Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Wages of Fear

Joseph sent me the final contracts for Goodfollies today. I wasted no time at all in signing and returning them to ensure my getting the plum role of lady mobster, Toni Soprano. I dropped off the contracts at Federal Express, treated myself to a pedicure at Elizabeth Arden, and then called Madame Rose and instructed her to start an all points blitz publicity campaign about my triumphant return to the silver screen. I want the covers of PeopleEntertainment Weekly and Cahiers de Cinema at the very least. Rose said she'd see what she could do. She'd better do better than last time- I refuse to be the cover story in Turkey Hunting Today  more than once.

I then spent a few hours going over the books for MNM enterprises. I was most disappointed. Some of the merchandise from my fine lines of consumer products is just not moving the way I had hoped. Pic and Save just doesn't seem to be the right corporate partner for the clothing lines. I have a call into K-Mart to see if they might like my special touch of consumer magic to stave off bankruptcy. The Vicki's Secret line of intimate apparel should be big sellers for them. A strategic partnership with Martha Stewart might be helpful - a free dried floral arrangement in a Bundt cake mold with the purchase of any three Thinga Thongs.

With that out of the way, I managed to dodge the workmen who are returning Chateau Maine to its former glory and retreated into the home theater where I found my new purchase of Criterion's DVD release of Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic Le Salaire de la Peur or The Wages of Fear as it is known in the United States. I popped it into the machine, turned up the volume to drown out the jackhammer at work in the dining room, and settled in.

The Wages of Fear takes place in an unnamed Central American country. In a small town in the middle of nowhere, the only industry is a big American oil company, Southern Oil Company or SOC. The company acts as its own law, its only rule being self enrichment at the expense of the locals. The flotsam and jetsam of a dozen countries has fetched up here, men who came to seek their fortunes in the oil fields - now stuck without jobs and no money with which to get home. They while away the hot days at the local bar, barely surviving. Amongst them are the Corsican, Mario (Yves Montand), the Dutchman, Bimba (Peter van Eyck), the Italian, Luigi (Folco Lulli), and a new arrival, the Parisian, Jo (Charles Vanel). Mario has an interest in the pretty bar maid, Linda (Vera Clouzot) but a bigger interest in getting out of town and back to the pleasures of Paris.

One day there's an explosion in the oil fields and SOC needs to get truck loads of nitroglycerin to the scene in order to blow the flaming oil well out. The only way to do this is by truck over rough roads, essentially a suicide mission as the unstable explosive could go off with the least jolt. The company is unwilling to risk any of its men (too valuable) so offers $2,000 apiece to four temporary hires to drive the hazardous cargo over three hundred miles of primitive terrain. Our four anti-heroes get the job and off they go, never knowing if the next jolt will be their last.

Clouzot's 1953 film is a classic of suspense. The main characters spend most of their time struggling with the needs of the nitroglycerin and their own fears over the possibility of immediate death. Location shooting (southwest France standing in for central America) and stark black and white photography makes it all very real in a photojournalistic sense. I shan't reveal who wins through or how or what the costs, human and emotional are, let's just say they're immense. The suspense also works well as it comes out of a leisurely set up. A modern film would go right into the action set pieces with minimal expository set up. Clouzot holds back. He takes his time establishing his characters and milieu so when the men take to the road, it means something and there's an emotional investment on the part of the audience.

The film was originally cut for its American release. Certain sequences were removed from the opening hour that were felt to be unflattering to American business practices. They've been restored for this DVD reissue. They actually make the film much more meaningful to a modern audience. The jaundiced eye with which Clouzot looks at SOC and the American corporate mentality makes much more sense in an era when the White House is beating war drums in the middle east over oil issues. The whole film takes a dispassionate and rather bleak view of the human condition. It comes from the same existentialist school of post-war French thought and culture that produced writers like Sartre.

Yves Montand became an international star in the central role of Mario. Oozing testosterone from every pore, he swaggers his way across the screen, cigarette dangling from his lower lip, seemingly impervious to the challenges of life, or is he? All of the male roles of the film (and almost all the roles are male) are of the swaggering machismo variety. Part of it is the era, part of it is a comment on the changing male role in society. It was the period when the first feminine voices challenging the status quo were being heard, flowering into the women's movement a decade or so later. He is by far the showiest of the four, although, in my mind, acting honors go to Charles Vanel's M. Jo who descends from supercilious dandyism to sniveling cowardice before redeeming himself.

The film was remade in 1977 by William Friedkin as Sorcerer with Roy Scheider in the Yves Montand role. The film was majorly restructured and made much more heroic and, while a fine film, flopped mightily at the box-office and virtually disappeared. This original, however, is the more worthwhile as the negative attitudes make it much more interesting. It wouldn't be the same if there was anything heroic about the drivers.

The DVD is a good transfer of an older film where the negative is not in the best shape. It keeps the sepia toned black and white of the original. Picture and sound quality are as good as the Criterion company can make them. There are no significant extras.

Slapped bar girl. Outdoor shower. Place Pigalle Metro ticket. Collapsing platform. Exploding rock. Ruptured pipeline. Bad road surface. Lemonade ordering. Gun as penis symbolism. Blue Danube waltz.

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