The Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 1953, is movie as doom show: the four principal characters have signed on to a suicide mission, driving two truckloads of nitroglycerin across three hundred miles of winding, mountainous, badly paved roads. After a lengthy setup, the movie itself becomes a fuse of indeterminate length. “You sit there waiting for the theater to explode,” the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther ended his review when The Wages of Fear opened in early 1955 at the posh Paris Theater in Manhattan.
An evocation of human existence under threat of instant annihilation, The Wages of Fear is no less a manifestation of nuclear anxiety than the Japanese monster movie Godzilla (1954) or even Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). In its way, The Wages of Fear—in production when the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb at Enewetak in the Marshall Islands—is cinema’s original articulation of that angst. Given its flirtation with total obliteration, the movie could have been titled, after Sartre’s 1943 magnum opus, Being and Nothingness.
On August 8, 1945, two days into the Atomic Age, Sartre’s then friend Albert Camus editorialized in the Resistance newspaper Combat that “the civilization of the machine has just achieved its ultimate degree of savagery... We find ourselves confronted with a new source of anguish, which has every likelihood of proving fatal.” at anguish undoubtedly factored in the pessimistic mood Life magazine reported shortly after among French intellectuals, including a grim apostle of Dolorism prone to glowering at pretty Parisians and sneering, “In twenty years you’ll be garbage in a coffin,” and members of the “cult known as existentialism.” Some eighteen years later, Life revisited the scene and determined the cult had become “the mainstream of artistic creation...Like it or not, we are all consumers of existentialism.” In unleashing a movie that can be considered, along with Sartre’s No Exit and Camus’ The Plague, as an existentialist allegory, the man who made The Wages of Fear proved himself both a consumer and a creator.
At the height of his career, Clouzot personified a commercial cinema of quality, having produced and directed France’s two great post–World War II, pre–Nouvelle Vague international hits, The Wages of Fear and the marital thriller Diabolique (1955), as well as the classic middlebrow art doc Le mystère Picasso (1956). Born in 1907 to a bookseller n Niort, France, Clouzot was a prodigy who gave piano recitals at age four and wrote plays as a child. He studied law and political science in Paris, broke into films as a scriptwriter, and spent several years in Germany (before and after the Nazis seized power) as a director of dubbing at the UFA studio. Then, bedridden in a series of tuberculosis sanitariums, Clouzot furthered a twentieth-century education: “While resident there, I saw how human beings worked.” He also presumably saw how human beings died.
Clouzot was discharged before World War II broke out, but poor health kept him out of the French army. His directorial career began under the German occupation and was marked by scandal. Made in 1942, his first feature, L’Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at Number 21), was a dark comedy that presented what might have been cinema’s first subjectively presented murder—an implication of the spectator that suggests an often-noted affinity with Alfred Hitchcock. Clouzot’s second film, Le Corbeau (The Raven), released in 1943, showed a provincial village terrorized by a writer of poison-pen letters that drove some people to suicide and others to crime.
As brilliantly nasty as anything Clouzot ever did, Le Corbeau was remade in Hollywood by Otto Preminger under the title The 13th Letter (1951) and made a profound impression on the young François Truffaut, who later wrote that it “seemed to me to be a fairly accurate picture of what I had seen around me during the war and the postwar period—collaboration, denunciation, the black market, hustling.” But although the movie can be read as a portrait—if not a critique—of the Nazi occupation, it was financed by a German company and approved by the German authorities; moreover, it was shown in Belgium and Switzerland under the provocatively generalizing title Province française.
Le Corbeau was directed from a script that had been written and registered in 1937, well before the occupation. Still, after liberation, Clouzot was accused of collaborating and was expelled from the French film industry—a lifetime ban that wound up lasting only two years. In 1947 he made the showbiz noir Quai des Orfèvres (released in the U.S. as Jenny Lamour) and was fully rehabilitated when the movie received the director’s prize at the Venice Film Festival; he was all but canonized when its follow-up, Manon, won the festival’s Golden Lion two years later. After making two less consequential films, Clouzot secured the rights to Georges Arnaud’s 1950 best seller Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear). Hitchcock was also interested in Arnaud’s novel, but evidently the patriotic author would sell rights only to a French filmmaker.
It was a novel with a whiff of sulfur. Arnaud was a pseudonym for Henri Girard, who had been charged during the occupation with three grisly murders, including those of his father and aunt. Eventually acquitted, he relocated to Venezuela, where he was variously a prospector, a smuggler, a bartender, and a truck driver.
