A truck full of explosives travels across a rocky road in The Wages of Fear.
The Wages of Fear is filmmaking at its absolute finest. The tension and anxiety you'll feel watching this film is unlike anything I've ever experienced. My body was still, my breathing sporadic for nearly two and a half hours as director Henri-Georges Clouzot's accomplishes something I rarely see (and may have never seen done this well): Create a film that's simultaneously plot-driven and character-focused. It's so hard to not lose sight of one of them, but Clouzot never does—not even for a scene. It's an marvelous achievement, and earns an instant spot in my all-time top five.
The film is constructed around the basic premise that those stranded in Las Piedras, a woebegone town in a nameless Latin American country, would do anything to get out. Sure, there are small pleasures—the constant feeling of leisure, for example—but the town has been so ravaged by the Southern Oil Company that those pleasures are almost immediately overtaken by a sense of isolation and helplessness. If you're unfortunate enough to find yourself in Las Piedras, there's a good reason for it, and you aren't likely to be getting out soon.
When an opportunity presents itself, however, the stranded are ready to jump at it. Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Bimba (Peter van Eyck), and Luigi (Folco Lulli) are drafted by SOC for a dangerous mission—transport two truckloads of nitroglycerin over 300 miles of rocky terrain. Why would anyone undertake such a job? Easy—the $2000 waiting for them if they make it back alive.
The Wages of Fear is constructed in such a smart way (a way that's been duplicated in many films since). The first hour is all character and setting development. I won't lie and say it's the most exciting hour I've ever seen in film (that award would go to this very film's final hour), but it's essential in order grasp why these men choose to take the job. We need to empathize with their desperation, or else we'll feel they are just reckless adventure seekers. Clouzot takes his time showing us this, but in hindsight, every second of this build-up is necessary.
The way Clouzot presents his characters is also fascinating. Though he never makes us lose focus of who these people are, none of them is all that sympathetic. Mario is a downright scoundrel—one of the most dislikable protagonists I've ever seen. He's abusive toward his girlfriend, Linda (Clouzot's own wife, Vera), and he treats his companion, Jo, with utter disdain as soon as the older man shows any sign of weakness. Jo, meanwhile, is all bark and no bite. In the safe confines of Las Piedras, he's like Don Corleone, insisting that everyone call him Mr. Jo, and threatening anyone who disrupts his power. As the journey gets rough, however, he's the first to crack, and ironically, he becomes something of an underdog. Bimba and Luigi we know a little less about, though they are far from one-dimensional. Bimba is like a robotic Aryan. He's easily the toughest of the bunch and shows little emotion over the course of the entire journey. He's also blonde-haired and blue-eyed enough that Hitler would envy him. Luigi is the most personable of the bunch. He seems like a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but we do learn early on that he is to die within a year of lung injuries sustained during his time working for SOC.
All four characters have flaws, but our interest in them never wanes, even when we become fully engrossed in the white-knuckle suspense of their journey. It's been said before that generating surprise is easy, but suspense is trickier. Maintaining such a fierce suspense is something I've honestly never seen before. There's not a moment during the second half of The Wages of Fear when I didn't feel uneasy, nervous, or unsure about the outcome of this journey. As they encounter obstacle after obstacle (from a rickety bridge they must drive on to a several-ton boulder they need to blow up to pass), the odds of their survival decrease. And how do they react when the survive one challenge? Not with increased confidence as you might expect, but rather with greater dread and a more fatalistic attitude. In that way, The Wages of Fear is a very unique movie for its time. There's little hope to be found. It's almost as if the characters know their journey is a fool's errand. But that doesn't make it any less compelling—the contrary is true, actually. As they become more hopeless, we feel more tension and suspense.
There was a great deal of controversy surrounding The Wages of Fear back in 1953 for its portrayal of Americans. In fact, the film was cut for its American release (only to be restored much later in its complete form). The SOC is your typical corporation—it feigns caring about its community, but behind closed doors, its leaders don't care about the people or the environment. The first time we're introduced to the company, it's because the family members of some dead SOC workers are protesting the company and the dangerous conditions on the job. It's also quite clear the reason Las Piedras is so down and out is because SOC has sapped any potential from this town. Whether Clouzot modeled the company after any real one I couldn't say. But as far as I'm concerned, it might as well be called BP or Exxon-Mobil because nothing is taboo for its leaders as long as its profitable.
The Wages of Fear is considered one of two Clouzot masterpieces (the other is Diabolique). While the latter is great, it doesn't mark the pinnacle of a genre the way the former does. This is the gold standard as far as thrillers are concerned. It has more suspense than every thriller I've seen in the last few years combined, with every major scene in the latter half of the film offering at least one heart-stopping moment. It's brilliant cinema that deserves its status as a classic. I think everyone should watch it, and as soon as possible. You'll never view thrillers in the same way again.