Thursday, February 28, 2008


Clouzot did drive '55

By Edward Copeland
The French director Henri-Georges Clouzot is known mostly for a mere two films: The great thriller Diabolique and the tension-filled ride The Wages of Fear. For whatever reason, I never got around to seeing The Wages of Fear until recently and its reputation is more than deserved, but what I found even more amazing is that both Wages, which was released in France in 1953, and Diabolique opened in the U.S. in 1955. That's an impressive feat for a director anywhere.

For such a simple premise and a lengthy running time (the original cut was even longer), it's amazing how compelling Wages remains, nearly from beginning to end. The premise, for the uninitiated, involves an American oil company's operations in South America.

Needing to transport a huge amount of nitroglycerin to a remote site, the company hires four of the work-starved inhabitants of a poor village to deliver two trucks of the deadly cargo. Among the drivers chosen is Mario (played by the great Yves Montand) and what's really interesting is how many languages this French director's film employs.

In addition to French, there are large passages in English and Spanish as well. Once the initial setup is out of the way, namely drawing a picture of life in the village and the American selecting his drivers, the bulk of the film is exactly what I've described: Two trucks, full of explosives, on a long and winding road. If there is anything to criticize about the film, I saw the ending coming a mile away, so it saps it of the sting it really should have.

That aside, Clouzot's taut direction is just as good as in his other 1955 masterpiece Diabolique.

The two films do have something other than suspense in common: Both feature Vera Clouzot, wife of the director, though her role in Wages is nowhere near as juicy as the one in Diabolique. If you haven't seen either film, they both are worth checking out.

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It's brilliant, isn't it? But I have to plump for two other Clouzots I adore, "Le Corbeau" and "Quai des Orfevres." Both are also brilliant, and out on Criterion.

if you ever see "Sorcerer" (which I have not) would love to hear your thoughts on that remake as well.
I've commented before on my blog that I think that the ending for this movie stinks and it takes far too long setting up the story. That said, the story itself, of the men in the trucks hauling the explosives is told exceptionally well and is definitely worth a look.

But the end? As one of my commenters said, "Truck dancing? Are you serious? Truck dancing?"

Sheila recently did a write up on Sorcerer at the Sheila Variations and I agreed with her that is an incredible film, one I feel is better than the original. I do like the original (probably more than my comments make it sound) but the ending seems ridiiculous to me, as if they could find no better way to have this final character meet his demise. By contrast I feel the end of Sorcerer is much more in keeping with the fated desperation the story sets up.
I've always considered Clouzot to be one of the most underrated French directors - of his or any generation. While overshadowed by Renoir and Ophuls during the period of his greatest productivity, the two films you've cited, as well as the equally arresting Le Corbeau and Quai des Orfevres (with its great performance by Louis Jouvet), collectively comprise an impressive and significant body of work - one aching for rediscovery.
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