French thriller revived in theater

By Drew Hunt

As it’s known to do, the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., will play host to another classic film making the rounds on the revival circuit. This time, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s  1953 suspense masterpiece “The Wages of Fear” will screen in a new 35mm print, providing an optimal viewing experience.

Set in a Central American village in the vice grip of an immoral U.S. oil company, four men—Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli)—are tasked with transporting nitroglycerine to a burst oil well hundreds of miles away at the end of an unpaved mountain pathway. One truck could easily provide enough nitroglycerine, but the chief oilman (William Tubbs) opts for two in the likely event that one won’t make the entire trek.

Along with his 1955 thriller “Diabolique,” “The Wages of Fear” contributed to Clouzot’s reputation as being the “French Alfred Hitchcock”—though Claude Chabrol, who devoted virtually his entire filmography to such Hitchcockian themes as the transference of guilt and the role of accountability, is perhaps more deserving of such a distinction.

Regardless, Clouzot was a master of tension and suspense, seen most intriguingly in the film’s unique structure. The first half of “The Wages of Fear” concerns itself with the lives of its four main characters, particularly that of the earnest Mario and the cynical Jo.

By clueing the audience in on the characters’ lives prior to this harrowing excursion, Clouzot embraces elements of exposition that build toward a decidedly more chaotic second half dedicated to the feverish journey where the true nature of each character is brought to the forefront.

Lulling the viewer into a false sense of security was one of Clouzot’s favorite tricks as a director. What’s intriguing, however, is the subtle way he goes about it. Even from the film’s opening image of a half-naked child fiddling around with a bunch of insects there’s a sense of depravity that permeates the film’s mis en scene. Clouzot’s own experiences in South America  helped capture a milieu he knew firsthand. Unemployed European expatriates throw rocks at dogs for fun and spin yarns about the day they’ll finally make it back home.

The air of futility that hangs over the film is akin to the intellectual malaise of 1950s France, where the existentialist framework that informed the Young Turks of the New Wave was beginning to hold sway.

Meanwhile, a stark sense of anti-Americanism—as illustrated by Tubbs’ trenchant businessman, O’Brien—led to the U.S. release of the film being cut to a measly 92 minutes, meaning audiences were treated mostly to its more easily digestible second half as opposed to its more provocative first half. Also removed from the initial U.S. release was a subplot involving Mario and Jo and their implied attraction to one another, amplified by the sense of ever-present danger.

This air of repressed homosexuality, as with Hitchcock, provides the film its psychoanalytic footing. But in the end, the biggest thrills to be found in “The Wages of Fear” lies in its viscerally escapist action sequences, some of the most thrilling experiences in all of cinema.