In the South American jungle supplies of nitroglycerin are needed at a remote oil field. The oil company pays four men to deliver the supplies in two trucks. A tense rivalry develops between the two sets of drivers and on the rough remote roads the slightest jolt can result in death.Written by
Col Needham <email@example.com>
In The Wages of Fear, four men in a remote South American town have the enviable task of transporting a metric buttload (technical term) of nitroglycerin across mountainous roads in poor condition. It's a taut, superbly suspenseful thriller, guided with a steady hand by director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to direct the classic Diabolique in 1955.
Yves Montand, in a rare dramatic role, plays Mario, the ostensible protagonist of our tale. He's been stuck in this backwater for some time, but it costs a lot of money to get out – plane fares are through the roof, and there's no train, and there's no neighboring village. In short, you're stuck there until you can buy a ticket – and pay for a passport, of course.
Mario spends his days looking for work, wooing tavern worker Linda, and despairing about the lack of work. There's an American oil company in town, but they're no longer hiring. His monotonous lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of fellow expat Jo (Charles Vanel), a tough-looking older man who quickly wins Mario's favor at the expense of the rest of the men in town.
The oil company, in fact, has its own problem – one of their large derricks has exploded, causing a huge oil fire. Company man Bill O'Brien decides to send two trucks loaded with nitro from the town up the mountain to the derrick. (The eventual idea is to set off charges, which will somehow contain or extinguish the fire.) O'Brien has no trouble scaring up volunteers for the task, since the men of the town are largely unemployed. Four men will be selected to take the two trucks. Only one truck is needed; the second is truly just in case there's an accident with the first one. The men will receive $2000 when the work is finished, more than enough to secure passage out of the backwater.
Mario and Jo are chosen, as are Mario's roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) and German expat Bimba (Peter van Eyck). The two trucks depart early in the morning, full of gas and of nitro. Danger awaits.
Theirs is not an easy task. The road is full of ruts. In one place, the wooden deck that trucks use to make a sharp turn up the mountain has been damaged from disuse. It's hot and muggy. And one has to be very, very careful, as even the smallest bump might set the whole shebang off. There's also tension among the four drivers – Luigi is unhappy that Mario is spending more time with Jo than with him, Mario is unhappy with what he perceives as Jo's cowardice. Bimba seems to get along with everyone, though.
The whole time I was watching this movie, I was certain not all four were going to make it. I will not spoil what is now a sixty-three-year-old movie, but I was still genuinely surprised by the ending. This ain't no fairy tale or sitcom. This is a movie about desperation, redemption, sacrifice, and comeuppance. It's not necessarily about justice.
The Wages of Fear is a singularly terrific movie from start to finish, exquisitely shot and expertly written. Its money maker is its tension, something present here in spades. The writing is impeccable; even personality changes make perfect sense within the film's context. There are intricacies within a straightforward plot. This is a must see for lovers of thrillers.
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