'Wages' measures worth of nitro-drivers

July 21, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

A staple of film criticism is the conviction that the horrid money men will barbecue any work of art to squeeze a few extra shekels out of it from the dim masses. The litany of massacred masterpieces is quite long, including Von Stroheim's "Greed," Peckinpah's "Major Dundee" and Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America."

And Henri-Georges Clouzot's "The Wages of Fear," a corrosive parable of the evils of capitalism as trimmed of its anti-Americanism and made tame and feeble for U.S. consumption back in 1954. Now the "restored" "Wages of Fear" is on view at the Charles and audiences can judge for themselves whether or not the complete text is more persuasive than the famous abridged edition.

My hunch is that it is not. At 2 1/2 hours the restored "Wages of Fear" is a very fat movie with a thin one inside crying to get out. It takes forever to get started and what must have been eloquent and pointed in the original is didactic and diffuse in the restored ,, version.

Still, once it ceases to spin its wheels and take to the road, the movie picks up such energy and suspense that its greatness blows any doctrinaire considerations aside. It's a game of chutes and ladders played by truck drivers with a ton of nitroglycerin aboard their vehicles and, brother, does it tick!

The set-up is not worth an hour of exposition. In a squalid colonial hellhole, an American oil company discovers itself with a raging fire at a well and the closest nitro 300 miles by bad roads away. So it cynically hires four expendable Europeans to drive two trucks loaded with the volatile liquid. The trip turns the drivers into cowards or heroes or greed- heads, depending; and when one of them alone survives, he is greeted in the last second by a jest of fate so deliciously mordant only the French -- who revere Jerry Lewis -- could love. It's as if the Nutty Professor himself has been appointed God for a day.

Yves Montand, looking like Bogart himself, is one of the hardcases who drives; the others are Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck and Folco Lulli. The driving sequences and particularly the series of tests that await each vehicle are gut-wrenchingly vivid.

But the great attraction to the film, at least for intellectuals, is its sense of existentialism: we are all doomed, it argues, whether by the cynicism of greedy American capitalists or by the simple humors of God.

All that remains is that we live with elan, a Gauloise clamped between our teeth, a stubble on our cheeks, a quip on our lips and a handkerchief about our necks. This is extremely sexy stuff for graduate students but the rest of us should just ignore the philosophical claptrap and enjoy one of the coolest movies ever made.

'The Wages of Fear'

Starring Yves Montand and Charles Vanel.

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Released by Kino International.

Unrated.

*** 1/2

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