The very first image is of cockroaches
scampering on the ground, tied to strings that a boy manipulates.
Rarely has a movie begun with such an obvious if potent metaphor for what ensues in the next two and a half hours. But "The Wages of Fear," Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterly 1953 exploration of exploitation, greed and courage amid horrid conditions, actually manages to live up to, and even surpass, that grimy beginning.
As the centerpiece of BAMcinematek’s series "Murder and Malice: Henri-Georges Clouzot," "The Wages of Fear" (showing Feb. 19) is one of those movies that, once seen, is never forgotten. Watching four criminals haul trucks loaded with nitroglycerine over forbidding Central American terrain might not seem like most viewers’ idea of a good time, and it’s definitely not. But that wasn’t Clouzot’s intent: instead, he created one of the greatest suspense pictures ever made, and its lasting legacy is more than the mere fact that it made French heartthrob Yves Montand into an international star.
Simply put, "The Wages of Fear" is the perfect coalescing of brilliant photography (by Armand Thirard), atmospheric music (by the great composer Georges Auric) and razor-sharp editing (by the trio of Madeleine Gug, E. Muse and Henri Rust). It also contains several sequences that are among the most goosebump-inducing ever committed to celluloid. I dare you to try not to fall out of your seat as you squirm while watching the men attempt to cross a rickety wooden bridge, get rid of a huge boulder in their path or drive through a quickly rising pool of mucky oil.
Even though it was a success everywhere it played, the version originally shown in America was heavily cut because of its anti-capitalist themes and dialogue. Needless to say, the original, 150-minute "Wages of Fear" - which is what BAM is showing - is a masterpiece.
The following year came another classic: "Diabolique" (showing Feb. 26). Starring the director’s wife Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret, "Diabolique" is a nail-biting thriller that spawned countless imitators. It even influenced Hitchcock himself, especially Hitch’s own bizarre classic, "Psycho."
If you’ve only seen the tepid 1995 remake with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani, you owe it to yourself to see the original, which does for bathtubs what "Psycho" did for showers. The last 10 minutes of Clouzot’s "Diabolique" are among the most heart-pounding in movie history: even the many rip-offs that have since come in its wake have not dulled its impact.
The other entries in the series consolidate Clouzot’s reputation as a talented maker of thrillers. "The Raven" (1943), opening the series Feb. 18, was only the young director’s second feature, but it already showed him to be a master of the genre with its creepy story of a French village’s response to an anonymous sender of poison-pen letters that threaten seemingly every prominent person in the village - particularly one Dr. Germain. The parallels between the movie’s characters and the then-ongoing Nazi occupation of France were painful for many to stomach.
Still another terrific film noir thriller is 1947’s "Quai des Orfevres" (showing Feb. 27), starring Louis Jouvet as a police inspector investigating an underworld murder. (The film’s title refers to the address of the investigative branch of the Paris police.) The sordid atmosphere of the Parisian dance hall locations adds immeasurably to its success.
"Manon" (Feb. 25) is Clouzot’s 1949 adaptation about the squalid life of the beautiful prostitute whose eventual decline climaxes in her death; and the director’s penultimate film, 1960’s "La Verite" (showing Feb. 24), stars sex kitten Brigitte Bardot in a role that showed that, yes, she could act. The script was cowritten by Clouzot and wife Vera, who died that same year at age 46 of a heart attack, a circumstance eerily similar to the demise of her "Diabolique" character.
Though Clouzot was often called "The French Hitchcock," that moniker ignores the fact that Clouzot was a filmmaker of great finesse and variety. What closes the BAM series is a case in point.
"The Mystery of Picasso" (showing March 2) is a fascinating experiment: filming a great artist as he paints in an attempt to divine how art is created. The 1956 movie’s spoken introduction begins by lamenting the fact that there is no record of Rimbaud’s thoughts as he wrote his poetry or Mozart as he composed his symphonies; however, painters can be captured in the act of creating, and it’s more visually interesting to boot.
Picasso paints many canvases in "The Mystery of Picasso"; at the age of 75 and showing off his still formidable physique (he’s bare-chested), his ego is as large as ever. Clouzot’s camera simply records what the man is painting, even if it is, literally, throwaway stuff. (Picasso made the director swear that everything he painted during shooting would be destroyed afterwards, to exist only on film.) A beautiful paean to the mysteries of art, "The Mystery of Picasso" is a wonderful finish to a great director’s career.
"Murder and Malice: Henri-Georges Clouzot" runs at the BAMcinematek (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene) from Feb. 18 to March 2. Tickets are $10. For a complete list of films, screening dates and times, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at www.bam.org.