Movie Monday: ‘The Wages Of Fear’

the wages of fear

Movie Monday: Film Recommendations By Our Contributors

“Every pebble can blow us sky-high,” warns one of the truck drivers in The Wages of Fear. Such is the movie’s explosive influence, its DNA is strewn across the annals of modern cinema. From Indiana Jones to Speed to Solo: A Star Wars Story, there are obvious nods to the action scenes in The Wages of Fear. Yet none of those films manage to capture the desperation and tension which permeates this classic. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot brings us a blend of existentialist literature worthy of Steinbeck (the movie is actually based on the 1950 French novel Le Salaire de la Peur by Georges Arnaud) and a testosterone-fuelled ride.

The blazing heat and humidity are palpable as life plays out in the Latin American backwater of La Piedra. The story’s symbolism is incisively captured; we see a child torturing four cockroaches he has bound together by string, only to see him gaze longingly at an ice seller whose wares he cannot afford. As he looks away, a buzzard eats the cockroaches—death is never far away. The town may not be the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” which describes the spaceport Moss Eisley in Star Wars, but La Piedra is a hotbed of wretchedness and desperation. The inhabitants are trapped within this desolate locale without financial means to escape.

The opening scenes are deliberately slow and ponderous, introducing us to the characters who will drive the main act. Even the audience starts to yearn to escape the squalor and the hopelessness. The leading character, Mario (Yves Montand), a young Corsican playboy, explains the situation to newcomer Jo (Charles Vanel), an ageing Frenchman with a dubious past: “it’s like a prison here, easy to get in, make your self at home, but no exit!”

The hope of any exit arrives from a big American corporation, Southern Oil Company (SOC). SOC has a dominant presence in the town and appears to exploit the desperate local workforce. An oil field suffers a huge blaze and the only way to extinguish the raging fire is to use nitroglycerine to cause an explosion. SOC needs volunteers to undertake the dangerous job of transporting the unstable explosives 300 miles to the oil field. The job is tantamount to a suicide mission, crossing unforgiving terrain with a volatile payload, but the danger-money being offered attracts local volunteers. When an oil company employee protests about the plan to use local “bums”, the reply is: “those bums don’t have any union or any families.” Censors determined that some of the scenes were anti-American, cutting them from the initial release in the USA.

The child with the cockroaches is a perfect metaphor to introduce the four protagonists of the film. The ice represents freedom and how this job gives them the means to achieve it, while the buzzard, the spectre of death, hangs over them. Jo and Mario take the first lorry laden with cans of nitroglycerine while the quietly intense German, Bimba (Peter van Eyck), and the likeable roguish Italian, Luigi (Folco Lulli) take the other. 

The second act of the movie is a tour de force of action scenes that provide pivotal reference points for future generations of filmmakers. There is true edge-of-the-seat tension as the two trucks traverse the harsh landscape with their doom-laden cargo. The drivers encounter several obstacles—the first being the rocky bone-jarring ‘washboard’, where they must drive at over forty miles per hour or less than six to avoid bouncing the explosive cans. They rely on a rotten wooden platform to navigate a steep precipice. In a particular anxiety-inducing moment, a huge boulder blocking the path requires a carefully placed drop of nitroglycerine to destroy it.

The brilliance of The Wages of Fear is not just in the striking set-pieces as the director beautifully ratchets up the tension in the sequences leading up to the action scenes. The moments in the truck cabs are so claustrophobic that those watching feel the air being sucked from their lungs. The movie beautifully portrays human mortality and, unlike the Hollywood happy ending we’re often given in contemporary cinema, this does feel like a movie in which no one may live to collect their $2000.

The movie is a sharply observed study of fear. The cleverness is how fear distorts the impression we had formed of the main characters in the opening scenes. Jo arrives with an air of arrogant confidence and exudes strength, albeit underpinned by violent behaviours, which draws Mario to him. As the danger intensifies, Jo’s facade slips and the paternal bond unravels. Jo runs from danger in one tense moment as we increasingly see him overcome with fear and cowardly tendencies which leads to Mario taking centre stage. Death permeates the dialogue; when Mario complains “he’s just a walking corpse” of Jo, the other drivers reply: “and so are we.” 

Viewed through a modern lens, the film does suffer from scenes of misogyny with lines such as “women are no good”. The way that Mario treats his lover, Linda (Véra Clouzot), throughout the opening sequences makes for uncomfortable viewing. If anything, these moments make it difficult to root for any of the male leads and, arguably, there are no heroes in this movie. Thankfully, Clouzot does such a magnificent job—in both the key scenes and the characterisation—that while we can no longer ignore these depictions, the movie may still be regarded as a masterpiece. 

Standing as the source code for so many beloved modern-day movies, The Wages of Fear is a ride definitely worth taking.

Words by 
Andrew Butcher

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