Friday, July 17, 2015

At the Movies: "Wages of Fear"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Wages of Fear
Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953.

imbd: 8.1 (imdb 250: #167)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% (!) Fresh

The Wages of Fear is an existentialist action movie in which four men, because of the absurd conditions of their existence, attempt to drive trucks packed with nitroglycerin over a crude, dangerous road across a Latin American wilderness. It is well-filmed and well-made in general; it's at times suspenseful, exciting, amusing, and even touching, albeit in a tough, he-man, Hemingwayesque sort of way. It's quite good! But I did not catch whatever it is that has earned it the amazing credentials listed above.

Clouzot clearly intended his movie to make a statement about the degradation of men by the forces of industrial capitalism. That's cool, but the swaggering, posturing conception of masculinity he brings to the party really lowers the level. Just to make sure we understand how tough these guys are, a long opening act set in a raw frontier town is drawn out to include some superfluous barroom scuffles and some arguments about whether it is worth spending time with women when could be having worldly masculine conversations with one's pals. There is only one real female character in the movie; her role is to be despised by the men because she doesn't admire them when they indulge in self-destructive behavior, to be pushed around a little, and to have nice breasts. All in all, Wages of Fear doesn't have a lot of credibility as social criticism.

In his review of Wages of Fear, Roger Ebert noted with approval that it is free from the "childishness of the obligatory happy ending." In an American movie, we would know from the outset that the hero's truck would make it to the end of the road; in a European movie of the 1950s, we know that the hero could be blown up at any moment. Not knowing in advance how the movie will end increases the level of suspense, and makes a happy ending more satisfying if that's where we eventually end up. I agree with that completely. However, I also feel that it is possible to go far enough in the other direction and stage a grim ending for the sake of a grim ending that, if it's not "childish," is however a bit sophomoric. "This is going to end badly," you can imagine a director saying, "because that's how life is, man." I'm not saying that's what happens in Wages of Fear, mind you. I say nothing about how it ends. That might spoil it for you.

Plot: The nitroglycerin needs to get from Point A to Point B in order to blow out, literally, a raging fire over an oil well. The company doesn't have proper equipment to move it, so hires drivers from among the riffraff who hang around Point A. The idea is that with two trucks making the trip, there's a pretty good chance that one of them will make it to the other side. It's a bad road, and the drivers face many obstacles along the way.

Visuals: Beautifully filmed in black and white, with the south of France standing in for Latin America. The frontier town where the movie starts, and then bogs down for a while, is delightfully shabby, and populated with a terrific multicultural cast of extras. It's a very convincing imagined place, the kind of utilitarian town that no one loves and whose citizens would all leave tomorrow, if they could afford to start over someplace else. The road itself winds through lovely, and lovingly photographed, countryside. The special effects when things collapse or explode, as things occasionally will in action movies, are quite spectacular. Some scenes could be textbook examples of how a montage of individually meaningless images -- machine parts, men's expressions, landscapes, and so on -- can be sequenced into a coherent dramatic scene in which every viewer understands exactly what is going on and why it is exciting.

Dialogue: There's a bit more talk about fear, and how a man ought properly to overcome his fear, then I really found necessary. It is, incidentally, a very loud movie, mostly loud with the roar of the truck engines. "I thought you were watching a war movie," said Mrs.5000, who had been down the hall. "Every movie is really a war movie," I said. "Because that's how life is, man."

Prognosis: Personally, I think that action movies are one area in which humanity has made impressive advancements over the past century. But this old one is certainly a good one if you can get past its relentless macho posturing.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 7.

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