Filmmaker Retrospective: The Suspense Cinema of Henri-Georges Clouzot

5. The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Wages of Fear

Four down on their luck European men are isolated in a small South American town. Life there is unpleasant. With a big American Oil Corporation exploiting the workers, it seems as though there is no way out.

Then, a massive fire erupts at one of the oil fields. The only way to extinguish a flame of this size is using an explosion caused by Nitroglycerin. With lack of time and proper equipment, the four men, lured by the high pay volunteer positions, are chosen to transport this shipment with an ill-equipped truck. The film then shows their journey.

This is the only collaboration between Clouzot and Yves Montad, who was one of French cinema’s biggest stars in the early ‘50s.

All eyes, however, will be on “Jo”, an older gangster played to perfection by Charles Vanel, who was awarded a “Special Mention” at Cannes and had difficulty keeping up with Montad’s character. Vera Clouzot (Clozout’s wife) also does well in playing an ignored and mistreated lover. She would later go on to appear in Clouzot’s next offering along with Simone Signoret.

Sorcerer, directed by William Friedkin, was based on the same source novel. The Wages of Fear won the highest prize at Cannes along with Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and remains one of the few foreign films ever to win the Best Film award at the Baftas.


6. Les Diaboliques (1955)


It is said that Clouzot beat Alfred Hitchcock on purchasing the rights to the Boileau-Narcejac novel by just a few hours. A few years later, however, another Boileau-Narcejac novel would lead Hitchcock to make his undisputed masterpiece-Vertigo.

Another one of his films set in a school, it begins with the plot where the wife and a mistress of a elementary school headmaster plan to kill him together. But after the murder, the body goes missing. A classic of the horror genre, the film shows the abusive way the headmaster mentally and often physically tortures these two women and makes us sympathise with the murderers.

Simone Signoret, who plays the mistress, is the dominant figure in the film, with Vera Clouzot seemingly being bullied into doing whatever is demanded of her. The film culminates in one of the greatest endings in horror history.

The ending credits contain one of the first examples of an “anti-spoiler message”.


7. The Mystery of Picasso (1956)

The Mystery of Picasso (1956)

A documentary on one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, it is about 75 minutes long, an hour of which consists of the shirtless Picasso painting for the camera, starting with simple black and white sketches and gradually adding colour and moving to much larger canvases.

It ranges from paintings of animals to women with naked breasts. It also shows Clouzot, Picasso and cinematographer Claude Renoir interacting during breaks and discussing how to shoot the next painting. Clouzot had first met Picasso when he was 14.

For the sake of time, a few scenes of Picasso painting were edited. This greatly displeased Clouzot, as he wanted the camera to stay on him painting and wanted most of the film to be in real time. Most of the paintings were then purposefully destroyed so that they would remain unique to the film, but a few are said to have survived.

Although it failed financially, the film won the second prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 and the film itself was declared a national treasure by the French government in 1984.


8. The Truth (1960)

The Truth (1960)

Dominique Marceau (Brigitte Bardot) is on trial for the murder of Gilbert Tellier (Sami Frey). Everyone seems to be against the pretty girl, which slowly starts Dominique’s descent into madness. Through flashbacks, the lives of Dominique, Gilbert and Dominique’s sister Annie are shown.

Bardot’s character starts off as a happy-go-lucky girl, full of life and has never been rejected once in her life. She slowly transforms into a nervous mess, emotionally exploited by Gilbert’s advances and his rejections. She is a shadow of her former self.

Dominique insists that she loved him as much as he loved her, saying, “He loved me, but we didn’t love each other at the same time”. This also became Couzot’s only film to be nominated for an Academy Award. It was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 1961.


9. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (1964 & 2009)

best movies never made

Apocalypse Now is widely regarded as one of the greatest films and the greatest war film ever made. The only thing probably more famous than the film, however, is how it was made. It was originally scheduled to be shot over six weeks, but it ended up taking 16 months. All the disastrous events were shown in documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), 12 years after the film’s release.

Clouzot also had his dream project. It too was hampered by accidents. A lake, crucial to the film, was to be drained and everyone suffered from the record heat during July in the Cantal region. It too featured big stars (Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani), all of who had clashed with the director.

Much like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Clouzot had gone mad, devoting too much of his shooting time on the film’s ambitious visual effects and lighting techniques, spending hours and hours on retakes and disturbing members of the production crew at early hours of the morning (due to his insomnia).

The big difference between the two, however, is that Apocalypse Now eventually got made. Inferno, however, was abandoned 3 weeks after Clouzot suffered a heart attack while shooting on a boat.

In 2009, French filmmaker Serge Bromberg was caught for two hours in a stalled elevator with a woman who turned out to be Clouzot’s second wife, Inès de Gonzalez. When he learnt of the existence of the reels of Inferno, Bromberg convinced her to release it and, much like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, made a documentary on the making of Inferno, entitled L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot.

It includes interviews with the production assistant, cinematographer and other members of the cast and crew. Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin also reenacted scenes in the script, which were not filmed or didn’t survive. Claude Chabrol later used the screenplay to make his film L’Enfer in 1994.

Author Bio: Arnab Sen is a student studying economics in Calcutta and has been seriously watching films for some time now.