The Wages of Fear is undeniably one of the greatest films of all time. Henri-Georges Clouzot became something of a name director through this film, but the movie was chopped down in the editing process for the US release so many viewers did not get to see the fantastic original version (it was edited because someone with the US distributor felt that it was anti-American). However, critics who saw it loved it. It was one of the few films ever to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes and the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as getting what is now the Best Film award from Bafta.
It has since been remade twice in the US: the hard-to-find Violent Road (recently re-released on DVD) and Sorcerer, which is arguably not a remake.
The basic plot: four men have to try to transport a shipment of highly explosive nitroglycerin across rough terrain without any steps being taken to make the unstable material safe. The cast is led by Yves Montand in his first dramatic role and arguably his finest performance. A scummy oil company has hired him and three others to take on this suicide mission with the promise of pay for any survivors. All of the four are in desperate need—you would have to be.
It’s a film that I have seen quite a few times over the years, but every time it’s still a nail-biter. It’s up there with Hitchcock’s Psycho and Clouzot’s next film, Les Diaboliques, as one of the most edge-of-your-seat thrillers ever. It’s also an existential movie, as existentialism was very much in the air in France in 1953, with an atmosphere that is in turns absurdist and darkly fatalistic. Clouzot had been branded as a Nazi collaborator after WWII by making films for the German-owned company Continental during the occupation. This resulted in being banned from directing for four years—this film marked his major comeback after a few successful thrillers after the ban was lifted. This experience probably marked his fatalistic worldview, as expressed by the film line, “They took a chance—and lost. That’s life.”
The original novelist did not actually like The Wages of Fear, but approved of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. The two adaptations are quite different, of course—Sorcerer took a radical departure with a completely different ending, and is of course a colour production and becomes rather hallucinogenic. The Wages of Fear is a high-contrast black and white film, which looks great in this new 4K restoration.
It’s a film by one of the true great filmmakers, who has often been called “the French Hitchcock” and for good reason. This new edition includes an interview with the assistant director, Michel Romanoff; an interview with Clouzot biographer Marc Godin, an interview with Prof. Lucy Mazdon, and audio commentary with critic Adrian Martin. There is also an audio recording of a Guardian lecture with Yves Montand from 1989, and the original trailer. The release also includes a fat booklet with new and archival writing on the film.