Le salaire de la peur
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Synopsis for
The Wages of Fear (1953) More at IMDbPro »Le salaire de la peur (original title)

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1950, in the very isolated town of Las Piedras, in Southern Mexico. Surrounded by the desert, the town is very poor, and also very quiet in the very hot midday sun. Located in the only street of the town, the bar Corsario is the meeting place for all the European who, for various reasons, found their way here and can't get away from the town. Seated on chairs, but not drinking because they have no money, Frenchmen Mario (Yves Montand), German Smerloff (Jo Dest), American Dick and Italian Bernardo (Luis de Lima) are looking at the very few people walking in the street. The owner of the Corsario, Hernandez (Dario Moreno), eventually kicks them out of his bar.

Mario is mildly in love with Linda (Vra Clouzot), the waitress of the bar, who is also having sex with Hernandez. Another european, Bimba (Peter van Eyck), a Dutchman, is doing some menial work for Hernandez, like collecting the mail from the daily plane, the only link of Las Piedras with the outside world. Bernardo sneaks into Bimba's van, because he is always trying to find a pilot who would take him to the USA, a country for which he is holding a valid visa.

A very elegant Frenchman, Jo (Charles Vanel) is among the passengers leaving the plane. Actually he is another european running away from something. He discreetly gives a few dollars to the immigration officer, who lets him walk out of the airport without a visa. He takes a taxi to the town, where he meets Mario. The two exiled compatriots immediately make friends with each other. We learn that Jo is from Paris, and Mario from Corsica. Jo explains to Mario that he gave his last dollars to the immigration officer, and Mario takes him to the Corsario, where Hernandez, because of Jo's elegant outfit, thinks he is rich and pays for his taxi. Jo discreetly explains to Mario that he had to leave Paris very quickly, and didn't even had time to pack a suitcase.

Mario leaves Jo in the Corsario to go to the small apartment he shares with Luigi (Folco Lulli), and eat the lunch Luigi has been fixing for both of them. Luigi is an Italian, who, unlike the other european expatriates, has a job: he works as a mason.

Then Mario goes back to the Corsario, to share a Cognac with Jo. All the other european expatriates seem to be jealous of Mario's new friend. Jo, who doesn't like music, shut off the radio, but Smerloff switch it back on. Jo asks Hernandez to switch it off. Feeling offended, the expatriates leave the bar, making Hernandez very happy.

When they are gone, Mario tells Jo how difficult it is to get a job in this poor isolated town. The plane being the only way to leave the town, and the plane being very expensive, the expatriates have no alternative than to stay and wait. There is little opportunity for employment aside from the American corporation that dominates the town, Southern Oil Company (SOC), which operates the nearby oil fields and owns a walled compound within the town. SOC is suspected of unethical practices such as exploiting local workers and taking the law into its own hands, but the townspeople's dependence upon it is such that they suffer in silence.

But Jo knows the man in charge of SOC in Las Piedras, Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs). They have being doing some not very legal stuff together a long time ago. And Jo goes to see him in his office. But O'Brien can't do a thing for his old pal without risking to loose his own job, because the Big Bosses of SOC would certainly get to know what Jo and Bill had done together in the past.

Within the following days, Jo and Mario become very close, which gets Luigi a bit jealous. And he is not the only one to be jealous. Linda also feels that Mario neglects her for Jo. But Luigi gets real mad when Mario gives Jo one of Luigi's white trousers, after Jo's trousers got ruined by mud. Mario decides not to live anymore with Luigi, but, before leaving, he takes with him his most precious possession, the last subway ticket he used when he left Paris.

In the evening, Luigi walks in the Corsario wearing his best suit, and sits at the expatriates' table, ignoring the other table, where Jo and Mario are sitting alone. He orders Champagne, and asks Linda to dance with him. Jo tears the cord off the radio to stop the music, but Luigi keeps on dancing and clapping his hands, imitated by all the other expatriates, except, of course, Jo and Mario. Jo takes the bottle of Champagne, shakes it violently, and then uncorks it and sprays the Champagne on Luigi and his friends. Luigi wants to hit Jo with the empty bottle, but Jo points a gun at him. Then, to push him to his limit, Jo gives him the gun and slaps his face, but Luigi just drops the gun and leaves the bar.

A massive fire erupts at one of the SOC oil fields. O'Brien knows that the only way to extinguish the flames is to cut the fire at its base with an explosion caused by nitroglycerine. But the 200 gallons stock of nitroglycerine is at La Piedras, and not at the oil field. With such a short notice and the lack of proper equipment, the explosive must be transported inside regulars jerry cans on the two best trucks available at the SOC headquarters and then driven 300 miles away. Due to the poor condition of the roads and the highly volatile nature of nitroglycerine, the job is considered too dangerous for the unionized SOC employees. So O'Brien is going to ask some of the european expatriates of Las Piedras to drive the trucks. But, against the cynical advice of one of his assistants, he is going to give each driver $2000 to drive the trucks ($2000 in 1950 would be almost $20000 in 2015).

All the expatriates pass a driving test. Even Luigi, who just learned that his lungs are full of cement, and that he has to stop working as a mason or he will die very soon. The first one to pass the test is Bernardo. He is driving a small truck with O'Brien sitting next to him and all the other men gathered at the back of the truck. One of the men throws his jacket on the windshield and Bernardo, frightened, slams on the breaks. Only four men get the job : Bimba, Luigi, Mario and Smerloff. All the men leave O'Brien's office except Jo, who is a bit mad not to have been picked up by his old friend. O'Brien tells him that Jo is like him : a bit too old for that kind of job, but he also tells him that if one of the drivers desists at the last minute, he will get the job.

