July 27, 2022

The Wages of Fear (1953)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Stars: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Vera Clouzot

What it's about. Set in an impoverished (but oil rich) South American rural village. Oil field manager O'Brien (William Tubbs) sees production stopped by an enormous fire that will take nitroglycerin to extinguish. The oil field is remote from the village, and can be reached only by a rocky road through steep hills.

O'Brien employs four village layabouts without family for the extremely dangerous job of driving the nitro from the village to the fire across the mountain road. Two trucks are loaded with cans of nitro, and each truck has a driver and front seat passenger.

The four men are eager for the job, since the potential pay is so great that it could change their lives. The men are Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Charles Vanel) in the first truck, and Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli) in the second truck. Tough guy Mario and his cynical fellow Frenchman pal Jo are enemies of hard-working but combative Luigi, but they set aside their differences for the wages of fear.

Linda (Vera Clouzot) is the girlfriend of Mario. She works as a waitress and cleaning woman for Pepito (Dario Moreno), who owns a diner.

Although she looks much younger than her age, Vera Clouzot was 40 when she made this film. It was also her film debut, and one of only three films she made before her death from a heart attack at the age of 47. Her second film was another French classic, Diabolique (1955). All three movies were directed by her husband, Henri-Georges Clouzot. Here, she steals every scene she is in.

The Wages of Fear was also the first leading role for Yves Montand. He was already a star in France, but as a singer. It was the last movie for William Tubbs, who only made it to age 45.

The movie was based on a novel by Georges Arnaud. The film has been remade a few times, most notably as Sorcerer (1977).

How others will see it. The Wages of Fear was an international hit, especially popular throughout Europe. It was the first movie to win both the Golden Bear at Berlin and the Grand Prize at Cannes. It also won Best Film at BAFTA.

The film remains greatly respected. At imdb.com, it is ranked #192 in the celebrated Top 250 list. It has a big 61k user votes, and an extremely high user rating of 8.2 out of 10. Women like it moderately less than men, likely because Mario dies, but not before he treats Linda poorly and is so ruthless that he drives over the legs of his partner Jo.

Most viewers thrill over the film's dramatic tension. It's not just a matter of driving the truck over bad roads. There's a suspension bridge that needs to be entered, a large rock from a landslide that blocks the road, and a stretch of the road is beneath a pond of oil.

How I felt about it. One has to wonder why the oil company did not already have nitroglycerin at hand before the fire. Also, since the nitro must have been brought to the village, why wouldn't it have been brought further, to the oil field, by those same workers?

It is outrageous how poorly Mario treats Linda, and yet she is deliriously devoted to him, when she is apparently the only pretty girl in town, while there are many other layabout men.

It is odd that Jo has no fear that Luigi will shoot him with his own gun, and is so determined to drive a nitro truck that he (apparently) assaults Hans to take his place, yet acts like a coward throughout the truck drive.

It is also odd that Mario becomes so excited over Jo not driving more than 40 kilometers per hour over potentially poor roads when their truck is loaded with readily explosive nitro.

I also don't understand why the trucks need to go completely onto to the short suspension bridge. Or why the drivers are smoking cigarettes around nitro, when the fumes could be flammable.

No one seems to care much that Jo is dead, and his legs are crushed, with Mario as the obvious culprit. But Mario drives back to town, cash in hand, like he no longer has a care in the world.

In short, The Wages of Fear has problems. Yet it is a good movie. Mario and Bimba are in their element on the drive, because it is an opportunity to prove their manhood. Luigi is motivated because he doesn't believe he will live long unless he can get the money to escape to civilization.

It is interesting that The Wages of Fear won so many awards, but the writer (Jerome Geronimi) was not nominated for anything, and the only actor who received festival recognition was the hard-pressed Charles Vanel. But in retrospect, the film is most significant for turning Yves Montand into a moviestar, big enough to romance Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love.