Wages of Fear, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/22/11 11:42:08

"A gauntlet like few others on film."
5 stars (Awesome)

Supposedly, when it was first published, Hollywood tried to snap up the film rights to Georges Arnaud's novel "Le salarie de la peur", but he insisted on a French adaptation. At some point, Arnaud's heirs relented, and the result, William Friedkin's "Sorcerer", is a pretty good movie. "The Wages of Fear", on the other hand, is a great one, the one to see if you've only got a two and a half hours of your lifetime to give to this story.

South America seemed like a land of opportunity in the post-WWII years, but for many it turned out to be a trap: Stuck in company towns designed to separate workers from their money and without enough jobs to go around, most can't even earn the money to get back home. That's where Mario (Yves Montand) finds himself in geography and circumstance as the film starts, though his spirits are given a boost with the arrival of a fellow Frenchman, M. Jo (Charles Vanel). An opportunity to make enough money to leave soon presents itself, though: An oil rig owned by the company is on fire, and needs quite a bit of nitroglycerin transported there to blow it out. Volunteers will be paid handsomely, presuming they make it there alive, but the two trucks being used to transport the volatile liquid - one driven by Mario and Jo, the other by hard-working Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli) and his German partner Bimba (Peter van Eyck) - are not designed for the task and the road is treacherous.

The Wages of Fear is, at the center, a character study. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot (who also adapted the novel with JÚrome Geronimi) takes his time establishing the characters at the start of the movie, not doing much to describe their pasts but making their present very clear. Clouzot does not make the characters terribly likable, although they clearly have their virtues which could be more prominent in better circumstances. What we see is a group of people who tolerate each other and are even friendly enough when all things are equal, but with an underlying desperation that could send things crashing down should things stop being equal. By the time the characters hit the road, things have the potential to explode figuratively as much as literally.

The test of that comes from one of the greatest gauntlets ever devised for the screen, which presents the drivers with four major challenges which command the audience's attention as tests of both mettle and character. The first, a rough road that will agitate the nitro too much if traversed at a conventional speed, is the most pure test of character - will the drivers attack it boldly, racing over it at high speed, or timidly, going slow enough to carefully avoid each individual bump - but after that, the obstacles are structured like puzzles. It's a devilishly nerve-racking set-up, as Clouzot, cinematographer Armand Thirard (working in crisp black and white), and editors Madeline Gug, Etiennette Muse & Henri Rust carefully lay the problems out without much music to goose the nerves, let the audience consider the problem alongside the characters, and then use the imminent threat of explosion or other injury to crank the tension up. In one particularly nasty iteration, the first truck to go through means that the second cannot solve the problem in quite the same way.

The way the filmmakers handle these scenes makes them some of the most thrilling of any time period, let alone the early 1950s, despite the fact that few (if any) are direct confrontations between two characters. Clouzot and company do an excellent job of making the details clear to all without lingering unnecessarily, but what makes the movie work so well is that each step is not "just" about getting a bit closer to the goal, but illuminating and developing character. We see danger bringing about the drivers' true selves, whether that be an expected recklessness or a surprising cowardice.

A good cast helps with that. Mario is Yves Montand's first dramatic role, but somebody viewing the movie for the first time wouldn't know that. He's got a casual air to him that can work both ways, one can see it generally suits him to be pleasant but that this should not be mistaken for obligation or honor, especially when the chips are down. Charles Vanel plays Jo as a complement to that, playing the big man up to a point and then leaning on that impression to keep the audience undecided over whether Jo was all talk or if his later caution is the wisdom of experience. They're the focus of the movie and a great pair, with Lulli and van Eyck serving as more than adequate back-up. Vera Clouzot, the director's wife, does a pretty fair job as the simple but good-hearted barmaid that Mario spends far too much time taking for granted.

"The Wages of Fear" has often been called an existential film, and while that's probably true enough, it's not the sort where the audience must dig to find meaning because other pleasures are absent. It's a legitimate white-knuckle thriller that explores its characters through their actions, rather than just what they say or how they gaze, and has seldom been bested at its game.

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