IMDB #168 The Wages of Fear

Today we check back in with Henri-Georges Clouzot, with 1953's The Wages Of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur).

Having no exposure, all I can tell you is that it's French, it's black and white, and his wife is probably in it again. And it'll probably be tense. Really, really tense.

The Key Players:

Clouzout we know, as well as his beautiful wife Véra (who plays a supporting role here).

But the whole film is sort of a family affair, as star Yves Montand, veteran French singer and actor, was married to Les diaboliques star Simone Signoret at the time- Charles Vanel played the inspector in that film as well, the same year he put in a supporting turn in To Catch A Thief.

Folco Lulli (The Organizer) and Peter Van Eyck (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) round out the main cast.

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The Story:

In a South American town isolated by the desert, the local economy and law enforcement is all run by the American 'Southern Oil Company,' which is there to drill. After an oil well catches fire, the only way to extinguish the blaze is to blow it out with a whole lot of nitroglycerin. The only way to get it there is to drive a truckful of the unstable, highly sensitive explosive over rough terrain.

SOC, already adept at exploiting the locals for cheap labor, decides to hire the job out to the masses stranded in town with no way to pay the fare home, and they offer high wages for the job to attract lots of vounteers. After many trials and selection processes, they pick four men who coincidentally are our four main characters:

Mario (Montand): a French drifter, playboy, and douchebag (at least to his girlfriend, Linda (Mrs. Clouzot)).

Jo (Vanel): an aging, prideful gangster new to town that strikes up a friendship with Mario- this causes a falling out between Mario and...

Luigi (Lulli): (Mario and Luigi! I JUST REALIZED THIS!) a hard-working, penny-pinching Italian who needs to get out of his job mixing cement before inhaling the dust kills him.

Bimba (Van Eyck): an intense Dutchman that survived the Nazi regime after being forced to work in a salt mine.

Actually Jo is a last minute replacement for a man named Smerloff that doesn't show- did Jo murder him? It's left unclear. Mario and Jo set out in one truck, Luigi and Bimba in the other.

For the next hour and a half, they try and navigate cracks in the road, detonate a boulder blocking the way, a rickety bridge, and psychological breakdowns (namely Jo, whose nerve is nowhere near what it used to be) to their destination despite the possibility of exploding at any moment.

The Artistry:

Is there a stronger word for 'harrowing'? Chilling? Agonizing? Nerve-racking? The extended second half of The Wages Of Fear is all of these things.

Split the credit for the tension between the nitroglycerin itself and the steady time the film takes to buildup these characters before they set out- Luigi, a man of the people, and Jo, a wannabe bigshot, nearly brawling at the bar, the riotus townsfolk when the accident in question kills 13 local sons (but no SOC employees).

That idea of the town itself as a powder keg never really pays off, but it lays a solid thematic foundation of oppression. In fact, I admired how stark the film turned out to be- the cartoonish villainy of the SOC brass is never met with any retribution, Mario is at times a slimeball, other times a brute, and never really redeemed.

The cinematography is wonderfully claustrophobic, particularly for what's basically a road movie. The closeups in the trucks (labeled EXPLOSIVE in big letters, the oil fire framed by a doorway- even the cramped porch as the vagrants sit out the heat at the cantina. It helps that two thirds of the trucks sequences take place at night, with lights illuminating only the determined faces of our heroes.

If heroes you can call them: certainly Luigi and Bimba are easy to root for- Van Eyck is the most memorable performance of the four, slowing revealing a jovial personality under a battle-hardened exterior. He shoulders one of the most intense moments, when he slowly, carefully pours a little of the nitro into a hole carved in the boulder in order to blow it up.

One character who takes his name out of contention for the job right away makes a comparison: " I used to see men go off on this kind of jobs... and not come back. When they did, they were wrecks. Their hair had turned white and their hands were shaking like palsy!" This journey is like growing old, all at once. But in the promise of something better, we see four men choose it willfully to leave the hellish township behind, beaten down by heat and watchful tormentors in the SOC. But if life is the journey, through obstacle, tension, and especially fear, the only reward is untimely death or deliverance to hell: a flaming, chaotic oil field, greed wrought upon the landscape.