A French-Italian coproduction with multilingual dialogue and international casting, The Wages of Fear was part of a postwar attempt to create a European cinema positioned against Hollywood. It succeeded. The movie was Clouzot’s greatest triumph, a huge hit in Europe—the only movie ever to win the top prize at both the Cannes and Berlin film festivals—and especially successful in France, where it sold half again as many tickets as the Hollywood super-production Quo Vadis (1951).
Immediate theater of cruelty, The Wages of Fear begins with a fatalistic flourish of flamenco guitar chords and a close-up of four tethered cockroaches—the insects of the apocalypse and the playthings of a half-naked child, frisking in the dusty plaza of some wretched South American hellhole (actually reconstructed in the South of France). “Shakespeare, when his blackest bile was running, could hardly match this image as a metaphor for existence,” Time magazine would primly note in a remarkably hostile review. Sam Peckinpah must have agreed, having appropriated it for the opening shot of his nihilist Western The Wild Bunch (1969).
Located in an unidentified country that strongly suggests Venezuela, the godforsaken pueblo of Las Piedras (The Stones) is an ugly, buzzard-ridden dump populated by beggars, urchins, cynical soldiers of fortune, native layabouts, and random washashores who amuse themselves by idly stoning dogs or holding spitting contests in a sleazy cantina. Las Piedras is less a town than a composition in mud, misery, and torpor. There is no shade from the sun, yet the place is overshadowed by oil derricks built by the American petroleum conglomerate with the acronym SOC (as in Esso sí?).
People must have committed some terrible sins to be consigned to this hell, which has suffered massive unemployment since SOC took charge of the port. But if the largely unseen Americans control Las Piedras, the reigning prince is the tremendously unsympathetic Mario, a natty loafer played by pop idol Yves Montand. With his carefully knotted bandanna and jaunty cigarette wedged in the corner of his mouth, he suggests the ultimate left-bank apache. The beautiful, abject barmaid Linda (Clouzot’s wife, Brazilian actress Véra Clouzot, née Gibson-Amado) confirms Mario’s alpha status by entering on her knees, scrubbing the cantina floor in a tank top cut nearly as low as his, then happily crawling over to nuzzle his hand.
Although nobody appears to have signed up, Las Piedras might be the last derelict outpost of the French Foreign Legion. The movie is aggressively pan-European and openly racist both in its characters’ attitudes and its own use of National Geographic–style cheesecake in presenting the native extras. The dialogue is variously French, Spanish, Italian, and English, with the first serving as the language of love. A grizzled French gangster named Jo (veteran silent-film star Charles Vanel) lands in town, cruising Mario while both whistle the old, inordinately sexist Maurice Chevalier song “Valentine.” Mario immediately dumps Linda and jilts his roommate Luigi (the prolific Italian actor Folco Lulli), a bighearted paisan with a fatal lung infection, to hang out with the aging tough guy, showing him his pinups and sacred talisman, a metro ticket purchased at Place Pigalle.
The term Third World had just been coined in Paris by the economist Alfred Sauvy. The late 1940s through the early 1960s were a period of futile neocolonial wars—the Dutch in Indonesia, the British in Kenya, the French in Indochina and then Algeria—and American ascendance. “Where there’s oil, there’s Americans,” Mario notes. So it is in Las Piedras. Then a fire in a distant oil well, which can apparently be contained only by exploding the whole territory, creates a golden opportunity for the underemployed cream of the international scum brigade. Mario, Jo, Bimba (a German survivor of a Nazi slave-labor camp, played by Peter van Eyck), and Luigi are hired to drive the nitroglycerin over the mountains by the callous American boss O’Brien (William Tubbs, who had played a burly American priest in Roberto Rossellini’s 1946 film Paisan), two thousand dollars each if they can make it.
The payoff amounts to a ticket out of Las Piedras; the suicidal drive is the ultimate test of machismo. Yet the world clearly belongs to SOC. Before the movie ends, Clouzot even finds a way to literally rub his antiheroes’ faces in the reality of petro-imperialism in a sequence involving real oil that Life called “just about the most gruesome scene ever seen on film” and now seems a precursor of Werner Herzog’s recontextualized Gulf War eco-disaster documentary, Lessons of Darkness (1992), which also featured a lake of oil and flaming oil wells fought with fire.
