DVDs: French Classics

The Wages of Fear The Criterion Collection
Movie ••••½ Picture/Sound •••• Extras •••
Le Samouraï The Criterion Collection
Movie •••• Picture/Sound •••• Extras •••
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953) is one of the most riveting adventure films ever made - and one of cinema's darkest existential visions. In a squalid South American oil town, four men who are destitute in pocket and spirit take on the virtually suicidal task of transporting nitroglycerine over bad mountain roads to a fire at a distant oil field - a journey that tests our nerves almost as much as theirs. The newly restored black-and-white images on this two-disc set (actually the second Criterion edition of Wages) are highly detailed in both blinding sunlight and darker scenes, and the contrast of fire against a night sky is perfect. And the various elements in the clean mono sound are so well integrated that you might not even notice how effects are used to bump up the suspense. The second disc includes new and vintage interviews, a recent documentary on Clouzot's career, and a featurette on the cuts made for the original U.S. release.

In director Jean-Pierre Melville's Le SamouraÏ (1967), existentialism isn't cruel but cool. Alain Delon, sporting a rakish fedora that perfectly frames his face, is a freelance hit man whose controlled professionalism (particularly when things go wrong) is just another indicator of his isolation from the rest of humanity. Images are sharp, with excellent contrast; the blue-gray color scheme makes the picture seem like tinted black-and-white, but skin tones are natural throughout. The soundtrack is crisp, and its effects - atmospheric bird cries, off-screen tires on rainy streets - are some of the best I've heard in a mono track. Extras include interviews with the director and cast and a 30-page essay booklet. Both: French (with English subtitles), Dolby Digital mono. Wages: full frame (1.33:1); two dual-layer discs. Le SamouraÏ: letterboxed (1.85:1) and anamorphic widescreen; dual layer.