Hernandez offers a drink to the drivers. Bernardo trusts a letter for his mother to Linda for her to mail it the next morning, and then he goes out the bar and hangs himself on a tree in the garden.

At 3:00 am next morning, Mario, Bimba and Luigi are gathered in O'Brien's office, waiting for Smerloff. Jo walks in to say good-bye to Mario, and looks genuinely surprised about Smerloff's absence. Luigi points out he was the last one who was seen with Smerloff going out of the Corsario. O'Brien, who knows Jo very well, understands that Smerloff has been killed by Jo, and, a bit reluctantly, gives him the driving job.

Jo and Mario take the bigger truck and leave first, the second truck leaving half an hour later for safety reason. But, before leaving, Jo checks meticulously his truck, to O'Brien's annoyance. Eventually Jo climbs in the truck and Mario gives him his lucky subway ticket. Then Jo starts the truck and slowly leaves the SOC yard. They cross Las Piedras still asleep, except for Linda who climbs on the truck footboard to say good-bye to Mario, who kicks her away from the truck. Jo doesn't feel very good and thinks that his malaria may be coming back, but he doesn't want Mario to drive.

After only 17 kilometers (10,5 miles) of very slow driving, Jo decides to stop the truck and eat something, but Mario sees the other truck already coming behind them and tells Jo they must leave at once. Jo starts driving again but he feels worse and worse and even vomits the coffee Mario gave him. They stop the truck and the other truck joins them. Luigi has some very harsh words for Jo, and then decides it's better for him and Bimba to take the lead.

Luigi and Bimba reach what is called the washboard. Outside the forest, where there are no trees to protect the road, the surface of the road has been wrinkled by the wind. For the trucks not to bounce on the road, they have to drive at forty miles an hour minimum or at less than six miles an hour, the best solution being of course to drive at forty.

While Luigi is keeping the speed above forty, the engine starts having problems, and they have to use a length of concrete near a pipe-line pump to stop the truck. They find that the problem with the engine is due to some gas-oil having been added to the regular gasoline normally used by this type of truck. They put some fresh pure gasoline in the tank, but they realize that the length of concrete is too short to bring the truck to forty mph, so they have to drive the rest of the washboard at very slow speed. Before leaving, Luigi puts his large white handkerchief on the concrete for Mario and Jo to see it as a warning signal for danger. But, as soon as they are gone, a local kid steals the handkerchief.

Meanwhile, Jo is falling apart because of his fear, and he can't bring the truck to forty mph, so Mario decides to drive. He crosses the length of concrete at forty mph, while the kid waves to them with the stolen handkerchief. As they come near the end of the washboard section, they see the headlights of the other truck in the distance. But Luigi's truck can't go above seven mph and Mario's truck can't go under 40 mph, or both trucks start vibrating. But fortunately, at the last seconds, Luigi's truck reaches the end of the washboard and can speed up.

Luigi's truck starts climbing a mountain with many hairpin turns. One of them is so tight that they have to maneuver the truck and use a wooden platform built near the road. But the wood is partly rotten, and the truck almost breaks through the platform. They eventually succeed their maneuver and resume their journey on the road.

When Jo sees the rotten platform, he wants to give up, but Mario gets real mad at him and forces him to help him and guide him while he maneuvers the truck. But Jo runs away in the mountain, and Mario has to do the whole maneuver by himself. When he eventually drives back on the road, the rotten platform collapses behind him. He starts driving away, without Jo, who runs after him on the road. Mario eventually takes Jo back on board, but he is very mad at him, and tells him very precisely what he thinks about him and his cowardice.

A huge boulder, which fell from the mountain, blocks the road. Bimba asks Luigi to dig a hole, about 30 inches deep, in the boulder, while he's going to siphon about one liter of nitroglycerine out of a can, and into a Thermos bottle. Mario and Jo join them, and Bimba asks them to move both trucks as far as possible from the boulder. Then they all hide behind rocks far away from the boulder, except Bimba. Very slowly, he pours the explosive into the hole in the boulder. Then he ties a hammer above the hole with a long wick. With his cigarette, he lights the end of the wick and runs to hide behind a rock. The boulder explodes. Bimba, Luigi and Mario congratulate each other and, to celebrate, they go and take a piss together, not even saying a word to Jo, who pisses alone.

Luigi is driving his truck, while Bimba is shaving and telling Luigi about his father being murdered by the Nazis, and himself being forced to work for three years in a salt mine. Meanwhile, Jo, who calmed down a bit, is rolling a cigarette for Mario, when they see an explosion further away on the road. They immediately understand it's Luigi and Bimba's truck. Jo runs out of the truck, but Mario catches him back, hits him very hard and brings him back to the truck.

Mario and Jo arrive at the scene of the explosion only to find a large crater rapidly filling with oil from a pipeline ruptured in the blast. Jo walks in front of the truck to help Mario navigate through the oil-filled crater. The truck, however, is in danger of becoming bogged down and during his frantic attempts to prevent it from getting stuck, Mario runs over Jo. Although Mario ultimately succeeds in getting the truck out of the the muck, Jo is mortally wounded. He dies just before they reach the burning oil field. On his arrival at the oil field, Mario is hailed as a hero, but he collapses from exhaustion when he gets out of the truck.

Upon his recovery, Mario heads home in the same truck, now empty. The SOC gives him double wages, his and Jo's. Mario jubilantly drives down the mountain road, while a party is being held at the Corsario, where Mario's friends eagerly await his arrival. The radio plays Johann Strauss' The Blue Danube, both at the Corsario and in Mario's truck. Linda dances with Mario's friends and Mario dances recklessly with his truck. He takes one corner too fast and plunges through the guardrail to his death, holding his lucky subway ticket in his hand. At the same moment, Linda, as if she knew what just happened, suddenly faints in the arms of the man she was dancing with.


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