The Wages of Fear is a suspense thriller directed by French genius Henri-Georges Clouzot. When a South American oil well catches fire, the company hires four European men – Mario (Yves Montand), a Corsican playboy and layabout, Jo (Charles Vanel), an aging ex-gangster, Luigi (Folco Lulli), a portly hardworking Italian who has just been diagnosed with a lung disease, and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), an intense individual who had previously worked on a salt mine. Down on their luck and stranded in a backwater Latin American village, they must drive two trucks over 300 miles of hazardous mountain roads, carrying the nitroglycerine needed to extinguish the fire. The Wages of Fear, extraordinarily, won both the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Clouzot’s next film would be his classic horror/thriller, Les Diaboliques.
The First Act
Clouzot’s film opens in Las Piedres, a village in the heart of a poor, unnamed South American country. It is a lost, backwards village of stifling heat where a variety of interracial men sit around listlessly, working menial labor jobs and waiting for some kind of escape. It seems to be a place where desperate individuals have come to escape their past, but having found themselves down on their luck and with no cash, they cannot afford to escape. This opening 45 minutes is often the brunt of the criticism but I feel like it is essential to revealing the desperate situations of the central characters, and taking the time to establish why they would be so willing to undertake such a high-risk job. It is also an excellent way to introduce the key characters, and to differentiate between who they become throughout their mission.
Rather than use their own unionized workers, SOC (which shares the initials of American giant Standard Oil), instead hires the four local men, who are lured by the US$2,000 per driver, and see the opportunity as the only way out of their dead-end lives. These men have no families and Clouzot, whose screenplay is an indictment against American big business, has the company’s boss stating that the drivers: “Don’t belong to a union, and they don’t have any relatives, so if anything happens, no one will come around causing trouble.” The men must transport cans of the nitroglycerine over miles of treacherous road, fearing for even the slightest jolt and dealing with a series of worsening obstacles along the remote roads as well as a rivalry that develops between the two groups of drivers.
‘The Master of Suspense’
The film’s thrilling second half proves to me that Clouzot can worthily stand aside Hitchcock as ‘the master of suspense’. It is, in a word, perfect suspense cinema. He deftly balances the heightened narrative tension while continuing to develop the characters. We learn that Mario isn’t a very nice guy, but he’s a natural leader, recklessly taking charge of several extremely dangerous situations. Alternatively, we learn that Jo is not as tough as his swagger suggests, plagued throughout the mission by anxiety and acts of cowardice. Clouzot also demonstrates ingenious technical prowess. Every single sequence is expertly photographed, from the claustrophobic confines of the trucks to their skidding wheels as they start to edge closer to a perilous drop, while edited to draw a maximum amount of tension.
I have seen few action sequences better edited to generate thrills than the infamous scene where the characters are faced with a tight hairpin turn and must back their trucks along an unfinished, feeble wooden bridge constantly threatening to collapse. The wheels skid on the rotten wood and a steel support cable catches the side of the truck. The fate of the mission (and their lives) is hinging on this moment. Later, Mario and Jo must cross an ever-deepening pool of slick crude oil from a burst pipeline. The excitement is relentless.
As I was watching The Wages of Fear for the first time I ‘felt’ like I was surely watching one of the greatest films ever made. The way the characters react to the situations is just as shocking as the events themselves. If were to put together a lost of 100 films that I consider to be truly great, The Wages of Fear would comfortably make the list. William Friedkin actually re-imagined this film with Sorcerer (1977). In it’s own right it is a great film, but it is also a great film because The Wages of Fear is an incomparable masterpiece.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22