The Wages of Fear (1953)

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by Henri-Georges Clouzot & Jerome Geronimi

Today I watched two foreign films that were expiring on Netflix instant. The first, M, was a 1930s German film with a gaudy reputation. The second was this French film from Henri-Georges Clouzot. It is perhaps not as well known as M, however that does not detract it from having a great reputation as one of the better films ever made. In fact it is regarded as one of the better suspense films ever made. However, I fear it is not without coincidence that I happened to view this film on the same day that I also saw M for the first time because it seems to have similar failures in its delivery.

The film takes place in South America, presumably the backcountry of Brazil, where a group of hodge-podge foreigners have gathered and become stuck in a hell which they cannot escape. There is not enough work to make any money and not enough money to get out. So when a business man comes forward for an opportunity to make $2000, they all jump at the opportunity. But there is only room for four, who get the privilege of driving two trucks loaded with nitroglycerin over  extremely dangerous and treacherous terrain. The chances of them surviving the unsure roads with the explosives are slim, but so are their chances if they don’t try for the $2000.

Much like M, The Wages of Fear suffers from a slow, bloated beginning. I understand establishing setting and characters. We must get to know these men and their condition to be able to understand and appreciate what they must do, but at the same time, I don’t need another 45 minute opening, just get to the goods. The film is 131 and certainly has room to reduce that to something shorter. And another qualm I had with the opening, and perhaps just the general structure of the story, was the character of Mario, played by Yves Montand. Sure, Montand delivers a fine performance, but in no way shape or form is Mario ever sympathetic. He has a flirt in the town, but treats her like crap and yet she still yearns for him and doesn’t want him to die. He treats even his friends like crap. And sure, part of the situation drives him to do the things he does, but he was unlikable before that. He came off as too selfish and I didn’t care for that in the lead character.

But again much like M, once it got to the goods, it really was the goods. Once the trucks depart on their dangerous journey we are treated to some of the best, extended suspense scenes perhaps in cinema history. The two trucks seem to encounter every problem along the way and not only are they exciting, but I really have to give the writers credit because they are very inventive too. The interaction between the men in the trucks is tense and heartfelt at the same time. By the end of the film the amount they have put on the line is really put into perspective and we begin to understand just how bad of a situation they were in in the beginning.

After completing both these films just before they expired on Netflix Instant, as they continue to fade out the Criterion Collection, it seems as though I will one day have to watch them again to reevaluate how I feel about the beginnings. I like to say that an ending can redeem a beginning, but when I say that I mean that it can make the beginning make more sense and make it worth it. But with these two films, which both have dynamite endings, I do not feel that way because I think there are concrete things I can point to to say I didn’t think worked with the first act. But what makes them worthy of their praise is the brilliant filmmaking that follows, the filmmaking that will certainly stick with me over the slow endings of which I speak.

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