The Wages of Fear (Blu-ray)
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080pAVC codec
Running Time: 143 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 French/English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: April 21, 2009
Review Date: April 8, 2009
The thrillers of Heni-Georges Clouzot are among the most gripping in the annals of cinema, but the director’s penchant for doom and his nihilistic view of the world can be somewhat debilitating at times. There’s no denying that his dramas are superbly constructed and brilliantly directed nail-biters, but one goes into a Clouzot film knowing a happy ending is probably not in the cards. The Wages of Fear certainly follows the dictates of the director’s other masterful achievements; it‘s great drama that comes with a price to one‘s psyche.
Desperate for money and for an escape from the doldrums of an empty, penny-ante existence, four men sign on for a potential suicide mission: carrying two trucks filled with nitroglycerine three hundred miles over hazardous terrain in order to contain a series of oil derrick fires that are raging out of control. The largest of the two trucks carries two friends, the generally sunny Mario (Yves Montand) and the bullying Jo (Charles Vanel). The second truck has pretty boy Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) and the dying Luigi (Folco Lulli). Before the journey is concluded, much will be made clear about the characters of each of these four risk-taking men.
The script co-written by director Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi (his brother who used a pseudonym) was based on the novel by Georges Arnaud, and it’s a brilliant compendium of character study and action-filled thrills as the two trucks encounter nearly every imaginable problem, from water in the gas tank to a series of hair-raising conflicts with boulders, oil pools, rotting timbers on rickety wooden overpasses, and their own shaky nerves. More interesting than the dangerous obstacles in their path is the examination into the consciousnesses of the men, all four revealing through this terrifying ordeal what they’re made of. Of course, the blustery Jo, who has enjoyed pushing around the town’s weaklings before the trip, reveals himself to be the real coward, an obnoxious blowhard who’s all grand show and complete jelly on the inside. Watching him fall apart little by little during the course of the film is one of the movie’s great achievements, made even more impressive when Clouzot actually manages to wring some sympathy out of the viewer as Jo nears his end.
The script’s other brilliant touch is its leisurely approach to its story-telling. The paralyzing journey doesn’t actually begin until an hour into the film’s almost two and a half hour-running time, but that first hour isn’t wasted. We get to see our four protagonists intermingling with the town’s other down-and-outers as we slowly gather information on the kind of people we‘re dealing with, the dead end lives they're trying to gain freedom from, and the moral fiber they possess in the face of the dastardly job that‘s ahead of them. Clouzot directs the actors with an amazing lightness, ironic in light of the heavy dramatics and deep, dark thrills which are to come. Once the perils commence, Clouzot doesn’t let up wringing every ounce of tension from each fresh hazard until by the end, we’re as exhausted as if one of the survivors. But Clouzot isn’t finished yet, orchestrating an ironic fate for the characters, all set to an ebullient waltz.
Yves Montand was known as a French cabaret star before undertaking this film, but you’d never guess it from the gutsy, gritty performance he gives as Mario. Charles Vanel’s weakling masquerading as a bull is one of the film’s big surprises, an effective portrayal of a weak man hiding behind his bluster. Folco Lulli’s Luigi has the heart of the entire audience with his tragic heroics throughout the movie while Peter Van Eyck’s Bimba gets one prime moment to shine, in the suspenseful boulder sequence where one misstep could kill them all. Véra Clouzot has a few alluring moments as the infantile Linda who’s eager for the attention of any nearby male, but the movie is really the men's show.
The film’s 1.33:1 original aspect ratio is delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec, and many will be pleased to learn there is no windowboxing of the image. Apart from a few stray scratches and a couple of soft shots possibly taken from something less than an optimal source, the picture quality is very striking with excellent grayscale that just misses having the deepest possible blacks. Shadow detail is very good with the outstanding sharpness pointing up wonderful details in skin textures, wood grain, and clothing. The white subtitles are very easy to read, and the film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The PCM (1.5 Mbps) 1.0 audio track contains surprising heft and dynamics for a mono track of this age. Dialog is crystal clear and the various sounds of the trucks and other noises of the road are clearly and cleanly delivered.
The disc contains three interviews with individuals important to the production or to the director‘s life: assistant director Michel Romanoff (22 ½ minutes) who speaks mostly about the casting of the movie and its production problems, Marc Godin (10 minutes) who wrote an important biography on Clouzot who discusses the director as both an artist and a flawed individual, and star Yves Montand (5 minutes) who speaks briefly about his career in an interview conducted in 1988. All three video interviews are presented in 1080i.
“Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant” is the disc’s most substantial special feature, a 2004 documentary on the director’s life and work featuring clips from many of his most famous films. This 52 ½ minute mini-biography is presented in 1080i.
“Censored” is an interesting discussion of the cuts which were made in the film before its initial release in the United States, noting the various aspects of the movie which were deemed problematic for American audiences. This 12 ¼ minute featurette is presented in 1080p.
The enclosed 14-page booklet contains a chapter listing, the cast and crew lists, some evocative stills from the movie, and an excellent celebratory essay on the film by novelist Dennis Lehane.
The Criterion Blu-rays are now including a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
Winner of the 1953 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, The Wages of Fear is one of the great masterpiece thrillers of international cinema. The Blu-ray edition is unquestionably the best this film as ever looked on a home video release, and with the bonus features all carried over from the last DVD release of the film by Criterion, fans of the movie will welcome this near-perfect Blu-ray release.