Reporting from Cannes, Variety had speculated that Montand’s and Clouzot’s “commie leanings” might present a problem in the American market. (Actually, Montand, a committed leftist, was very suspicious of Clouzot, whom he considered a right-winger.) Indeed, Time read The Wages of Fear as a political allegory in which representatives of three NATO countries are “sent on a fool’s errand to pull U.S. chestnuts out of the fire.” Clouzot’s “idea is simple: hate America,” the newsweekly declared; his movie is “vicious and irresponsible” propaganda and “a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made.” Why not call it godless too?
An hour into The Wages of Fear, the two trucks set off into a realm where, as one driver puts it, “every pebble can blow us sky-high.” Reveling in the pure dread of its basic situation, set in an indifferent universe, and featuring characters who can be vaporized at any moment, The Wages of Fear amply illustrates what has been called the five A’s of existentialism: alienation, absurdity, angst, anomie, and anxiety, even as it dramatizes every major existential trope—the condition of homelessness, the countdown to oblivion, the bridge over the abyss, the myth of Sisyphus (actually visualized twice, once when a giant boulder blocks the road and again when, having laboriously driven through a lake of oil, a truck slips helplessly back). Mario compares Las Piedras to a prison: it is easy to get to the town, but there is “no way out.”
The trucks speed through a nocturnal void or else a landscape marked with crosses, their drivers smoking like ends or bouncing apple cores off the skull and crossbones of a warning danger sign. The dialogue is relentless. “He’s just a walking corpse,” Mario complains of his partner, Jo. “And so are we,” the other drivers reply when all meet up along the boulder-blocked road. “I don’t feel like croakiing,” somebody says, provoking the reasonable answer, “Nobody does, but they croak anyway.”
When The Wages of Fear did finally have its American premiere, two years after its Cannes triumph, it was trimmed by forty-three minutes. Las Piedras appeared less squalid, all references to trade unions were omitted, O’Brien was less perfidious, and Jo’s sneering crack “Coca-Cola dans ton” (up yours) was suppressed, as were the suicide of an unemployed Italian worker—a scene in which Bimba expresses his dislike for women and refers to his role in the Spanish Civil War—and a conversation with a dying man pondering the “nothingness” hidden behind a Paris fence.
An early issue of Film Culture magazine published a detailed account of the excisions and suggested “a short film composed exclusively of the cuts” would provide “an animated fresco of the many prejudices and taboos that still haunt our cinema.” Some months after the movie’s U.S. release, the French distributor did show the press this fresco, described by the journalist Keith Irvine in The Nation.
Strange images appear, jumbled together. Curses are hurled as a jeep rushes down a tropical street, veering around a corner in a shower of mud. The dangling legs of a hanging man are seen. A naked little boy, with finger in mouth, stares innocently. There has been an accident of some kind. People run. A mestizo woman harangues an angry crowd. Somebody has been killed. An old man is struck on the mouth with a rock. ere is talk of trade unions, homosexuality, oil fires, life and death. What are we viewing? A surrealist film? Shots taken with a concealed camera? Reflections of the ferment in South America? No, this is a special presentation of scenes cut from the film Wages of Fear before it was distributed in the United States.
More than one contemporary critic found The Wages of Fear overblown and hackneyed. Manny Farber, who grouped Clouzot with such “water buffaloes of film art” as George Stevens, Billy Wilder, and Vittorio De Sica, considered the movie to be an inflated Warners action-drama, “a wholesale steal of the mean physicality and acrid highway inventions” of Raoul Walsh’s less prestigious 1940 truck drama They Drive by Night.
Still, enough remained to stun local critics. Even cut, depoliticized, and philosophically neutered, The Wages of Fear hit a raw nerve. The New York Herald Tribune called the movie a “pitiless thriller” with a “sadistic streak”; the Christian Science Monitor found it “unusually deplorable...cynically and heartlessly brutal.” Robert Hatch’s Nation review was painfully ambivalent: “I have rarely been so gripped by a picture, and never so disgusted with myself afterward,” he wrote. “In any moral sense, The Wages of Fear is a bad picture, cruel and essentially meaningless.”
Clouzot brazenly asserts the absurdity of the human condition. “Unlike Eurydice, the absurd dies only when we turn away from it,” Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus. But The Wages of Fear refuses to allow us to avert our gaze. The courageous no less than the cowardly are condemned to an ignoble death. The movie includes a shockingly abrupt vision of a distant mushroom cloud. The offensive wise-guy ending asserts that life is meaningless and action is futile. The ultimate bang, a close-up of a corpse clutching a never-to-be-used metro ticket, is also a whimper.