After making it successfully past the bumpy road (where they have to maintain 40 mph, Speed style to keep level over the bumps and not jostle the payload), the rickety bridge, and the boulder, Luigi and Bimba's truck explodes for no reason at all. Aw.

Jo finally snaps and flees, but Mario catches up to him and beats him into submission in an uncomfortable confrontation. They encounter a sinkhole filling with leaking oil, and Jo gets out to steer the truck through- he trips, and Mario (unwilling to stop and have the truck be stuck with no momentum to carry it out) runs over his leg. On the final trip to the oil derrick, Jo dies while reminscing about his time in Paris.

Mario is greeted as a hero by the frantic workers, but collapses in exhaustion and despair. The next day, seemingly jovial, he starts back to town in the now empty truck- we see Linda and the townsfolk jubilantly start to waltz to "The Blue Danube" on the radio as Mario, smiling, dangerously swerves the truck side to side on the road for no reason, immune to the risk.

He of course careens off a mountain road, and dies as the trucks broken warning siren wails a distorted finale tone. The end.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Wow, it was a bummer, but I'd put it up there- I certainly enjoyed it more than Les Diaboliques.

The Legacy:

It was remade twice for Americans, as Violent Road and Sorcerer (directed by our pal William Friedkin). It would win the Golden Bear in Berlin, the Palm d'Or in Cannes, and the BAFTA for Best film despite being ignored by the Academy.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Not a single damn one. But here's Yves Montand singing "Les Feuilles Mortes." Culture!

Leftover Thoughts:

-Remeber that one episode of LOST where Arzt blew up? That was hilarious, and nitroglycerin will always remind me of it now.

-Truly a multilingual film, with Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, and English all flying around in there.

Coming Up...

167. Ratatouille

166. Dog Day Afternoon

165. The Secret In Their Eyes

The Social Network

There's a moment halfway through The Social Network, wherein Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), Napster co-founder and proverbial devil on the should of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), relates to the budding billoinaire the story of Roy Raymond- a man embarassed to buy lingerie for his wife in a department store, who had the idea to open a chain of lingerie specialty shops and an accompanying mail-order business called Victoria's Secret.

After five successful years, Raymond sold the business for $4 million, and ended up jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1993, while the company grew exponentially without him.

Zuckerberg, stone-faced and inscrutable as ever, wonders "Is that a parable?"

Of course it is. And The Social Network, David Fincher's even more salient take on dissaffection than the Generation X rant Fight Club, is an uber-parable for a new generation, a wired-in, fast-talking, flashing banner ad in the corner of the screen, loudly telling us that we've opened a door to a new world, we've won billions of dollars, we're hip and now, and all we have to do is ignore the phone buzzing and the knocking on the door and Click Here.


It's a study of many things at once- as much as it comments on the unique type of isolation that's bred by being connected in too many ways to too many people, it tells an age-old tale of greed and betrayal. How else could a film that almost everyone scoffed at upon its announcement ("A facebook movie? Really?") end up drawing somewhat-legitimate comparisons to Citizen Kane?

Those comparisons stem mostly from structure- a flashback laden narrative of billionaire tycoons that alienated everyone they cared about to get to where they are. But we can't all be Orson Welles- Fincher's eye is as refined as ever, and Aaron Sorkin's script runs hyper-verbose laps around Citizen Kane's episodic chapters, tied together by a dying man's last word.

Instead of a reporter pondering the MacGuffin of "Rosebud," The Social Network uses lawyers in twin depositions to relive the story of Facebook's disputed origins. As Zuckerberg faces lawsuits from former best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and a trio of undergrad elites that hired him to program a Harvard-exclusive dating website, both lawyers try to get at the underpinnings of Zuckerberg's motivations.

Any such motivations are where the film departs the most drastically from the real-life evidence. In real life, there's nothing to suggest that he was motivated to get into exclusive "Final Clubs," or was jealous of Saverin for doing so. There's little to support the idea that he created precursor site (a 'Hot or Not' style site using the pictures of other undergrads) because he was just broken up with- in fact, facemash actually included both male and female photos for peer-ranking (not just female ones, as in the film).

But would a normal, even-keel Mark Zuckerberg that just happened to get into legitimate legal disputes make for an interesting anti-hero? Of course not.

