Reflections on “Le Salaire de la Peur” (1953)
directed by H. G. Clouzot
starring Yves Montand and Charles Vanel
“The Wages of Fear” is very much a film of two halves, with the first half seeing the establishment of the characters and the situation (and observations on society and human nature) followed by the suspense-filled second half which develops the characters and the testing situations in which they find themselves, and which will keep you on the edge of your seat.
In the little South American town of Las Piedras, several “losers” desperate for work and a way out of the nowhere they find themselves, take on a suicide mission for an oil company less interested in the men’s safety than in maximising profit (or in this case, minimising loss). Desperation forces them to accept conditions considered by most as unacceptable, but circumstances are such that they willingly submit to the dangers involved in the mission, all in the name of money which will give them their freedom.
Although apparently very specific, the situation these “losers” face rather sums up life for many who may have lost control of their lives and have ended up in dead-end jobs and situations.
As with most Clouzot films, the amount of detail provided is phenomenal, and each piece adds to our understanding of the characters, their situation, and the kind of society we have built for ourselves.
The first hour or so is largely about their relationships – there is much macho posturing and a total lack of appreciation of tenderness, love and devotion, all preferring to test or prove themselves heroic or worthy in some way (at least in the eyes of the others).
The opening shots of the film actually sum up beautifully what Clouzot goes on to say in the course of the film. Cockroaches are linked or tied together by some kind of cord, and are the playthings of a little boy who is then distracted by his desire for some ice-cream. When he returns to the cockroaches he finds a vulture watching over them. Are we to impute that we (humans) are like the cockroaches, linked inescapably to one another by action and influence, manipulated by those who are easily distracted and who hold us in little regard, and threatened by others who hold us in even lower regard?
Within seconds, Clouzot goes on to make a point about human nature when one of the desperadoes throws stones at a dog, causing it distress and pain, presumably in an attempt to make him feel better about his own life by making another being feel worse about its life!
The losers (or tramps, as they become known) are all quite unpleasant to one another, suffering one another’s presence but fundamentally uninterested in one another except as a means of advancing their own cause.
Women are treated no better, indeed Linda (general skivvy in a local hotel and lover of Mario, one of the losers, but also expected to satisfy her boss) is maltreated even by Mario, who pets her like a dog as she kisses his hand! Curiously, Mario seems willing to protect her from a beating, but not to save her from her life of sexual drudgery, perhaps because to do so might imply some form of commitment to her.
It is interesting to note the use of a variety of languages (used by each character) to emphasise the unbiased nature of these problems – they apply to everyone, wherever modern commercial society exists.
We see various other examples of corruption and unpleasantness, building a picture of an uncaring and unsympathetic society in which men will do what they must to survive and others will not interfere provided they are not directly involved.
At the heart of this uncaring and unpleasant society in microcosm is the oil company willing to risk the lives of “tramps who will not be missed” for its own ends, and which is happy to avoid responsibility only to shift it on to its “victims”. Clearly, profit and money are everything. Much was made at the time of release of the fact this is an American company (21 minutes of “anti-American” footage were removed from the American version of the film), but history has shown that it is not the nationality of the company but the very nature of commerce itself that may be viewed as at fault.
In the second half, we witness testing times for our “heroes”. Luigi and Bimba shine, sharing problems and working as a team, while the same cannot be said for Mario and Jo. Mario is quickly disillusioned by Jo who displays a distinct lack of courage and determination in the face of real danger, while Mario grows and rises to the challenges before him, only to mock Jo. Curiously, they appear to swap roles as Jo is reduced to a nervous wreck and Mario loses the little humanity and compassion he had as he shows himself willing to sacrifice Jo in his attempt to fulfil his mission, and then goes on to hold Jo responsible for the wounds he has inflicted. Mario has certainly developed – into the character he attributed to Jo and which he admired so much before setting out, though we may detect the remains of some humanity and regret, and therefore some hope for Mario’s future.
Life remains fundamentally inexplicable, however, as Luigi and Bimba’s lorry is completely destroyed in an explosion which is never clarified. Despite all their best efforts to take care and succeed, Luigi and Bimba’s lives are snuffed out in a second, suggesting that life cannot be truly controlled – we may take precautions and exercise great care and thought in all we do, but we will never master life and its vicissitudes.
Mario’s success (and life-changing sum of money) goes somewhat to his head, however, on his return journey as he drives wildly and dangerously on the very road for which he had so much respect and fear. He appears to have lost respect not only for the dangers on the road, but for life itself and he will pay the ultimate price for his overconfidence.
At the end of this gripping film, we have lost our four “heroes” who have sacrificed their lives to the only element to come out of the venture in profit – the oil company. Perhaps Clouzot is inviting us all to consider not just the value of our own contributions to society, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the general direction we are allowing society to take.
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