Decades later, Hollywood director William Friedkin remade The Wages of Fear and capsized his career. Although hardly the disaster it was deemed when it opened in June 1977, only weeks after Star Wars reoriented the entertainment industry, Friedkin’s Sorcerer (named for one of the trucks) has characters even sleazier, driving vehicles more dangerously decrepit, for an oil company even more rapacious than in The Wages of Fear. Third World specificity is here archetypal. The natives are no longer displaced workers but restive primitives; nature is not indifferent but malevolent, the trees and vines seeming to reach out of the rainforest to snare the trucks.
As an exercise in jungle hubris, Sorcerer has affinities to Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (in production when Sorcerer premiered but not released until 1979). The sequence in which the trucks lurch mid-monsoon across a swaying bridge may be the most elaborately orchestrated of Friedkin’s career. His explosions are more elaborate and his ending is more fatalistic than Clouzot’s, but if The Wages of Fear dared to dramatize the human condition, Sorcerer was a lesser sort of existential adventure, a movie about showmanship and the hubris of its own making.
Clouzot had a larger point to make: fear feeds on fear. “It’s catching like smallpox,” one principal explains. “And once you get it, it’s for life.” Clouzot’s film is consecrated to the wages Camus earned from his experience of World War II and his dread of what might follow. In the 1946 article “The Century of Fear,” published in Combat, Camus wrote that fear “signifies and rejects the same fact: a world in which murder is legitimate and human life is considered futile.” So it is in our home, or rather, prison, Las Piedras.
War is fear cloaked in courage.—William Westmoreland, 1966
Suffering has its limit, but fears are endless.—Pliny the Younger, 108
J. Hoberman is the author of An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War and eleven other books. He was senior film critic at the Village Voice from 1988 until 2012 and has taught at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the Cooper Union.
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Stanko Abadzic: Making the Old World New
Words: Stuart I. Frolick
In Stanko Abadzic’s world, past is present, and present past. Old men trudge up narrow, noirish-lit stairways, penny-farthing bicycles roll by — their young riders in knickers and lace-up shoes — and clothes dry in the sun on high, outdoor lines strung between buildings. The Croatian photographer’s signature pictures, which he calls subjective documentary, are peppered with living remnants of yesteryear, symbols he uses to evoke a yearning in us, perhaps best described by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida: “This longing to inhabit … is fantasmatic, deriving from a second sight which seems to bear me forward to a utopian time, or to carry me back to somewhere in myself…”
While Abadzic admits that nostalgia may play a part in his impetus to make these pictures, to be sure, it’s not the whole story. In a photograph from his “Adriatic Routes” portfolio, for example, Abadzic captures at a distance, from a low angle, a boy in mid-air, high jumping over a long, thin tree branch attached to two tall vertical branches, all held together by a crouching friend on each side. The boys aren’t on a beach or in a grassy park, or even on a patch of dirt; they’re high jumping and landing on a field of large stones. This image charms us, as many of Abadzic’s best pictures do, as much by what we don’t see as what we do. In this one there are no other people (no adults!), no cars or soda cans, no commercially branded clothing, no ubiquitous artifacts of modernity. The photograph is about the primitiveness, effectiveness and graphic beauty of those branches, and especially about the youthful exuberance, energy and joy in the jumper’s face and body language. Perhaps Abadzic is also reminding us that it’s still possible for children past the age of five to play without holding small electronic devices in their hands.
In his most powerful evocations, Abadzic uses dramatic morning or late-afternoon light and long, inky shadows to create his beautifully designed, dynamic compositions. Often they are animated by patterns and perspectives created through the repetition of forms.
From his home in Zagreb, Abadzic says, “For me, black-and-white photography is more powerful and more expressive for the motifs that I shoot. It gives my photographs a richer graphic range, emphasizing the contrast between light and shadow, and intensifying the dramatic element in a motif with a patina. Color is seductive; our eyes see in color, which makes black-and-white photography more difficult — you have to imagine the world in black and white. But that’s the challenge and the fascination. As long as there is black-and-white film, I will continue to use it.”
A fulltime photographer who supports himself through the worldwide sale of his prints, Abadzic is a self-described lone wolf, observing and exploring his environment like the protagonist of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.
“I am interested in individuals, not masses,” he says. “In Prague, where I lived for seven years during the war in the former Yugoslavia, I met people who didn’t participate in the processes of globalization. Instead, they lived hermetic lives behind the facades of a city whose streets are thronged by hordes of tourists. While it is difficult to penetrate their hidden world protected by ivy-covered walls, if you do, you’ll find plenty of spontaneous and genuine motifs. In the cases of both architecture and people, I am interested in the marks of time, a record of duration. On glass facades there are almost no indications of the passage of time. I want the object of my work to reflect my worldview and emotional state.”
