The Wages of Fear (1953)

*. I thought it a bit sad to go back and read Pauline Kael’s review of The Wages of Fear, where she describes the film as “an existential thriller.” How long has it been since “existential” has had that meaning? Over the course of the last ten years (I think I’m right on the timeframe) it has come, exclusively and quite reductively, to only mean a threat to one’s existence. Kael’s readers, however, would have been thrown back on their readings of Sartre and Camus.
*. Is this a (properly) existential film? My own definition of existentialism — eschewing such stuff as existence preceding essence, whatever that means — is that it’s a vision of life that sees the individual as utterly alone. Which, in turn, leads to the freedom to take ultimate responsibility for your life. The four men transporting the nitro have made their choice and have no one to blame but themselves for the situation they are in.
*. Or is money the new God in this world? It is what makes the world go ’round, the unmoved mover of this ruthless capitalist universe. The men are trapped because of lack of money; with money they would have freedom. That seems a point worth entertaining too. Money precedes essence. Life is cheap.
*. You could even push such conjectures further back in trying to understand just what the hell these scourings of postwar Europe are doing in this town anyway. Dennis Lehane speculates: “While we’ll never discover what has driven them there [the town of Las Piedras], we know it must have been sins of a particularly unforgivable nature, because no one opts to live in hell unless the alternative is demonstrably worse.” I don’t agree. One assumes they came, like one of Joseph Conrad’s European losers holding down some forlorn outpost of “progress,” to get rich, or to at least lord it over the natives. Then they found themselves at the end of the line. I’ve heard such things still happen today in some parts of the world.

*. It’s not often you find yourself wondering about such things in an action or suspense thriller. But they order these things differently, or at least they used to, in France. But I wouldn’t want to go all the way and call this a philosophical film. It takes a long time to get going, but the opening scenes of life in the village seem kind of pointless to me. Roger Ebert thought they were only meant to evoke a sense of “aimless ennui.” Which sounds French, but isn’t deep.
*. Then (and we’re an hour into the picture) the trucks roll out of the yard and we’re into the good stuff. This is where critics usually go into raptures over how Henri-George Clouzot provides a master class in suspense. Which I think he does. The problem watching The Wages of Fear today though is that it’s a class that subsequent generations of filmmakers took and learned only too well. Put another way, I think the best directors make this kind of movie just as well today.
*. Now that’s a long way from saying that today’s filmmakers always do this stuff better. William Friedkin even remade The Wages of Fear as Sorcerer, to mixed results. But in general I think audiences are more familiar with how a good suspense sequence is created, and it’s a process that has tightened up over the years. To the point where I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by The Wages of Fear the first time I saw it. I’d been expecting something more of a revelation. I appreciate it more today, but it doesn’t thrill me as I’m sure it thrilled audiences at the time.

*. Another point relating to this is the unsympathetic protagonists. Do we really care all that much if Mario and Jo make it? They aren’t very likeable people. Credit to Clouzot for that, but I wonder what his point was, or if he had one. That they aren’t worthy of redemption? That no one can achieve redemption? That in taking the job they were putting a price on their lives anyway and once you’ve done that there’s nothing else left that defines you? What would Mario do if he got back to Paris? Just hang out at a different café or bistro, with another pretty girl hanging off him.
*. I do like the way the lead truck with Luigi and Bimba makes an offscreen exit in a flash of light and puff of smoke like a magic trick. Now you see them, now you don’t. They’ve been vaporized. And for what sin, or mistake? Who knows? They probably didn’t.
*. There are other things I don’t like. I’ve mentioned the scene-setting at the beginning, which seems to me to go on far too long. Then there is the ending, which strikes me as false and silly. Silly because I don’t believe for a moment that Mario would be careening down that mountain road like a total idiot. False because his crash is intercut with shots of Linda at the café, and what is she to him? Little more than a dog. Ebert found her character “inexplicable” with “no apparent purpose” and I’m afraid he’s right. Mario isn’t going back to be with her. Clouzot should have made a movie of men without women. Linda is an unnecessary romantic foil.
*. In short, this is a good movie but not (or no longer) exceptional. Important, but not one I enjoy all that much. I think Clouzot was trying to make an American-style blockbuster, and mostly succeeded. But America took umbrage, cutting from its release version what it took to be anti-American slurs. And even in France, while successful, it wasn’t a huge hit. The fourth highest earning film of the year in that country doesn’t strike me as being wildly successful. The top three, in case you’re interested, were The Greatest Show on Earth, The Return of Don Camillo, and Peter Pan.

8 thoughts on “The Wages of Fear (1953)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I think the tough, outdoosy feel at the time added to the reputation. I do liek Sorceror as well, and like the way it intros the cast, and shows what their sins were before they arrive in their jungle hell…

  2. Tom Moody

    My interpretation: the film is about fear and how it alters people. Jo acts like a big shot until circumstances change and physical courage — which Mario has in abundance — is required. Then a complete reversal happens in the two characters. Initially Mario looks up to Jo-the-gangster, then, on the nitro run, treats him like a whiny coward; Jo, who wouldn’t have been threatened by Mario back in the village, becomes utterly dependent on him. This is somewhat similar to the Swept Away premise. The long intro works for me to show Jo in his element (an older man using “urban” wiles to psych people out); this makes his complete unraveling in the second half more startling. At the beginning of the movie the fear (which allows people to be manipulated) is social; in the latter half, physical. The “existential” aspect is how the individual changes depending on which elements are present.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think this is a good reading of what’s going on. I guess I’d just say that the first part of the film didn’t need to take so long to make its point. But then that’s very much like Hitchcock too.

      I haven’t seen Swept Away in ages, but I can see the comparison you’re making. Isn’t the message anti-existentialist though, or that Mario is a failed existentialist hero, in that the individual is defined by the role they play? Who would the real Mario be, the sidekick or the hero?

      The only one of Wertmuller’s movies I could really get into was Seven Beauties. I’ve been wanting to go back and watch that again for a while, see if it holds up.

  3. Tom Moody

    I guess it depends on whether the definition of existentialism includes a “taking ultimate responsibility for your life” component. Mario and Jo are pretty much jerks from start to finish so it’s not like anyone learns from the reversals. I think Clouzot’s version of existentialism treats them as victims of chance and is more interested in how they change.
    As for the ending, I consider it a bit of a black joke: Mario is so ecstatic to have survived, he loses all the caution that saved him in the first place. Then the non-existent Gods strike him down.

    1. Alex Good

      Yes, I think that’s part of the existentialist hero’s checklist, which is why I think Mario kind of flunks the test at the end, not learning anything as you say and reverting to being a loser.


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