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A small South American village on the edge of a large oilfield is refuge to several desperates, all of whom seek a way out but are penniless broke. When an oil fire breaks out 300 kms away, the American oil company needs to sever the oil pipeline and the only way is with a bundle of high explosives – which is stored at the village. The company offers $2,000 cash for each of two teams of two men to volunteer for the life threatening task of driving two trucks across inhospitable roads, stacked with the highly volatile explosive, nitroglycerine. A German, Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) and an Italian, Luigi (Folco Lulli) are teamed in one truck. The second team of Frenchmen Mario (Yves Montand) –actually from Corsica but he’s worked in Paris! - and Jo (Charles Vanel) end up driving the other – but they soon find themselves at loggerheads. The ruthless Mario will do anything it takes to get through and claim the cash.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This black and white classic was made when the 1.33:1 aspect ratio was the standard, so this 4:3 transfer is indistinguishable from the original. Except for the extra 45 minutes that was cut from the original release. That’s the cut that won all the awards (Cannes, Berlin, etc) so it wasn’t a butchered version. Indeed, this longer version simply underlines Clouzot’s enjoyment of the novel and its character elements. 

Today, the film would be made as an adventure thriller, and reshaped to focus on the action. (Coincidentally, William Friedkin’s 1977 version of the novel, Sorcerer, was also released with a 30 minute cut, in Australia.) But the reason Wages of Fear was such a talked about film, why it made such an impact in the mid 50s, was precisely because it leans heavily on its characters and their personalities to place the action in context. 

The first hour is taken up entirely by establishing the characters and the circumstances. This is wildly extravagant by today’s standards, but as I say, it wasn’t made by today’s standards, not technically nor creatively. And once the journey starts with the two nitro-laden trucks and their two teams, Clouzot maintains tension and interest with unswerving instincts, as he cuts between the two trucks on their perilous journey. Every close up, every jump cut and every shift of gears – both literally and cinematically – is filled with suspense. 

At first, it’s just the fear of one too many bumps setting off the explosives. But soon the relationships between the characters starts to be as edgy as the nitro itself. This is the payoff for all that early preparation, like the scenes between Yves Montand’s Mario and Vera Clouzot’s Linda, the girl madly in love with the bastard. She’s far too pretty to be dumped like that, in a dump like that. Cinematographer Armand Thirard deserves as much acclaim as director Clouzot for the mood and tension of the film, both for the quality of his camera work, and his use of light. 

In the final 30 minutes, the film’s dark edge comes to the fore as Mario’s ugly determination rises to hide the cool and charming guy at the beginning of the film. Charles Vanel’s Best Actor award at Cannes is well deserved, his Jo providing an opposite trajectory. But it’s the fatalistic ending that makes the film resonate beyond its genre.

Published August 7, 2003

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CAST: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Vera Clouzot, William Tubbs, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck

DIRECTOR: Henri-Georges Clouzot

SCRIPT: Henri-Georges Clouzot (novel by George Arnaud)

RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes

PRESENTATION: 4:3; Dolby Digital 2.0; English subtitles

SPECIAL FEATURES: poster gallery, key cast and crew biographies; theatrical trailer


DVD RELEASE: July 2, 2003

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