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"The Wages of Fear", Spielberg's "Duel" and William Goldman: An Appreciation of Simplicity

At last, after hearing about it for years, I finally saw "THE WAGES OF FEAR" (1953, Clouzot) (I caught it streaming on HBOMax, but it's also available from The Criterion Collection.)

One of the trucks "The Wages of Fear" 1953

The film is a tense (if lengthy) thriller with an exceptionally simple premise: Four men have to transport two trucks full of a volatile material that explodes if jostled - through hundreds of miles of bumpy terrain.

It was re-made in English in 1977 by William Friedkin, with the also-opaque title, "SORCERER", and was a heavy inspiration for a recent episode of 'THE MANDALORIAN", but most interesting to me is its clear influence on an earlier film (one of my favorites), Spielberg's "DUEL" (1971).

The truck in Spielberg's "DUEL" (1971) - note the prominent stenciled warnings.

What struck me about "The Wages of Fear" was the simplicity - a simplicity that Spielberg would double-down on with his truck thriller. We learn very little about our characters beyond their poverty (their NEED - money) and their task (their GOAL). The hero, Mario (Yves Montand) reminisces about Paris a bit, M. Jo seems like a con-man, Luigi has health issues and Bimba briefly references being imprisoned in Nazi salt mines... but we hear these snippets in passing - no one reminisces about a childhood, or obsesses over an old trauma. We get very little backstory. All we know is that they're here, they're poor, desperate, and have dreams that drive them towards the money they hope to earn by this very dangerous mission.

As I watched, I was reminded of something William Goldman wrote in "Which Lie Did I Tell?" his fantastic follow-up to "Adventures in the Screen Trade". He talks about writing a character - a mysterious hunter - in one of his films, and having a movie star/producer demand that the character have a 'backstory'.

Goldman explains that once the mysterious hunter had a backstory, the mystery was lost, and the movie suffered for it. He goes on to praise mystery, and to push back against the Hollywood tendency (particularly from movie stars) to insist on explaining the "reasons" for a character's actions on screen. In fact, Goldman points out, most of our favorite movie heroes are favorites precisely because of the sense of mystery that surrounds them. We never learn about Rick's childhood in "CASABLANCA". James Bond, as far as we know, has been a double-O agent from the womb.

Spielberg, who in 1970 was clearly influenced by Clouzot's thriller, doesn't just borrow the big truck with the boldfaced warning stenciled on its back. He borrows the simplicity, too. in "DUEL", David Mann also comes with pretty much no backstory. We don't learn anything about how he got to be the way he is. We know what's driving him now - his shoddy marriage, his scrabbling in a lousy job just to survive. But we learn nothing about what made him the way he is - because we don't need it. Spielberg provides us with the basic information we need to understand what's happening in this film. And that's it. Narrative immediacy.

Here's why this works: When we get a lot of information about a character's background, that character becomes a little too real. Too much of a separate person. We find ourselves watching that character, not being that character. But movies aren't merely observational. They afford us an opportunity to get out of our own heads and into the experience of a fictional other. When there are gaps in the character, big areas of the character's backstory that aren't revealed to us, it creates room for us to put ourselves there instead. We're tense when Mario drives over a bumpy road because - in a way - we are Mario. If we knew more about him, we'd have a harder time putting ourselves in his place, sharing his identity during the movie-watching experience.

Spielberg, in particular, goes to great lengths to align his audience with his characters (See my video on his "Point of Thought" technique - it's the visual way he achieves character/audience alignment.) It is, perhaps, one of the reasons his films tend to be so popular. Simplicity - a calculated withholding of backstory - is another of Spielberg's tools.

[I should note: another point Goldman makes often in his book is that directors often get credit for screenwriters' decisions. Yes, it's the writer who chooses whether to include or omit backstory... but it's the director who chooses the script (assuming the director has some clout). So, on this point, I disagree somewhat with Goldman. The director still gets at least some of the credit (or the blame!)]

If you're a savvy Spielberg fan, you might protest my assertions here. You might point out that some of the great scenes in Spielberg's early films are all about backstory. In "JAWS" (1975) Quint's haunting recollection of the sinking Indianapolis may be one of the greatest expositions of backstory ever committed to film!

Quint's "Indianapolis" speech in "JAWS"

Even in "THE WAGES OF FEAR", the characters share bits and pieces of their past. It's valuable to consider which bits and pieces are shared. They're all memories or experiences that directly inform the current story. They don't tell us how they got here. Instead, they tell us what they're thinking/feeling now.

In "JAWS", we don't need to know why Quint became a fisherman. But we need to know why he insists on pursuing this great white shark when he could cut his losses and go home. In "DUEL", we need to know why David Mann doesn't turn around and go home: there's not much of a home life for him to return to. In "THE WAGES OF FEAR" we need to know why the four drivers keep going - what's driving them? We need to know their desperation, and what they hope to achieve, but we don't need to know how they got into their desperate position.

Here's the valuable lesson for screenwriters and filmmakers: if you're considering whether to include a detail about a character, consider its narrative immediacy. If it's a detail that helps us understand why a character takes an action now, it may be important to include. But if it's just there to help us understand how a character got to this point in the story - if it's pure 'backstory' without immediate relevance, it may be best to leave out entirely. Give your audience room to enter your characters, to become them. Don't crowd your audience out!


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