Sunday, September 11, 2011

Revisiting the Wages of Fear

            The Wages of Fear by Georges Arnaud, is hard-boiled suspense at it’s best, a novel loaded with hard-luck characters and dripping with intense atmospheric suspense.

            It is 1952 and the white riff-raff living in a small Guatemalan port town -- all ex-patriot Europeans and Americans, lonely and lost after trials endured during World War II -- find themselves trapped by despair and poverty, just like most of the locals. Each man has his own sad story and each one is lost in a dead-end existence. These men are not of the local native Indians  -- they are despised foreigners unable to leave the country without the proper cash stake, unable even to afford a ticket home. Their story is as dark a tale of noir desperation as has ever been written, but that background merely sets the stage for an even more haunting story of tense pulse-pounding suspense that is to come.

            Georges Arnaud was a French writer whose books were originally published in his native France, but The Wages of Fear was his masterpiece and it has been translated into English and published in America and the UK. The first English-language edition was a British hardcover from the Bodley Head in 1952, translated from the original French edition. Both editions are scarce and pricey today. The first U.S. edition was the hardcover published by Farrar, Straus and Young in 1952.  The first U.S. paperback edition was published by Avon Books (# 531) in 1953; reprinted by Avon in 1958 (#804) under the new title, Flesh And Fire. The first UK paperback edition was published by Guild Books, (#469) in 1953. There are many later paperback reprints which can be found on internet book sites. This book is well worth seeking out.

            Many fans will remember the book because it was made into two fine films. It was the basis of the 1953 film The Wages of Fear with Yves Montand, made by Henri Georges Clouzot. This is a taut classic noir, a black & white film masterpiece, sadly not shown these days on TV as much as it used to. I still remember being riveted by the film when I first watched it on late night TV in the 1960s. Years later, Wages was the basis of the 1977 film,  Sorcerer, starring Roy Scheider, with a screenplay by Walon Green, produced and directed by William Friedkin. While the films capture much of the raw intensity and suspense of the story, reading the book offers so much more depth to the lives of these desperate men that is missing in the films. The book really fleshes out these men as men, starkly illustrating their dire situation, and the intense pressure each one is under.

            The story concerns this motley crew, hopelessly stranded in a foreign land. There’s Gerard the Frenchman, Liugi the Italian, Johnny the Romanian, and Juan Binba the Spaniard. These four men form the core group, who along with their fellows live a hap-hazard existence of whoring, gambling and drinking themselves into mindless oblivion. They dream of escaping the heat-infested swamps and claustrophobic jungles of these Central American villages, but are trapped from ever going home. Some are wanted men. Others are too wasted, too far gone to even care. There seems to be no way out, no salvation, for any of them. So they rot away, some slowly dying of syphilis from the wretched whores of the town, others drinking themselves to death on poison rot-gut rum, some murdered in the dark of night by the Guatemalan military or secret police whom they fear and who hate all foreigners with a passion. These are men without money, without position or power, and they are all fair game. Arnaud’s characters are hopeless and desperate, existing hand-to-mouth at the lowest level of this dirt-poor, bloody-violent alien society.

            On the top of this Dantesque world and controlling it all, is the all-powerful Crude Oil Corporation which owns the oil wells in the country and most of the people and wealth. And sitting atop the corporation is O’Brien, their man in Guatemala, who runs it all like some banana republic despot. Gerard and his fellows exist at the largesse of O’Brien, occasionally doing odd jobs for him. Some legal, some not so legal.  There’s is a story as dark as anything Jim Thompson or David Goodis ever wrote.

            At the time of publication in 1952, Time Magazine called this book, “Brutal, violent and good storytelling. The Wages of Fear makes a lot of hard-boiled writers look like children writing for their maiden aunts.”

            The Time reviewer hit it pretty close. However, this is no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler clone, and certainly not a private eye novel. It’s hard-boiled, but more in the style of James M. Cain’s brutal, dark, noir. In fact, while there is a lot of crime committed, this is not a crime novel, per se. What it is, is a depiction of these men’s lives as they live them on those mean alien streets, a dark desperate story full of atmospheric doom that hits its stride when four men attempt to change their fortunes. They do this by agreeing to drive two trucks full of volatile nitroglycerin over rough mountain roads to be used to put out a raging oil well fire.


            The job is actually a death sentence.

            The corporation offers four men a wad of cash that is a princely sum for any man in their sorry situation. No man can pass it up. The money would be enough to pay for passage home, enough to start a new life. It’s escape money and they all want it.

            Every man seeks the job. Four men are chosen.

            O’Brien and the corporation men have a cynical plan. The nitro is necessary to blow out the oil well fire and end a serious emergency in the country. However, they dare not hire local Guatemalans because the natives and Army would come down hard on them for using local people in such an obvious suicide mission. Instead they use the riff-raff foreigners who are all expendable. So they make an offer to these men who have nothing to loose. They offer a thousand dollars per man for this dangerous job, which seals the deal as well as the fate of all four men.

