“Let me tell you the story”, Henri-Georges Clouzot appears to be offering in Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953), “of four strange men. Four lonely men, and their intertwined fate.” Not friends as much as comrades, not comrades as much as fellow slaves, not slaves as much as desperados, they have been selected to face peril for a high reward by the Southern Oil Company (a handy sobriquet for the Standard Oil Company of New York), which has an oil operation going in the wild mountains of Mexico, where has erupted a wildcat fire. Needed is a massive shipment of nitroglycerine – two truckloads full, so that one truckload can act as security against the hazardous loss of the second – an exceptionally volatile and syrupy liquid that can be used to produce the explosion that will bring tranquility again. From the remote Mexican village of Los Piedras, a village as lost in space and time as the Plaza that is the center and maintaining frame of Tennessee Williams’ haunting Camino Real, two pairs of men will depart in matching vehicles, racing to their goal yet forced by the exigencies of chemistry and geography to travel at no more than a snail’s pace, lest the nitro, sensitive to pressure and spontaneous disturbance and as powerful an explosive substance as one can find outside of atomic physics, be jostled into an “action” that will destroy, at once, the whole space and story of the film. We virtually squint at the scorching black-and-white cinematography by Armand Thirard, and breathe through a pace that is at first languid and soporific, then suddenly charged by urgency, and finally, for a very long time indeed, inexorable in its pressing slowness. This is the grandfather of “slow cinema”, a film in which each grinding shift of a gear, each spin of a truck’s wheel in mud or oil, the striking of a match against a cigarette pack, the strain of a man’s neck muscles to contain himself, the lifting of a tire over stones on a bleached stone-littered road tossed randomly with saguaro and high-tension lines and soft dust, carries us simultaneously closer to the SOC oilfields, which linger at an unfathomable distance across the sun-dried hills and further from safety, safety which qualified that zone in which one likes to imagine one lived before entering upon this voyage to hell.
The men are both obvious and inscrutable, thus entirely real. Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) is a Dutch (yet utterly Germanic) idol, pallid as the horizon, as efficient as a machine, and a man who acts as though without motive, only purpose. His partner Luigi (Folco Lulli) is a nostalgic buffoon, easygoing, indolent, matter-of-fact, emerged, it would seem, from a Mascagni opera, and unsurprisingly locked in a daydream of being somewhere else. These two occupy the lead vehicle, locked on an improbable highway merely one lane wide. Beside and behind them as they travel we see (mostly through rear projections) spreading flatlands or plunging cliffs, looming mountains covered with stones, a sort of limitless collection of horizons. In the other truck are the anxious old coward Jo (Charles Vanel, in a performance that would win him the Best Actor award at Cannes) and his boisterous, dominating, hyper-energetic, impatient partner Mario (Yves Montand), the only man who seems utterly bent of surviving the journey, if in this torturous film we can speak honestly of survival.
I wish to focus on one moment in the film, not because it encapsulates all of the action or harmonises all of the motifs but because it suggests ways in which film itself meets its limits, ways in which Clouzot invented cinematic possibility in the face of le néant, nothingness. Having negotiated long stretches of the taxing route, and mastered a perilous hundred-and-eighty-degree turn – to accomplish which they had to back the heavy truck off the road onto a rotting cantilevered wooden platform – Luigi and Bimba are suddenly confronted by a massive boulder blocking their way. On Bimba’s command, and hesitant, even recalcitrant, Luigi takes a crowbar to make a three-foot-long channel in the top of it, while Bimba fetches the nitro and transfers some to his thermos. Luigi finished, Bimba strips a palm frond, then slowly, drop by drop, pours a small quantity of the extremely viscous explosive down the stem and into the hole. He rigs a sledgehammer on a metal tripod and fuses it, sending his partner, and the other two drivers (who have come up behind) to back up the trucks and protect themselves. He lights the fuse. The explosion devastates the boulder, but also sends a myriad smaller stones racing down the hillside and all of the men must hold their breaths for fear the truckloads of nitro will be set off. Finally there is silence, blissful silence. Bimba and Luigi drive on, Bimba now rather cavalierly lathering his face and shaving with the help of a piece of polished metal suspended from his visor. Jo and Mario keep happily to the rear, permit the first truck to disappear. At the wheel, Mario is nibbling a sandwich. Beside him, Jo is daydreaming about having a drink in a Paris bistro, and rolling himself a smoke.
“Roll me one”, says Mario.
We hear the grinding sound of the truck’s gears, the even hum of the motor straining itself to throw the road behind. A macro-close shot of the hands of Jo, his open cigarette paper, the loose tobacco strewn on it. Jo starts to sing a song about French tobacco. “Know that one?…” “No, but you’re off-key.” “That”, says Jo, “is because my conscience is clear”. Another macro shot. But this time, from somewhere ineffably far off, there is a thudding and very brief poomf sound, and at the same time, centering the screen, Jo’s loose tobacco flies leftward off the cigarette paper as though some hungry maw is sucking at it from off-camera. After a half-second, a momentary – and blinding – flash of white light spreads across the truck’s cabin. They stop. It is only too obvious what has happened. Moving forward we see, over the edge of the road, a bulging plume of gray smoke billowing upward from the beyond. Bimba and Luigi are no more.
