario)
Charles Vanel (Jo)
Peter Van Eyck (Bimba)
Centa (chief of ‘Boss’ camp)
Miss Darling
Luis de Lima (Bernardo)
Jo Dest (Smerloff)
Dario Moreno (Hernandez)
William Tubbs (O’Brien)
Véra Clouzot (Linda)
Folco Lulli (Luigi)
Ricardo *
Pat Hurst *
Grégoire Gromoff *
Jeronimo Mitchell (Dick) *
Evelio Larenagas *
Joseph Palau-Favre *

France/Italy 1953
153 mins

* Uncredited

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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