One of the greatest French filmmakers if not one of the best known, Henri-Georges Clouzot made 11 films between 1942 and 1968. His two most famous works, Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear), winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes, and Les Diaboliques (1955) established his reputation as the ‘French Hitchcock’, a comparison based on his mastery of suspense as well as their shared pessimistic world view. Tellingly, Hitchcock had attempted to buy the film rights to the source novels of both those films but the writers wanted them to be made in France. Just like Hitchcock, Clouzot is renowned for his tough, some would say sadistic, directing style, which, legend has it, included slapping actresses and even forcing Brigitte Bardot to drink whisky and take tranquilisers in order to look suitably out of it in La Verité (1960).
Although set in an unnamed Latin American country Le Salaire de la Peur was filmed in the south of France (convincingly transformed with a few palm trees and semi-naked or poncho-wearing extras). Divided into two distinct parts it is set in the town of Las Piedras for the first hour while the second part follows trucks full of nitro-glycerine driving through the jungle. Opening with a shot of local children torturing bugs – surely an influence for the similar scene in The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969) – the film then introduces a town much like the one in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston 1948), in which a collection of down-on-their-luck types (from anywhere and everywhere) seek low-pay short-term work. As Mario (Yves Montand in a role that established him as one of France’s biggest stars) says, ‘it’s like prison here. Easy to get in but with no exit’. Sitting in a café with four other jobless, stony-broke compadres, sharing one lemonade between them in order to be allowed to stay there, Mario is desperate to find a way out. Work is scarce and when it is found it is of the type that ruins your health: Mario’s friend Luigi, who works at the cement factory, is told by the doctor to quit or die. This is no Erin Brockovich, though, and in this dog-eats-dog world a battle for compensation would be laughably out of the question.
This opening section is often criticised for being ‘over-long’ but it is there crucially that the characters are emotionally, socially and economically defined. It is because they have been fully developed that we care whether they are blown to oblivion in the white-knuckle ride that follows – a masterful grounding that often sorely lacks from today’s suspense thrillers. Through the extended set-up we see the rivalries and jealousies of the characters develop. Mario rejects his old friend and provider, Luigi, (as well as the ‘love interest’ Linda) for his new best friend, the flashy Jo. With this relationship we get an inverted version of the Hollywood buddy film. They start off loving each other and fall apart when the going gets tough. Jo’s bravado slips away when faced with real fear – he claims his sweats and shivers are a ‘touch of malaria’. However, his cowardice makes him all the more human while Mario, who he accuses of being too unimaginative to be afraid, is selfishly uncaring to the end. Shots of tires spinning in the mud and close-ups of the drivers’ sweaty faces rack up the tension, the sense of constant danger driving a wedge between them.
As always with Clouzot it is the negative characters that dominate the film. The loyal, generous Luigi almost becomes the antagonist whereas the ‘heroes’ Mario and Jo are both lacking in positive traits. The great journey through the jungle with a ton of nitro-glycerine is not motivated by some noble cause, but is a mercenary venture, done simply for money. However, in a film where good and bad are blurred almost beyond recognition, you easily find yourself rooting for such nasty characters as Mario and Jo as they balance at the edge of cliffs. Perhaps it is because, although they are thoroughly unpleasant, it is nothing compared to the cynicism of the oil company that employs them as expendable labour.
Although the film could be seen as an attack on imperialism and capitalism (‘anti-American’ scenes were cut from U.S. versions of the film – as were any scenes that hinted at homosexuality – a good 40 minutes in all) the film’s real concern is the human psyche (or even the soul). It is a cruel misanthropic film or rather, it is a film that depicts a cruel misanthropic world in which human beings are reduced to their basest, most selfish instincts by poverty, and most of all by fear. Clouzot emerges here as a master filmmaker, achieving edge-of-the-seat tension through his taut, economical direction and remarkably, without having recourse to incidental music to manipulate the emotions of his audience. His trademark mix of nastiness and suspense remains unmatched even by Hitchcock – although maybe with the exception of the 1972 Frenzy.