If Web 2.0 has created an ovearbearing disconnect with the interpersonal relationships we're supposed to cultivate when we become adults, then why shouldn't a film about one of the key founders of this portray that founder as overcompensating for an inability to connect to anyone? For as bad as it makes him look, the Zuckerberg of the film comes off remarkably sympathetic, flailing slightly as he mourns the twin deaths of privacy and intimacy- we can all relate, not because we're all antisocial billionaires, but because we live in new spheres of connection that Zuckerberg inadvertently created.

Maybe you have to have been in college during facebook's founding to consider this film as dramatic as I do (Mark Zuckerberg is, after all, two months younger than I am). But given the 48-year-old director and 49-year-old screenwriter, I doubt it. I can't wait for the film adaptation of Sorkin's stage play "The Farnsworth Invention," as I hear it tells a similar tale of innovation followed by litigation.

Every role seems expertly cast. Eisenberg, the twitchy, somewhat abrasvie "thinking man's Michael Cera," anchors the whole thing together with a shy brilliance. Andrew Garfield provides an entry point for the audience -not only is he the most sympathetic and likeable, but at one point his character even sheepishly admits he doesn't know how to update his own facebook relationship status despite being the company's CFO- a relief of sorts for anyone who doesn't consider social networking a second language.

Justin Timberlake is perfectly suited for the role of a flashy, seductive epitome of 'cool,' which the narrow-focused Zuckerberg is obsessed with maintaining in regard to his website. Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones bookend the film well with honest reductions of Zuckerberg's character. Max Minghella and Armie Hammer (twice) liven up the lawsuit scenes, though the subtext of the Saverin suit carries more weight. Hammer especially is great, as both Winkelvoss twins- though I suspect Fincher cast him instead of real twins just because he likes doing tricks in post-production.

Of course he's as technically flawless as ever- the lighting is muted but crisp, the editing propulsive and seamless (even told in double-flashback), and the rapid-fire dialogue woven with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's wonderful score to great effect. The Nine Inch Nails frontman and producer create a rhythmic, digitally-tinged landscape that seems to make the events onscreen grow in importance.

Is it perfect? Is it the best film ever? Is it, you may ask, really the next Citizen Kane. No. Sorkin's characters sometimes sound a little too much like Sorkin characters (my favorite over-the-top line is when one of the Winklevi threatens to beat Zuckerberg up: "I'm 6'5", 220, and there's two of me!"). The film's strong adherence to real-life events leaves the ending abrupt and somewhat resolution-less, emotionally.

The larger-world effects of facebook aren't really addressed beyond making the creators very rich- this isn't too much of a drawback, but the film's brilliant trailer seemed to promise more context with that opening montage.

But even as a personal parable of the breakdown of trust, The Social Network has plenty of meaning. By all means go see it. If you like it, I bet there's some way you could recommend it to all of your friends at once.

Leftover thoughts:

-In a hat-tip to the current economic crisis, the Winklevi take their troubles to Larry Summers, once and future Treasury Secretary of these United States and then-president of Harvard. In a hilarious scene in which I expected him to say "Did I nicturate on your rug?", Summers blithely dismisses any potential value that "" might have.

-Would highly recommend splurging $5 on the score at Amazon. Minimal piano like Andrew Newman's work on Donnie Darko, at least one track that incorporates clicking keyboards a la Dario Marinelli's typewriter-laden Atonement score.

-I don't see what the real Mark Zuckerberg's problem with The Social Network might be- it somehow manages to portray his alleged betrayals of multiple parties while maintaining sympathy for him, even while Eisenberg is sort of rock-star arrogant in the deposition scenes. With all the well-publicized innacuracies out there, I don't think the general reaction is going to be "What an asshole!"

-Speaking of, I have no problem with the movie taking liberties, but I have no interest whatsoever in Ben Mezrich (who wrote the book the movie was based on) and his "I made a bunch of this up" brand of non-fiction writing. I feel like there's some sort of unspoken contract with general veracity in non-fiction, but maybe that's just me.

-I especially liked the juxtaposition of Zuckerberg's creation of facemash with the party bus of women that the Phoenix club rounds up. Just taking an analogue convention of superficiality and making digital.

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