Imagine going to see a movie with someone on what might be a first date. The uncertainty about whether this is anything more than two new friends getting together is compounded by not knowing much about the person you're with. Is she a saint? Is he a psycho? The movie would have to be compelling to divert your attention from those concerns.
The almost-flawless Wages of Fear could do that. The movie (aka Le Salaire de la Peur; 1953; in French with English subtitles; directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; starring Yves Montand and Charles Vanel; Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival, where Vanel was named Best Actor) is so gripping that you could easily forget you're with someone, even if you're in a crowded theatre. The film's suspense rivets so completely that you could even forget there are other people in the world besides you and those on the screen.
Director Henri-George Clouzot, who also directed the original Diabolique (Les Diaboliques, 1955), paces his extended opening slowly so that the audience has time to get to know the central characters. Then Clouzot exploits our familiarity by plunging them into a series of extreme dangers, which he presents with mastery that transfers much of the characters' intense anxiety to us. The experience is so enthralling and exhausting that the movie's end brings with it some surprise that it was just a movie. Part thrill ride, part nightmare and part masterpiece, Wages of Fear seems so much more.
The movie follows four men stuck in a remote Latin American village who are desperate to earn a little money. They drive trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerine across terrain that is bumpy in its best spots and seemingly impassable in the rest. The oil company that hires them needs the nitro to blow up a well that is consumed by fire, but the company's pressing need doesn't make it generous. The men risk their lives for a relative pittance.
The audience goes through every bit of their ordeals with them. We hold our breath every time the road jostles their trucks. We breathe when things calm down, but stop breathing again when a new danger threatens. The movie's power can leave viewers frozen. It does not make sense, but you might find yourself afraid to move in case something you do triggers an explosion.
Wages of Fear grips strongly because of the richly drawn characters and the complex relationships among them. One is a thug, but his early dominance gives way to something almost touching. Another looks Aryan, which makes his presence in post-World War II Latin America suspicious, but those suspicions turn out to be off the mark, at least in part. These vague references are intended to suggest some of the skillful nuance with which the characters are presented.
Yves Montand's assured and virile performance made him a star. Charles Vanel and Peter van Cyck invest their portrayals with impressive shading and energy. Folco Lulli brings to his performance as the fourth driver much more than the simple comic relief into which his character could have slipped.
If there is a weak performance, it reflects more on the script than on the actor involved. Vera Clouzot has the thankless task of being unyielding in her devotion to Montand's character despite his dismissive mistreatment of her. He treats her so badly that anyone who knows that Vera was married to director George-Henri Clouzot could be tempted to wonder if their off-screen relationship was a happy one. Vera Clouzot comes across much better in her husband's Diabolique, in which she plays a villain.
There is one mistake in Wages of Fear that is difficult to overlook. The ending has one of the main characters behaving in a way that betrays all that has come before. It completely contradicts everything we have seen him do and have heard him say. Evidently we are intended to accept that he acts recklessly in defiance of the extreme caution that was demanded of him, but it goes beyond that into absurdity. Because there is no way to reconcile his final actions with his earlier ones, it is best to forget the ending entirely.
Or skip it. If you stop watching when someone falls to the ground with an inferno in the near background, you'll end the movie with an image so striking and ambiguous that it reflects deftly all the subtlety and power that has preceded it. Otherwise, you end up with a final 60 seconds or so that mar what is in all other respects a masterpiece.
The Wages of Fear is a magnificent thriller, the last hour-and-a-half of which will have you chewing your nails up to your wrists. Las Piedras is a tiny South American town that reeks of poverty and bakes in the steaming sun. You can smell the squalor. Children with sores, tired donkeys and mangy dogs fill the dirt streets. It's the final stop for down-and-outers whose only hope is to find work with the Southern Oil Company (you can infer SOC easily is a … more
What Pompted You to write a Review? This is a film where I could see the French Existential philosophy in action. How was the Plot, Acting, Direction? The plot of this film was about truckers hauling very explosive nitroglycerin through the South American jungle to a mining camp. This was very dangerous work as just one bump could lead to the tanker truck exploding. However, instead of writing this as a suspense drama, this film was … more