Emotion is certainly the central theme of Abadzic’s photography. He is moved by what he sees and he wants to move those who see his work. “The greatest praise I can get is when my photograph touches a viewer in some distant part of the world. Such genuine communication is what I value most. If there is no emotion, I will not shoot the photograph. Emotions are becoming the most precious treasure in a world focused on materialism and consumerism. The whole organization of life and everyday activity makes man a machine that runs errands, completes his tasks, and has ever less time to experience real, deep emotion. I have consciously chosen modesty, freedom and simplicity — both in my photo equipment and in the way that I live — so that I don’t get trapped in the superfluous, useless jumble and dictated behavior, and to have enough time for my creative work.”
In addition to the strong sense of architectural and cultural history in the content of Abadzic’s images, there are also some direct references to photographic history, such as the high angles and street scenes in Andre Kertész’s work. One may assume that the frequent appearance of bicycles in Abadzic’s photos is due to their formal graphic beauty as well as their simplicity as a mode of transportation.
“Well, here’s the truth, for the first time,” he says. “My father was the chief of police in Vukovar right after World War II. He had a bicycle that he kept even after he had stopped working, which my brother and I were not allowed to ride. Only when our father was not at home did we dare try it — forbidden fruit is the sweetest! That’s the kind of childhood experience that stays with you all your life, and maybe that’s why there are so many bicycles in my photographs. I grew up in very modest circumstances; we made all our toys ourselves, and we loved them all the more for it. What contributed most to the formation of my worldview was the slowness of life, its simplicity, and the close proximity to nature we enjoyed. The more slowly you live, the deeper you feel your environment and the world around you. It is the same with photography.”
Born in Vukovar in 1952, Abadzic received his first camera, a gift from his father, at the age of 15. Self-taught through books and exhibitions, he worked commercially, shooting weddings and soccer games, and later worked a 10-year stint as a photojournalist for a local newspaper. Married and with a child, in 1991 his life was turned upside-down when Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. When war broke out, Abadzic told an interviewer in 2007, “We left everything, and ran for our lives.” Moving to Germany, he worked in any he could: as a waiter, teacher and shipping agent. His photography was back-burnered, as the German government, in efforts to block immigrants from gaining citizenship, forced him to apply for visa extensions every three months.
After four years of that (just one shy of citizenship requirements), the extension was denied, and Abadzic moved his family to Prague in 1995. Inspired by the city’s beauty and positive energy, it was there that he developed into a fine art photographer. “In those seven years I lived like any other resident,” he says, “and I explored and photographed what, to me, is a magical city. The photographs made there have the greatest concentration of my energy, because the city was my haven during exile. Feeling uprooted, I frequently caught myself going into antique shops to find familiar scents and traces of the life that had been interrupted by war. I often go back to Prague, returning to places I photographed earlier, and I see that some of those places are gone, they have disappeared.”
Now divorced, his son grown and independent, Abadzic is free to devote all of his time to photography. “I feel that is a privilege,” he says, “because as I followed my pictures, I have met so many wonderful people.” He eschews political themes because of the preponderance of media focus on images of violence and war, and whether he’s shooting street candids, billboards, still lifes or nudes, Abadzic wants to depict triumphs of the human spirit.
He laments what human beings are losing in their obsession with the “next new thing,” and thinks the price exacted for cell phones and Internet access far outweighs their benefits. Even the advent of digital photography means only one thing for this purist: the closing of studios and labs that develop film and print black-and-white photographs.
“Those who use digital cameras tend to think less and less about a photograph and its elements, expecting that quantity will somehow yield quality,” Abadzic says. “This a misconception and the reason that the most frequently used button on a digital camera is ‘delete.’ Young people talk much about pixels and technique, but hardly anyone talks about what makes a good photograph. With digital photography there is more manipulation, even stealing, and it’s difficult to prove authorship of an image. I used to be adamantly against digital photography, though now I admit that good photographs can be made in other mediums too.”
Currently preparing for a 100-image show in Zagreb, Abadzic’s latest book, Paris — Sketches for a Portrait of the City, will be published later this year. His “great wish for the future,” he says, “is to photograph China, where the old is giving way to the new so quickly. These tensions and changes are interesting to every photographer.”
Stanko Abadzic is represented by Contemporary Works, I Photo Central, John Cleary Gallery and Verve Gallery. Visit his website at: www.sabadzic.de.vu.