It is this rather delicate presentation of the explosion that intrigues me, the muffled poomf, the flying but fragile strands of tobacco, the fragmenting but also immeasurably swift flashing of the film. The smoke is an afterthought, a telltale proof, but not the thing itself. The smoke is an endnote to what we already know we have experienced, the climactic upheaval that culminates the long liturgical chain of preparations and cautions ironically negating a legion shots of grinding gears, wheels in the dirt, nitro containers jostling in the backs of the trucks, faces in desperate strain, heat-smoked hillsides, and so on. It is an explosion by default.
While cinema is filled in general with “explosive” moments in which personalities, having collided against one another or endured the pressure of one another’s presence beyond some limit of tolerance, flow or erupt beyond a felt and acknowledged social boundary of propriety, actual physical explosions are rare, thus more entertaining and captivating – especially utile, indeed, for action finales. It was typical in 1960s James Bond films for the villain’s laboratory/lair to be exploded, the destruction typically viewed through Bond’s eyes from a safe distance (he bobs on turquoise waters in a rubber raft with Ursula Andress, for example). Even earlier, the Disney production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, 1954) culminated in the explosion of Captain Nemo’s island hideaway. But it was only in the late 1970s, when high-speed camera techniques combined with meticulous model building and pyrotechnical expertise, that the “fireball explosion” we now regard as conventional was possible in filming. If we go back to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), for example, we do not find in the legendary and cataclysmic train crash sequence any explosions at all. Nor do we see a foreshadowing of the spreading, enveloping, outwardly pouring explosion typified boldly in the conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970, and shot through the use of multiple cameras, not special effects), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), or in the destruction of a galactic nature sanctuary that climaxes Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972). By the time of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) a rotund and three-dimensional effect had become possible for an imagined playground explosion produced through the use of high-key lighting, multiple urban miniatures, and digital composition effects to enhance flying debris, this sort of effect reprised in countless action films afterward, including, among many other examples, Stephen Hopkins’ Blown Away (1994), Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990), Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix Reloaded (2003), in which a truck collision turns into a fireball explosion, rendered through a slickly edited combination of pyrotechnic, miniature, and character close-up shots. Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) featured a number of architectural explosions, effected through miniatures and controlled pyrotechnical effects. There is a huge explosion in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) – as, typically, in most films made by him: filmed in Long Beach, an oil tanker rig generates a real fireball in collision with a second vehicle, all this produced by stunt personnel under tightly choreographed traffic conditions and later digitally augmented for the release print. As well, many of these explosions literally “motivate” the plot, since they provide the spring power whereby our hero, thrown away from the blast, manages to attach himself to a narratively important object or foothold.
What is fascinating about all of these later explosions, both as instantiations and as models of technical and aesthetic possibility, is their repleteness as screen presentations, the sense they convey that one can experience visually, at least for an instant, the entirety of an explosion as it occurs in real-time. The fireball, indeed, signifies the presence in dramatic space of an ontologically prior actuality, one that by its magnitude and obliterating power outranks – just as it outshines – events, personae, and informative objects in its surround. The explosion that we see is the thing to be seen. Many of the paintings of John Martin (1789-1854), especially “The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” (1852), foreshadow this cinematic technique. But in Le Salaire de la peur, Clouzot both anticipates these relatively rude and relatively inaccurate constructions and trumps them, first by producing a preamble to explosive eventuality that grindingly and haltingly proceeds toward the inevitable future through stolid (and, for the viewer, typically demanding) exercises in defence, protection, caution, and delicacy; and then by offering the culminating moment itself as a mere breath, the puff that dislodges already unstable tobacco from the surface of an already unstable tissue of rolling paper in a coward’s trepidacious hand. For any viewer who has been breathing through this film, the abbreviated strike upon the eardrum and the flying shreds of tobacco are the explosion itself, with the lightflash and the eventual curling column of querulous smoke only a blunt and unrewarding echo.
Nabokov writes of an orange suddenly fallen to the ground producing the distinctive sound of a thump. Early in the morning of 7 July 2005, I was at Tavistock Square in London when the bomb went off. Nothing at all to see, but a resonant and perfectly spherical thump to assault the ears and riddle the intelligence. People running with their arms in the air, silence. Clouzot had it right: explosion is essentially silent in its most pithy annihilation, a matter for the imagination. The fireball is a dream.
Le Salaire de la peur/The Wages of Fear (1953 France 131 mins)
Prod Co: Vera Films Prod: Raymond Borderie Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot Scr: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi, adapted from the novel Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud Phot: Armand Thirard Ed: Madeleine Gug, Henri Rust Art Dir: René Renoux Mus: Georges Auric
Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck, Folco Lulli, Véra Clouzot, William Tubbs