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The Wages of Fear

October 3, 2010

259. Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear)
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
France, 1953
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Ally
First viewing

Description:

Four Europeans are stranded in a squalid, isolated South American town with few opportunities for work or escape. When a disastrous fire breaks out at an oil well belonging to North American oil company SOC, the only way to extinguish the flames is with a controlled explosion. SOC offers the men $2000 each to drive two trucks loaded with jerrycans of nitroglycerine across miles of treacherous terrain to the site of the fire. But with barely any specialist safety equipment and little time to prepare, the drive will be a nerve-wracking one.

Essential Scene:

The first truck comes to yet another obstacle. A huge boulder lies in the middle of the road. Bimba (Peter van Eyck) reasons that SOC won’t miss just a tiny bit of nitroglycerine, and prepares to blow up the boulder.

First he siphons some nitroglycerine into a flask while his partner Luigi (Folco Lulli) makes a hole in the top of the boulder. When the second truck arrives on the scene, Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Charles Vanel) are instructed to reverse the trucks around the corner, out of the way of the impending explosion.

Bimba sets up a fuse connected to a hammer hanging over the hole in the boulder. When the hammer drops, it will trigger the explosion. He then begins carefully pouring the nitroglycerine from the flask into the hole, letting it run slowly down the stem of a leaf so as not to disturb the volatile liquid.

Meanwhile the others wait nervously around the corner, wondering if Bimba will be successful. Luigi bites off the end of a cigar and chews it with bared teeth. Jo scratches the door of the truck with his fingernails. Mario flicks a matchbox. The camera cuts between the four men, gradually zooming in on each one’s nervous actions.

Chew.

Scratch.

Flick.

Pour.

Thoughts:

The Wages of Fear begins slowly, establishing the main characters and their situations in bloody-mindedly obsessive detail. The town is squalid, there’s no work, they’re all unsympathetic assholes — we get it! But once the truck-driving mission begins, there’s just no relief from the tension. The characters may not be painted in a flattering light but somehow it becomes vitally important that they succeed.

By the end of the film, I realised I’d been sat bolt upright with clenched fingers and pulling a variety of absurd expressions for at least the last 90 minutes. If you like the tension of Alfred Hitchcock and the cynical nihilism of John Huston, you’ll probably love The Wages of Fear as much as I did.

The Wages of Fear is available on region A blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Jim Lawrence permalink
    December 22, 2010 4:31 pm

    I’ve only seen this once, a Moviedrome screening. I remember being gripped by it. I think the idea of the opening scenes is to set up the idea of an existential choice: stay stuck in the sweltering hellhole or risk your life to escape. I’m sure this film inspired Hell Drivers, a great favourite.

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