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The Wages of Fear: The Criterion Collection

It's a shame that the works of Henri-Georges Clouzot are rarely seen outside of film schools — often described as "the French Hitchcock," Clouzot was a master of not just suspense or editing, but storytelling in the finest tradition of cinema. Put simply, he didn't merely present a film, but used it to lead his audience wherever he wanted them to go. The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur) (1953) ranks as one of the director's foremost achievements, collecting an international cast for a lengthy, complicated shoot, all built around a simple question — how far will men go to buy their own freedom? Yves Montand stars as Mario, a Corsican vagabond who's unwittingly wound up in the Latin American oil colony of Las Piedras, where what little work is available can buy a man some food and a drink in the local saloon, but not a ticket home. It's a multinational backwater filled with tramps and dreamers who have abandoned their European homes, and never short of new arrivals. At loose ends, Mario is happy to meet a fellow French-speaker, Jo (Charles Vanel), a Parisian criminal who affects an air of wealth and power, even though he's on the run from the law and flat broke. It isn't long before Jo realizes he's come to the same dead end in Las Piedras as so many others, but a disaster at a remote Southern Oil Company plant presents a new opportunity: A deep well has caught fire, and the inferno is so intense that nothing can put it out save for a single, oxygen-hungry explosion, right at the well's base. The company's American managers, led by O'Brien (William Tubbs), realize that their only store of nitroglycerine is 300 miles distant, at Las Piedras. And they aren't willing to use union employees for the dangerous task of driving one ton of nitro in jerricans on the back of two flatbed trucks. Thus, O'Brien decides to offer the job to the tramps of Las Piedras, with a $2,000 bounty for any man who survives. Desperate for plane tickets to anywhere else, Mario and Jo find themselves at the wheel of one loaded rig, prepared to ride over the country's roughest roads in their bid for freedom.

Great directors accomplish much from very little — Alfred Hitchcock could fashion an entire film like Rear Window around the suggestion of a gruesome murder; Steven Spielberg earned his wunderkind status with Jaws, which achieves its greatest tension when the elusive shark is not seen; and David Fincher's horrifying Se7en conveys its foreboding sense of doom not with a string of killings, but instead a sickening aftermath. As with colleagues such as these, Henri-Georges Clouzot utilized simple premises, and then combined them with cinema's enormous power of suggestion. The Wages of Fear, by design, is not a film about explosions — it's about waiting for something to explode, and the picture retains its hypnotic momentum throughout thanks to both clever plotting and sharp character sketches. In fact, the story would mean almost nothing if we didn't know the men who have accepted such a dangerous mission. Yves Montand (at the time a popular singer) embodies much of the script's moral intent as Mario, the Corsican bum who wishes he could escape Las Piedras, but who also reveals uncommon courage during the journey, as well as a willingness to defy his American employers. He's well-paired with Jo, who turns out to be Mario's opposite, full of bravado in town, but with brittle nerves in a truck full of nitro. The two other drivers, the German Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli) each have their own reasons to flee Las Piedras as well. And with such generous character exposition, little remains except some absolutely nail-biting obstacles to overcome, including a rough road that must be run at 40 mph, an abandoned construction site, a giant boulder, and a lake of oil created by a burst pipeline. Clouzot's political overtones are impossible to miss, particularly in his criticism of American colonial capitalism and the cheap, expendable labor it requires (the movie was edited for its 1954 U.S. release, allegedly to obscure much of this content). But he also can't help but ask a deeper, and more human question: How much do these men value their own lives, and to what lengths are they willing to bet them against a one-time payday and a ticket out of town? It's only after the climactic scene, as Mario must choose between the truck and Jo's life, that the two even know the answer themselves.

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The Criterion Collection's second DVD release of The Wages of Fear updates the previous, single-disc bare-bones edition with a splendid two-disc set. Among the best reasons to upgrade is the new transfer — compared to the original DVD, the restoration seen here is nothing short of a revelation, much brighter, with appropriate contrast, and very little in the way of collateral wear. There are even moments when things obscured in night scenes are now eminently clear. The multi-language audio is crisp and acceptable in the original mono (DD 1.0), while subtitles have been re-written to better effect. Disc One contains the feature film, while Disc Two offers the new supplements, including 2005 interviews with assistant director Michel Romanoff (22 min.) and Clouzot biographer Marc Godin (10 min.), and a 1988 interview with star Yves Montand (5 min.). Also included is the 2004 documentary "Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant" (52 min.), as well as a look at the censored U.S. version (with text and film clips). Dual-DVD keep-case.

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