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This review is from: The Wages of Fear (The Criterion Collection) (DVD)
It is difficult to overstate what a terrific blend of suspense, biting images, and nihilistic philosophy this film is. It works at several levels, the most compelling being a thoroughly existential treatment of the action adventure movie. Clouzot layers his irreverent cynicism into every aspect of the film, but it is actuated by the tight interplay of the characters. They are the kind of fugitives, hucksters, fortune seekers, down on their luckers you'd expect to find at a squalid, end of the world drilling camp. The director portrays them all in a dour, brave light as they struggle with futility and fear.
The corruption, exploitation and innocence, are brought to a boil by a raging inferno and a couple of truck loads of nitroglycerine. Three hundred miles of rugged roads are all that separates these desperadoes from a ticket out of town. Clouzot rolls his audience into the drama with ingenious visual cues, cables stressed to snapping, tobacco blown from its paper. He uses no gimmicks, though, to impose an artificial sense of spectacle. Everything is shown with a taut authenticity. The film never loses its devil-me-care bravado in spite of all its tension and pathos. Clouzot intersperses little milestones of grace, in a prayer or a dance, with images of death. Alternately-- ambivalence, compassion and admiration are elicited for characters pushed beyond human boundaries and endurance.
It resembles Treasure of the Sierra Madre (another excellent film), but caves in to none of its happy endings, higher ideals, saving benedictions. All here is carried out in a quiet desperation as every vestige of hope, purpose, escape are systematically sabotaged. All that is left is the moment, and survival. The scenes on the bridge, the oil pond, the road, are among the most unforgettable in cinema. The characters strive for freedom but are continually confronted with their interdependence and frailty. The director's final gesture, in the face of potential victory, provides a seal of consistency to this sinister, masterful brew. Clouzot delves into motivations, relationships, doubt. He challenges pat assumptions of life and destiny. It is a remarkable and original film, even more so in the context of the conventions imposed on Hollywood films of that era.