by Allan Fish
(France/Italy 1953 148m) DVD1/2
Aka. Le Salaire de la Peur
Waltz of death
p Henri-Georges Clouzot d Henri-Georges Clouzot w Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi novel Georges Arnaud ph Armand Thirard ed Henri Rust, Madeleine Gug, Etiennette Muse m Georges Auric art René Renoux
Yves Montand (Mario), Charles Vanel (Jo), Peter Van Eyck (Bimba), Folco Lulli (Luigi), Vera Clouzot (Linda), William Tubbs (Bill O’Brien), Dario Moreno (Hernandez), Jo Dest (Smerloff), Antonio Centa (camp chief), Luis de Lima (Bernardo),
If you asked your average filmgoer which film comes to mind when he hears Strauss’ immortal ‘Blue Danube Waltz’, you can be fairly safe in your assumption that about 90% of them would pick Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The odd buff who may be old Hollywood minded might recall the background music in Grand Hotel, or even, for those with a real memory, Cukor’s Holiday. Yet I, though occasionally thinking of Kubrick or Grant and Hepburn’s slow music-box waltz at New Year, generally think of this, Clouzot’s masterpiece of tension from the early fifties.
In the Central American outpost of Las Pedras, drop-outs of assorted nationalities congregate on a crossroads to nowhere. Italians, French, Spanish, Mexican, German, English or American, it matters little here. The only nationality of note is that of anonymity, of hitting rock bottom. However, a pay out opportunity comes when an oilfield disaster occurs that requires desperate remedies. $2,000 is put up as payment for those willing to take the chance. The downside is that the job is driving trucks over 300 miles of rough roads to the oilfields with nothing less than nitro-glycerine onboard (uncannily recalling Richard Barthelmess’ flight in Only Angels Have Wings in a not too dissimilar location). Of a handful who take driving tests to prove their worthiness, four eventually make the journey; an Italian, a German, and two Frenchmen – one older Parisian and a younger Corsican.
Certainly such a mixing of cultures and languages hadn’t been seen in mainstream cinema since Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (whose star Jean Gabin refused the Vanel role). Yet if it reminds one of anything, at least in its opening scenes, it’s Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. One could see Huston’s tourist in Las Pedras. Yet the greed here isn’t for golden glory, but rather for hard cash. The chances of success are that much smaller, so the greed becomes greater. Certainly one would rather be in the company of Huston’s characters than Clouzot’s. Clouzot’s men are anything but heroes, just nasty people out to make a buck at anyone’s expense. “Fear is catching, like smallpox. And once you get it, it’s for life” one of the fellows says prior to turning down the job. But these men know no fear where money is concerned. They are little more than insects, just like the beetles toyed with by the boy in the opening shots (a sequence perhaps homaged by Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch).
Yet in spite of the characters’ inherent feral nature, we feel every danger. After all, there is tension, there is Hitchcockian tension and there is Clouzotian tension. He may not have had the long career and subtle undertones of Hitch, but for sheer nail-biting tension, Clouzot was the man. Indeed, it would perhaps be even better regarded, were it not for the fact that it is soooooo cynical and populated by people for whom we have little empathy. Finally, when Montand (magnificent in a star-making role) makes it to the oilfields, we breathe a sigh of relief. But Clouzot tricks us again and has him drive his truck too recklessly on the way back and go over a cliff as the soundtrack blares out Strauss’ immortal piece. Cut to him holding his last link to the old world, a ticket to the Pigalle, an area more associated with Melvillian cool. Far from cool, Clouzot presents a sweltering world of parasites. “I smell like a corpse” Jo (the great Charles Vanel, equally memorable in the director’s Les Diaboliques and La Vérité) says at the end. I wouldn’t blame anyone for cleansing themselves in a hot bath after seeing this.