'Le salaire de la peur'
Henri-Georges Clouzot, b/w, France
Courzot’s adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel is rightly held up as a quintessential suspense-action film. Indeed, rarely will close-ups of wheels going back-and-forth cause such tension and anxiety. Four desperate men, stuck in a dead-end South American town, agree on a likely suicide mission to drive volatile nitroglycerine over rough terrain to deal with a raging fire at an oil well. But it’s an hour in the runtime before they get in the trucks and the long set-up – mostly cut from the original American release – allows a rambling exploration of the men rotting away in a Latin American town with only the Southern Oil Company offering wages or any kind of opportunity.
And it’s in this town that we find the film’s most glaring weakness in its use of its one notable female character as most clearly imagined as on her knees cleaning or fawning over men that mistreat her. Indeed, when we meet her she is on all fours, cleavage showing, being petted like a dog. Véra Clouzot (Henri-Georges’ wife) as Linda is such a weak character that it blemishes the film’s otherwise often critical slant on machismo: whereas the male characters are allowed nuance and room to be contradictory, she is given no room at all and indeed is shoved aggressively from the excitement of the trucks as they drive off into a considerably edgy male adventure. If this meant to be a comment of machismo, it is grossly underwritten so that there is little option but to take it at face value.
But the men all get some shading. Male camaraderie is initially mostly defined by lazing around, interludes of music, rivalry and the search for jobs: they have nothing to do but they’re still posturing. Mario (Yves Montand) is a posing wastrel type, treating the obsequious Linda appallingly, who rises to the occasion with tough resolve that is needed for the drive. He bonds with the gangster-type Jo (Charles Vanel) at the expense of all else, and Jo plays the bully but under the stress of the drive he cracks and becomes cowardly. The affable Mexican foreman Luigi (Folco Lulli) holds his own, but he’s dying of cement dust in his lungs – a hazard of his job. And there is Bimba (Peter van Eyck) a German that is assumed to be an ex-Nazi but was an actually against the Reich and spent time in salt mines as punishment. Even the SOC foreman (Bill O’Brien) insists these men get their fair wage even as he tells them it’s a suicide mission. It’s a context of social desperation and exploitation that is clear in its condemnation of capitalism. That may have contributed greatly to why it was initially badly received: as Karel Reisz notes’ “The film is admittedly anti-American, but it would be unfair to single this out for special mention, for Le Salaire de la peur is unselectively and impartially anti-everything.”* Or as Penelope Huston writes, that although the film is "skilful in its pre-occupation with violence and its unrelieved pessimism, it is unlikeable."** The nihilism and anti-corporate sentiment were surely ahead of their time in being so blatant and visceral and surely more in tune with a post-‘Easy Rider’ post-‘Bonnie and Clyde’ post-Watergate cinema that was to come decades later. In this environment, William Friedkin’s version of ‘The Wages of Fear’ – ‘Sorcerer’ – makes more sense, although that wasn’t liked at the time either.
But in the end, it is the set-pieces of the drive that remain indelible even if the politics remain sadly contemporary and relatable: the trucks not being able to either slow down or overtake on a perilous road; turning on a rotten bridge; blowing up a boulder in the road; driving through a lake of oil... Men are covered in sweat and oil as the tension makes the air even drier and Clouzot makes every yank of gears, creak of wood and tumble of rocks count. It’s gritty, tense, a fine melding of neo-realism and action cinema. As Bosley Crowther memorably put it, “The excitement derives entirely from the awareness of nitroglycerine and the gingerly, breathless handling of it. You sit there waiting for the theatre to explode.”*** And yet, despite the accusations of nihilism, its rough characters and fatalism, it is surely not a film of cruelty but rather about the cruelty of their hardships and the fact their lives are so often held as worthless when profit is involved. But ultimately it does hit a sour truism that it is at our happiest that we let our guard down and endanger ourselves. In this sense, in stating clearly that fate is ruthless, its message is a tough one but, boy, the suspense is in getting there.
• Karel Reisz, ‘Sight &Sound. Spring 1954
** Penelope Huston, ‘Monthly Film Bulletin’, April 1954, pg. 54