IMDB #168 The Wages of Fear

Today we check back in with Henri-Georges Clouzot, with 1953's The Wages Of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur).

Having no exposure, all I can tell you is that it's French, it's black and white, and his wife is probably in it again. And it'll probably be tense. Really, really tense.

The Key Players:

Clouzout we know, as well as his beautiful wife Véra (who plays a supporting role here).

But the whole film is sort of a family affair, as star Yves Montand, veteran French singer and actor, was married to Les diaboliques star Simone Signoret at the time- Charles Vanel played the inspector in that film as well, the same year he put in a supporting turn in To Catch A Thief.

Folco Lulli (The Organizer) and Peter Van Eyck (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) round out the main cast.

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The Story:

In a South American town isolated by the desert, the local economy and law enforcement is all run by the American 'Southern Oil Company,' which is there to drill. After an oil well catches fire, the only way to extinguish the blaze is to blow it out with a whole lot of nitroglycerin. The only way to get it there is to drive a truckful of the unstable, highly sensitive explosive over rough terrain.

SOC, already adept at exploiting the locals for cheap labor, decides to hire the job out to the masses stranded in town with no way to pay the fare home, and they offer high wages for the job to attract lots of vounteers. After many trials and selection processes, they pick four men who coincidentally are our four main characters:

Mario (Montand): a French drifter, playboy, and douchebag (at least to his girlfriend, Linda (Mrs. Clouzot)).

Jo (Vanel): an aging, prideful gangster new to town that strikes up a friendship with Mario- this causes a falling out between Mario and...

Luigi (Lulli): (Mario and Luigi! I JUST REALIZED THIS!) a hard-working, penny-pinching Italian who needs to get out of his job mixing cement before inhaling the dust kills him.

Bimba (Van Eyck): an intense Dutchman that survived the Nazi regime after being forced to work in a salt mine.

Actually Jo is a last minute replacement for a man named Smerloff that doesn't show- did Jo murder him? It's left unclear. Mario and Jo set out in one truck, Luigi and Bimba in the other.

For the next hour and a half, they try and navigate cracks in the road, detonate a boulder blocking the way, a rickety bridge, and psychological breakdowns (namely Jo, whose nerve is nowhere near what it used to be) to their destination despite the possibility of exploding at any moment.

The Artistry:

Is there a stronger word for 'harrowing'? Chilling? Agonizing? Nerve-racking? The extended second half of The Wages Of Fear is all of these things.

Split the credit for the tension between the nitroglycerin itself and the steady time the film takes to buildup these characters before they set out- Luigi, a man of the people, and Jo, a wannabe bigshot, nearly brawling at the bar, the riotus townsfolk when the accident in question kills 13 local sons (but no SOC employees).

That idea of the town itself as a powder keg never really pays off, but it lays a solid thematic foundation of oppression. In fact, I admired how stark the film turned out to be- the cartoonish villainy of the SOC brass is never met with any retribution, Mario is at times a slimeball, other times a brute, and never really redeemed.

The cinematography is wonderfully claustrophobic, particularly for what's basically a road movie. The closeups in the trucks (labeled EXPLOSIVE in big letters, the oil fire framed by a doorway- even the cramped porch as the vagrants sit out the heat at the cantina. It helps that two thirds of the trucks sequences take place at night, with lights illuminating only the determined faces of our heroes.

If heroes you can call them: certainly Luigi and Bimba are easy to root for- Van Eyck is the most memorable performance of the four, slowing revealing a jovial personality under a battle-hardened exterior. He shoulders one of the most intense moments, when he slowly, carefully pours a little of the nitro into a hole carved in the boulder in order to blow it up.

One character who takes his name out of contention for the job right away makes a comparison: " I used to see men go off on this kind of jobs... and not come back. When they did, they were wrecks. Their hair had turned white and their hands were shaking like palsy!" This journey is like growing old, all at once. But in the promise of something better, we see four men choose it willfully to leave the hellish township behind, beaten down by heat and watchful tormentors in the SOC. But if life is the journey, through obstacle, tension, and especially fear, the only reward is untimely death or deliverance to hell: a flaming, chaotic oil field, greed wrought upon the landscape.


After making it successfully past the bumpy road (where they have to maintain 40 mph, Speed style to keep level over the bumps and not jostle the payload), the rickety bridge, and the boulder, Luigi and Bimba's truck explodes for no reason at all. Aw.

Jo finally snaps and flees, but Mario catches up to him and beats him into submission in an uncomfortable confrontation. They encounter a sinkhole filling with leaking oil, and Jo gets out to steer the truck through- he trips, and Mario (unwilling to stop and have the truck be stuck with no momentum to carry it out) runs over his leg. On the final trip to the oil derrick, Jo dies while reminscing about his time in Paris.

Mario is greeted as a hero by the frantic workers, but collapses in exhaustion and despair. The next day, seemingly jovial, he starts back to town in the now empty truck- we see Linda and the townsfolk jubilantly start to waltz to "The Blue Danube" on the radio as Mario, smiling, dangerously swerves the truck side to side on the road for no reason, immune to the risk.

He of course careens off a mountain road, and dies as the trucks broken warning siren wails a distorted finale tone. The end.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Wow, it was a bummer, but I'd put it up there- I certainly enjoyed it more than Les Diaboliques.

The Legacy:

It was remade twice for Americans, as Violent Road and Sorcerer (directed by our pal William Friedkin). It would win the Golden Bear in Berlin, the Palm d'Or in Cannes, and the BAFTA for Best film despite being ignored by the Academy.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Not a single damn one. But here's Yves Montand singing "Les Feuilles Mortes." Culture!

Leftover Thoughts:

-Remeber that one episode of LOST where Arzt blew up? That was hilarious, and nitroglycerin will always remind me of it now.

-Truly a multilingual film, with Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, and English all flying around in there.

Coming Up...

167. Ratatouille

166. Dog Day Afternoon

165. The Secret In Their Eyes

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