Film Review: The Gold Rush and The Wages of Fear

An oil-drenched Yves Montand in The Wages of Fear.

In the midst of the digital revolution, film has found itself on the endangered species list. With major studios less and less inclined to bear the cost of shipping actual film prints out to theatres when presented with digital alternatives, some are now predicting the effective end of celluloid film print distribution by as early as 2013.

Movie theatres, given little alternative, are gradually switching over from traditional 35mm projection to DCP (Digital Cinema Package) compliant projectors, the industry standard for digital exhibition. While the 2013 expiration date is little more than educated guess work - and many a cinephile is putting up a fight (a recent online petition from twitter's @save35mm being a noble and notable example) – it is certain that the unique pleasure of watching stories told by beaming light through a strip of film is becoming increasingly rare. In this climate, Pacific Cinematheque delivers filmgoers a reason to celebrate with two new recently restored 35mm prints of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear.

The Gold Rush, first released in 1925 and subsequently re-released in 1942 in a version several minutes shorter with a new score and voice over, is a perennial classic. Chronicling the exploits of Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp character as he heads north to the Alaskan frontier hot on the heels of the gold rush, the film is rife with colourful characters; burly prospectors, small town lotharios, and luminescent silent screen beauties all serve as instruments for high comedy.

 

While Gold Rush does not conjure the haunting sentiments of City Lights (1931), or the progressive social critique of The Great Dictator (1940), this is the Little Tramp as his most inviting and adorable. Gold Rush, in addition to being the film Chaplin claimed he wanted “to be remembered by,” is also home to a handful of some of the most enduring examples of his comedic genius. The boiled shoe as dinner for two starving men on Thanksgiving and the baked potatoes dancing the Oceana at forks’ end have long secured a fondly held place in the popular consciousness. The experience of watching Gold Rush today is revelatory not only as one is taken aback by how timeless Chaplin’s best work can be, but also as one marvels at the breadth of comedy he is able to mine from one single set piece. Chaplin effectively achieves more with one cabin, two doors, and a cliff than most directors – yesterday or today – accomplish with titanic budgets and the best talents in Hollywood at their disposal.

The Cinematheque screening also presents a rare opportunity to catch a new restoration of the original, unedited 1925 version paired for the first time with a new recording of Chaplin’s 1942 score.

Lesser known, but every bit the artistic equal of Gold Rush, is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 masterstroke Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), based on the novel by Georges Arnaud. Whereas Chaplin told a warm and ruddy story set in a frozen landscape, Clouzot chose a sun-baked South American town as setting for a film with ice running through its veins. When an oil fire breaks out at one of their distant sites, the Southern Oil Company recruits four poor and desperate men to drive two trucks full of nitroglycerin along a perilous mountain road, the payload essential to extinguishing the fire. The material itself, however, is volatile and extremely combustible, inviting the potential for explosion around every turn. Clouzot is sometimes dubbed the French Hitchcock, having contributed several of France’s best-loved suspense classics (in addition to Wages of Fear, Clouzot’s subsequent directorial effort, 1955’s Les Diaboliques is a stunning psychological thriller).

 

Ultimately, however, this moniker does the director something of a disservice; Clouzot’s charms and talents were varied and very much his own. While the second half of Wager of Fear certainly ranks among the finest pieces of suspense ever committed to celluloid, the director spends much of the preceding half fleshing out a cast of sharply defined characters and orchestrating their compelling dynamics. The audience is urged not simply to oscillate between holding their breath and wiping their brow – though this too is present in spades - but also asked to consider questions of faith, loyalty, masculinity, capitalism, and mortality. A tremendous success upon its release, the film was remade twice (notably in 1977 as the unfairly derided Sorcerer), but never matched.

The Gold Rush and Wages of Fear - each a high watermark for their genres - also pair together unexpectedly well. This double bill is not only devilishly fun, it’s also a chance to see two classic films the way they were meant to be seen. Both films begin a weeklong engagement March 24th.

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