The Wages of Fear

The ability of a film to make the mundane suspenseful (or horrifying) is one of my favorite aspects of the medium. In Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the Christoph Waltz character asks another if they would like a glass of milk and it’s a chilling scene. Out of context, it doesn’t make much sense (what could be more commonplace than offering a guest a glass of milk?) but within the film’s universe it’s a life-threatening question. What Inglourious Basterds does to milk, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear does to driving.

In a nondescript town in South America an American oil company has run into trouble. One of their fields has had an accident – a burning fire rages without any sign of letting up. They only have one way of stopping it – the highly unstable explosive, nitroglycerine. But there’s a problem, the trucks they have to transport it in don’t have the necessary safety equipment…

The Americans get a bad rep in this movie. The town is filled with unemployed vagrants looking for a big payday to get out of the depressed town and the American company decides to take advantage of them. They’ll hire four men to drive two trucks for $2000 each. If both trucks explode, it won’t be a problem. They have a pool of men to replace them with. One truck has to get through; the American mastermind behind the project rationalizes. Oil is more valued than life.

The incredible suspense of the movie (half of the film is spent travelling the badly-maintained road with the four men) is only surpassed by the sheer ingeniousness of the scenario. We spend the whole movie hoping for nothing to happen. The world takes on a different colour; every pothole, tight turn, and dirt road becomes a symbol of life and death. The slightest bump will set off an explosion and kill two men. The entirety of the film is spent avoiding this fate.

The Wages of Fear is a timeless film in the sense that the themes continue to resonate today. That the story revolves around valuing oil over human life is particularly prescient considering the wasteful wars that have occurred (and still do) over this very battleground. The suspense of the film hasn’t tired or aged. The sweat that rolls off a character’s brow, the deliberately slow movements they make around the nitroglycerine and the increasing tension between the men is almost unbearable. A fifty-seven year-old film can still be exciting.

When the action comes it goes with a whimper, rather than a bang. It’s a smart, and chilling, choice by Clouzot.

Grade: A

Side note: One aspect of the film I found slightly strange was the characters always seem to slam the truck door upon entering or exiting the vehicle. I thought that the slightest erratic movement (or vibration) would be enough to set off the explosives. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise impeccable film.

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3 Responses to The Wages of Fear

  1. I just watched this a couple of months ago – and I was reading the Inglourious Basterds script last night. Which seems like a mildly odd coincidence.

    This is definitely a gripping, intense film, with (spoiler alert?) a pretty bleak ending. In fact, the commentary on human nature throughout the film is unrelentingly negative, and yet the whole thing plays out more like an action flick than a philosophical treatise on greed and fallibility.

    I’d definitely show this one to any viewer who thinks older movies are dull and slow-paced. Great review!

  2. Modest Movie says:

    Very strange coincidence indeed.

    I like your point that the film is more of an action flick than a philosophical treatise. I think more movies should take this approach (i.e. make an exciting and entertaining genre film that also has more intellectual layers to it) rather than making a full-blown “message” movie.

  3. I completely agree. But it’s a very, very hard balance to strike. I hate to mention this one in the same breath as The Wages of Fear, but I actually like The Island. By Michael Bay. There, I said it.

    The trouble is, while I think the first half of that film is a surprisingly effective piece of “message” sci-fi that manages to entertain at the same time as it instructs, the second half is…a Michael Bay movie. My favourite films and television shows manage to tell entertaining stories wherein the theme and the action are basically inseparable. Clouzot is a master.

    Anyway, thanks as always for the quality posts!

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