            Things get tense even before the trucks leave the town on their mission. Gerard soon discovers that his partner, Johnny -- the man he relies on most and must trust with his life -- is an utter, abject coward. Johnny looses his nerve and is a wreck. Then when the first truck goes up in a ball of fire killing Luigi and his partner, Gerard realizes that they’re not only hauling explosive nitro but that the trucks have been sabotaged by one of their own fellows. It seems someone else wants to take their place on the next run should this one fail -- and get all that cash.

            Gerard drives with desperate care over the broken roads, fearing every pothole, each crevice and bump which could mean instant death -- catastrophic obliteration in a huge  explosive fireball. Arnaud’s writing puts the reader in the front seat right beside Gerard; hearing his toughs, seeing his growing tension, feeling his unbridled terror. Just when it looks as if things could not get any worse -- they do.

            Johnny’s fragile reasoning, which so far has held together by mere threads from the intense pressure and fear, is eating him up. He has become a useless wreck. Gerard knows he needs his partner to hold up his end, in frustration he beats Johnny mercilessly to force him to pull himself together. This works, for a while.

            When the two men encounter a field of quicksand, it is Johnny who notices that the dark mud is actually oil -- oil that is highly volatile, easily ignited -- possibly even ignited by the exhaust of their truck. Johnny, who has been injured tries to hang on as Gerard bulls his way forward -- lurching the truck dangerously through the oily quicksand before they finally end up getting stuck. Now, after all they have been through, the truck gets stuck in the quagmire and even Gerard finally admits defeat.

            At that point, at their darkest and most desperate moment, Johnny suddenly remembers that similar situations were dealt with when he worked in the oil fields back home in Romania. He tells Gerard he knows a way he can get them out of their mess. However, Johnny is severely injured, he is going into shock, losing his memory, so Gerard is frantic to get the information out of him before he dies. Johnny fights to stay conscious and at the last moment tells Gerard what to do. The suspense and tension never flags in these desperate scenes.

            Using the information Johnny has given him Gerard gets the truck safely through the quicksand field. He delivers the nitro and becomes a hero. Johnny doesn’t make it. Gerard is given a thousand dollars for his part in the nitro delivery as well as another thousand that was Johnny’s share. So Gerard is now up two grand and planning to make a new life. Things are looking good.

            This is always the most dangerous point in any noir story.

            The nitro delivered, Gerard is naturally more relaxed on the lonely drive back to town. He is finally free of the monumental stress experienced driving this very road a short time ago when making the nitro delivery. Now he is making plans for a new life. He has some money and is thinking about how to spend it. He’s going to buy that boat he’s always wanted, then get out of Guatemala leaving this life behind him forever. He sees himself living in Paris, enjoying the good life.

            The previous run on these roads had been a nightmare, done at an infuriatingly slow pace, only five miles per hour -- with the threat of a nitro explosion over his head every second. Now the winding mountain roads call out to Gerard. It’s a far different ride going back. It’s even pleasant. He’s relaxed and can drive faster now. Gerard opens up the engine of the truck, increasing his speed. He’s in a rush to get back to town with his cash so he can get out of Guatemala forever.

            The mountain roads loom ahead, steep and winding, narrow and always dangerous. On the way down Gerard knows he must slow his speed, but becomes frantic when the brakes do not answer his footfall. The brakes don’t work! In desperation he quickly tries to downshift the truck, to slow it any way he can. The transmission moans and groans and then suddenly locks at high speed. The truck is now speeding downward out of control towards a curve. It hurls through a fence -- then shoots over a cliff.

            “Gerard is still at the wheel, victim of his own obstinacy, his obstinate resolve to live”

            And so ends this classic and very dark noir novel. No one wins in this gloomy tale of dead-ender desperation -- no one, except readers and fans of tough, unadulterated noir suspense. This one is well-worth a revisit.

© 2011 by Gary Lovisi. All Rights Reserved.

GARY LOVISI is a Mystery Writer’s of America Edgar Nominated author for his crime fiction. His latest books are Ultra-Boiled (Ramble House) a collection of his most intense hard crime and noir fiction; Driving Hell’s Highway (Wildside), a surreal noir novel about a lone man driving the back roads of darkest America; and Bad Girls Need Love Too (Krause Books), a celebration of sexy paperback cover art and wild blurb teaser text that is great fun. Lovisi is the founder of Gryphon Books, editor of Paperback Parade and Hardboiled magazines, and sponsors an annual book collector show in New York City. To find out more about him, his work, or Gryphon Books, visit his web site at:


The Maverick said...

A couple of great movies that I didn't realize were based on a book -- I'll have to look it up!

Jack Seabrook said...

Very cool! I saw the French movie version and recall it was quite enjoyable.

Walker Martin said...

The French movie is a classic and I believe available in a Criterion edition. I'll have to dig through my paperbacks and read the novel. It sounds great.