The Wages of Fear (1953)

Dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot. Starring Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli

The Wages of Fear is a two and a half hour movie. I was surprised at the length, knowing what I knew about it before viewing for the first time: some guys have to haul nitroglycerine across some hazardous terrain, and some obvious problems ensue. What they don’t tell you is that the first hour takes place creating deep background; it’s only in the last ninety minutes or so, which is probably the longest a thriller can get to before it starts to feel dangerously contrived, where the pace begins to amp up.

Clouzot’s adaptation of a pulp novel is brilliant because of setting, and there are three ways that comes about. The first is in the town, a hole of a Latin American hamlet which is filled with international expats. Mario (Montand) is a Corsican; Luigi (Lulli), his roommate, is Italian. There are Englishmen, a German, Dutchmen (like Peter van Eyck’s Bimbi, who comes to play a key role), and at least one American. No one knows how they came to be there, but they’re all stuck. The roads don’t go far, nor do the railroads; a single airplane ticket to some better destination would at least a thousand dollars, and none of the international crew have it. As Mario explains to Jo (Vanel), a wizened newcomer to the town who fancies himself a tough guy (and, while in the company of men who have been beaten down, gets treated like one), there’s no steady work to be had. There’s enough money for food and maybe a drink, housing with dirt floors and the same cheap meals over and over again. A guy who comes to this town at the ends of the earth, looking for some escape from wherever he’s come from, and discovers that there’s no way out. It appears to have happened to Mario, and Luigi, and Bimbi, and to the rest of the shlubs who hang out at a bar where they’re harassed by the equally wimpy proprietor, Hernandez (Dario Moreno). The rest of the film does not work without this hour, and that’s why Wages could never be remade today. (I haven’t seen Sorcerer, but as I understand it, it probably shouldn’t have been remade in ’77 either.) No studio would give a director or his creative team the hour they’d need to create an atmosphere of genial hopelessness, where the same man with a dog tied to his cart sells shaved ice with horchata or coffee flavors, where Linda the waitress (Vera Clouzot) is the only woman with a sexual pulse for miles, where a montage explains how an American oil company (Americans will go anywhere there’s oil, Mario explains) has made it impossible to carve out anything beyond subsistence. There must be close to half-a-dozen languages spoken in this film, mishmashed, representing many cultures, cutting mindlessly one from to another; the majority of the dialogue is in French, but we read a meaningful note in Italian, and there are chunks of the film in English, and the language of most of the townspeople is Spanish. There’s a sense that World War II has something to do with many of them coming to the New World, creating a strange European enclave in some anonymous Latin American town. We know Bimbi was a prisoner of the Nazis. Did Luigi escape fascism, or did he leave Calabria because of backlash? Was Mario Vichy or Free French? There’s a quiet diaspora occurring here on a very small scale, something that has attracted these ne’er-do-wells together in the new American colonies. No wonder that when a oil field goes up in flames, and the oil company offers $2,000 apiece for four drivers who will take a ton of nitroglycerine (which they’ll use to put the fire out) 300 miles across hazardous terrain, any inch of those 300 miles could be the one that sets off a literal ton of nitroglycerine, they target the expats – and the expats jump at the chance. Union drivers won’t do it, and they’re wise men for refusing. O’Brien (William Tubbs), who knows Jo, decides to offer what he knows are golden tickets to the men in the village. It’s a quintessentially American situation: exploit colonized people, and when you run into trouble, get them to fix it for you. (It’s worth noting, of course, that no black or brown people even get in for an interview or a practice drive; it’s white people all the way through, and doubtless when they remake this movie in 2023, at least one of the drivers will be a black man.) I just can’t get over how good the first hour is; it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the movie that comes after it, but it fits the last ninety minutes like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle all the same. It’s the perfect type of character motivation, and somehow there’s room to privilege the characters while the audience is wondering how these guys are going to detonate themselves. Luigi and Bimbi earn the chance to drive one of the trucks; Mario, who is still hero-worshiping Jo, is assigned to drive with another expat, Smerloff, but Jo (probably through brute force) manages to get Smerloff’s spot.

The countryside is its own important setting, and it comes in several flavors so as to satiate all palates. Like plains? Great, because the drivers have to go over rough scrub with roads so bad that both teams have to make a choice: drive at six miles an hour the whole way and hope the nitroglycerine doesn’t bounce over a four hour period, or drive at better than forty, taking your chance that there will be enough space between the wheels and the ground that the nitro will practically be cushioned, and finish the drive in less than half an hour. Both teams choose the latter, but not at the same time. Like mountains? Some of the movie’s tensest scenes take place in the mountains; Mario all but puts his back wheels over the edge of a rickety wooden overlook, while Bimbi painstakingly tries to blow up a great boulder in the road with nitroglycerine he’s siphoned from the back of his truck, painstakingly pouring a thermos full of the stuff over the makeshift demolitions operation. Or how about the jungle, where an oil pipeline has broken wide open and is creating an almost impassable lake of black gold. One of our four principals gets stuck in such a lake and his partner has a choice to make: either stop and ensure the other man’s safety at the cost of the truck, or go and run over a helpless man and hope you reach your destination afterwards.

The final settings of the film are the truck cabs themselves. The trucks are labeled “EXPLOSIVES,” which I like; it obviously reminds the viewer of the nitroglycerine, but that’s easy; it’s impossible to forget the nitroglycerine. The “EXPLOSIVES” are really for the men, for Mario’s recklessness and Jo’s egotism, for the bad blood between Mario and Luigi, for the way that each man sweats profusely when faced with a moment where he’ll have to do his job perfectly. Going into the film, I had assumed that the drivers would stay in the trucks most of the time, but it’s not like that at all. The men are constantly getting in and out of the trucks for various reasons; Jo has a panic attack when it sinks in that he’s driving a bomb that could send him sky-high; Luigi backs Bimbi up as safely as he can, guiding the truck with no rearview mirror; Mario seems to get out just for the heck of it often as not. And while it would be something to keep the men in the cabs the whole time, creating a heightened sense of claustrophobia and introspection, that seems to happen plenty without them being stuck in the cabs. They’re stuck, all right; stuck in the middle of inhospitable landscape, stuck with trucks full of comically dangerous material, stuck with the responsibility of bringing an end to a raging fire. When they’re in the truck, one man driving and looking endlessly at the road, the other man eating or smoking or shaving (Bimbi’s kind of a weird dude), it’s hard not to think about how it will look when the cab, and the two men sitting in it, will be totally obliterated by the explosives.

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