The Wages of Fear


There’s plenty of set-up in this famous thriller, but once the nitroglycerine gets moving, the tension never lets up.

A small town in an unnamed South American country: a multi-national group of deadbeats hang around the town’s one bar, making money where and how they can, and spending it on drink and women. As they look for a windfall to provide a way out, potential salvation comes, but at a deadly risk: four men are needed to drive two trucks carrying dangerously unstable explosive along the country’s winding and unreliable roads…

One of cinema’s great pessimists, Clouzot revels in the active, termite-like seaminess of the town…

Prospective viewers of this classic suspense thriller who only know it as ‘the one with the trucks full of nitroglycerine’ may be dismayed to discover that the actual driving only starts about halfway into the film. Before that, however, director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s deliberate and patient scene-setting in a South American town in the middle of nowhere proves to be absorbing in its own right, as well as showing how the hopelessness of its indigent inhabitants might lead many of them to risk everything on this last throw of the dice. Famous as one of cinema’s great pessimists, Clouzot revels in the active, termite-like seaminess of the town, offering his main characters—a bunch of sweaty Europeans reduced to sharing a single drink in the local bar—all sorts of chances to bully dumb animals, the town’s native population and each other. Clouzot seems to favour emphasis over subtlety, which makes for many striking images but is occasionally taken too far. At one point, for instance, the loathsome bar owner Hernandez (Dario Moreno) has ordered the bar’s skivvy, Linda (played by Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife), upstairs so he can have his way with her: before he follows her up, he plays with his hair as if attempting to make himself presentable, then grabs a raw onion and bites into it.

Linda herself is evidently besotted with the most presentable of the no-hopers, Mario (Yves Montand), a young Corsican whose journey to get to this end of the line, as with all the others, is never explained. Mario enjoys Linda’s attentions but does not consider that he has have any real affection for her. This becomes clear when a new arrival, Monsieur Jo (Charles Vanel), comes into town. In his pristine white suit, dark shirt and decorative fly whisk, Jo makes an immediate impression, but it is clear from the start—a surreptitious bribe to the one-man border guard—that his situation is just as desperate as everyone else’s, and that white suit doesn’t stay clean very long. Nonetheless, Mario, happy to have found a fellow Frenchman, quickly aligns himself with Jo, alienating not only Linda but his roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli), a jovial Italian. In contrast with most of the other white men there, Luigi both cooks for himself and has found work, albeit menial, at the local oil refinery run by an American company, SOC, which shows as dismissive an attitude to the native population as the men in the bar. It is SOC—via its local operating manager, Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs), who turns out to be an old criminal associate of Jo’s—that offers the four chosen men the profitable but incredibly risky task of driving the nitroglycerine explosive from the refinery to one of the oil fields hundreds of miles away.

The symmetry of two trucks is a particularly inspired idea…

Once the drivers are chosen, the film’s focus contracts, Clouzot swapping the expansive, busy canvas of the town for this quartet of desperate men and their two trucks. He cuts between long shots, mid shots and close-ups with great ingenuity to heighten the tension, expertly turning the screw during those scenes when one false move will destroy the truck, and its drivers, in an instant. The symmetry of two trucks is a particularly inspired idea. In one nail-biting sequence the smaller of the two trucks arrives at a complicated turning point where it has to back out onto an unfinished bridge, encountering problem after problem as the drivers try to move forward. When the second, larger truck arrives, the audience is aware of the precariousness of the bridge and the added dangers of this truck’s additional weight—to say nothing of the very different relationships of the two pairs of drivers.

Clouzot opens the film with the image of a group of insects, yoked together with string by a small boy. Whether he means this to be seen as a symbol of the drivers’ powerlessness—as playthings of fate. As they encounter various obstacles the drivers certainly rail against their bad luck, and as the journey continues come to embrace a certain fatalism. However, Clouzot also offers a sort of optimism, as the stress of the drivers’ situation brings out a patient and inventive practicality, a hard-won camaraderie and, in all but one case, an incredible bravery. Montand—who is, it’s no great spoiler to say, one of the drivers—is particularly effective in these sequences, developing from the insouciant charmer of the first half into a haunted shell of a man, battling against his mounting terror.

THE WAGES OF FEAR has always been known for its striking visual look, and this is particularly evident in this new 4K restoration. The black and white photography is masterful, with Clouzot taking full advantage of the light and dark contrasts his locations offer him, from the bright sun falling on the town and creating dappled shadows, to the inky blackness of an oil spill.

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