The most influential film you've never heard of
Never mind Hollywood, the greatest action movie of all time is a French classic. RICHARD LUCK looks back on a film that was ripped off by Spielberg and remade by William Friedkin
The American director William Friedkin was at the peak of his powers in 1974. The double whammy of The French Connection and The Exorcist had put the Academy Award-winner in the rare position of being free to make any picture he pleased.
This being so, Friedkin – never a man short of confidence – announced that his next movie would be Sorcerer, a remake of the 1953 French action thriller The Wages Of Fear ('Le salaire de la peur').
In a rare moment of modesty, Friedkin phoned up the esteemed director of Wages, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and said: 'I promise, you, I'll never make it as well as you did.' And he was right – because while Sorcerer is a really good movie as remakes go, it had no hope of eclipsing Clouzot's picture, a film that effortlessly marries chaos and excitement with cynicism and existentialism.
To understand the brilliance of The Wages Of Fear you first need to know something of its director. Born in Niort, western France, in 1907, Henri-Georges Clouzot became infamous in his home country when he shot his fourth film – 1943's The Raven (Le Corbeau) – for a German studio, Continental Films.
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With France under Nazi occupation and the movie painting a pretty grim picture of rural life in the country, Clouzot was vilified by the Free French who all but accused him of being a collaborator. Ironically, his German paymasters were every bit as displeased with the film and so terminated his contract with immediate effect.
The upshot of all this was that Clouzot didn't direct another movie for four years. In the intervening period, this ill treatment combined with chronic ill health to leave Clouzot with a pretty bleak view of his fellow man. This pessimism would colour all his later films, in particular The Wages Of Fear.
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But what of the story? What indeed. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Georges Arnaud, The Wages Of Fear centres on four men who are hired by American oil executives to truck dangerously unstable explosives across the mountains and jungles of Honduras to cap a well fire.
The men in question are desperate souls who take on the suicide mission as it is offers the only means of escaping Las Piedras, the sort of hell hole that makes Jim Thompson's El Rey seem inviting. Deliver the nitroglycerine and our heroes can afford to fly to freedom. It's just a small matter of driving 300 miles over the roughest terrain imaginable. Oh, and did we mention that the explosives are very unstable indeed?
Filmed entirely on location in the Camargue, southern France, The Wages Of Fear shoot was nearly as gruelling as the story it tells. Unseasonal rains meant that vehicles were forever getting bogged down and equipment was regularly damaged. Misfortune also struck the Clouzot household with Henri-Georges breaking an ankle and his wife and leading actress Vera developing pneumonia, while elsewhere actors Yves Montand and Charles Vanel developed conjunctivitis after filming a scene in a lake of crude oil. Then, to top it all off, the onset of winter left the writer-director with no choice other than to postpone shooting until the following spring. By the time the finished film was in the can, The Wages Of Fear was 50 million francs over budget. Fortunately, nearly seven million Frenchmen paid cash money to see the film, turning a potential disaster into one of the most profitable pictures of the decade.
It wasn't just the home crowd that took an interest in Clouzot's picture, mind you. On the contrary, there appeared to be an audience for The Wages Of Fear wherever movies are shown. The film even did good business in the United States where, because of perceived anti-American sentiments, the picture screened in an abridged version.
Even in this mutilated form, the story exerted a powerful influence upon audiences. Exactly how powerful would only become evident years later when it seemed as if every action movie made in America was, to some degree or another, in debt to The Wages Of Fear.
Besides straight remakes – 1958's Violent Road, Friedkin's Sorcerer – echoes of Clouzot's masterpiece can be found throughout the cinema of Hollywood's favourite son Steven Spielberg. The only difference between Wages and, say, the Indiana Jones saga is the speed with which the suspense ramps up, Clouzot's measured approach making Spielberg appear to be going at breakneck speed. And speaking of speed, the sequence in The Wages Of Fear where Montand and his comrades have to drive their trucks along a metal road at a specific pace to avert disaster had an undeniable influence upon the picture Homer Simpson refers to as 'The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down'.
That much-loved British pictures like Hell Drivers and Ice Cold In Alex also exist in the film's shadow illustrates just how big a debt Anglo cinema owes to a stroppy French bloke with a dicky heart and a sizeable chip on his shoulder.
Fortunately, the global success of The Wages Of Fear left Clouzot in a position similar to the one Friedkin found himself in the mid-1970s. In the Frenchman's case, the film he longed to make was Les Diaboliques, an adaptation of the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
The story of bizarre goings-on at a French boarding school, Les Diaboliques had been brought to the attention of the British king of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Before Hitch had a chance to call up the authors, Clouzot approached Boileau and Narcejac in person.
Hitchcock made his own inquiries but a few short hours later, the writers curtly informed him that the rights to Les Diaboliques were no longer for sale. By way of compensation, the pair penned Vertigo specifically with Hitchcock in mind.
See Clouzot's film, however, and you can understand why the large man from Leytonstone was so frustrated about being beaten to the punch. A psychological thriller with undeniable horror undertones, it is just the sort of story he loved to tell. That said, even at his very best, it is doubtful Hitch could have bettered Clouzot's classic spine-chiller. With two smash-hit movies to his name, you'd think Clouzot had the film world at his feet. Would that his health had allowed him to capitalise on his success. As it was, a heart attack in 1963 forced him to shelve his dream project Inferno midway through production. This in turn deterred producers from hiring Clouzot, so leaving the most gifted French filmmaker of his day little choice other than to accept TV work. By the time of his death in 1977, he had been out of the business for the best part a decade.
At least Clouzot lived long enough to hear William Friedkin's kind words. And being an arrogant sod, he would have agreed with the younger man's assessment he couldn't possibly cap The Wages Of Fear. Because once you've scaled action cinema's Everest, all that's left is to look down at young pretenders raid your box of tricks while struggling to scale the foothills of action film.
Richard Luck is an award-winning film critic and the author of books on Sam Peckinpah and Steve McQueen. He has written for Empire, Esquire and Total Film
The Wages Of Fear is available on Blu-ray/DVD from October 23, from BFI