Explosive Terror in The Wages Of Fear (1953)

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To view The Wages of Fear click here.

In The Wages of Fear (1953), based on Georges Arnaud’s novel The Salary of Fear, director Henri-George Clouzot takes an incredibly simple premise and somehow creates over two and a half hours of psychological suspense in one of the greatest thrillers ever made. The Wages of Fear was a defining moment for Clouzot’s career, earning him critical praise and great financial success, which ultimately secured future projects such as his 1955 masterpiece Diabolique starring Simone Signoret and Woman in Chains in 1968. Not only did this film bolster Clouzot’s standing in the industry, it inspired many psychological thrillers to come, including William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), which was a remake of sorts for The Wages of Fear. (Although Friedkin has previously asserted that Sorcerer is merely an adaptation of Arnaud’s novel, and not a remake of Clouzot’s film.)

In a rural South American village, men from all different backgrounds are stranded, desperate for work and a way out. The only means of transport out of the village is through a small airport. But the fares are beyond what anyone is able to pay, and corruption makes it difficult to find lucrative work. The village is at the mercy of an American-owned oil company. While the operation provides work for those in the village, the people are exploited with ridiculously low wages and unsafe work conditions. The villagers, who are non-union, are forced to take these unsafe jobs, which wouldn’t be permitted for the well-paid union employees, just to make enough money to survive. The village is a purgatory, with each man unsure if he will ever make it out.

But when the American oil company has a catastrophic explosion and a raging fire at their plant three hundred miles away from the village, they must devise a plan to extinguish it. The only possible solution is to transport a shipment of nitroglycerin by truck from the company’s outpost in the village to the site of the fire in hopes of putting it out. Seems simple enough, right? Except the roads between the village and the fire are treacherous. Winding, narrow dirt roads through mountains and bleak desert, bumpy “washboard” stretches of pavement and rotten wooden bridges are some of the many obstacles the drivers must face en route. And complicating matters, the two vehicles chosen to haul the nitroglycerin are not properly retrofitted to safely carry something this volatile. Knowing this job would never be approved for union workers, the American oil company once again exploits the laborers in the village, except this time they offer a significant amount of money for the safe delivery of the highly explosive nitroglycerin. The catch? Even the slightest bump could blow up the truck, and its drivers, to bits. And so, a ragtag crew of four men: Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Charles Vanel), both from France; a German named Bimba (Peter Van Eyck); and Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli), a man who has just been given months to live because of cement particles in his lungs, sign on for this suicide mission. Their willingness to volunteer for such a hopeless, dangerous job is partly influenced by their desperation to escape the sweltering, bug infested hell; but also driven by their egos, preserving the macho reputations they’ve established amongst the other villagers. But volunteering isn’t enough. The men must prove their worth as exceptional, resourceful truck drivers, unflinching in their bravery. But what do they really have to lose? It’s their only chance to get out.

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On the surface, this premise of transporting nitroglycerin seems like a boring plot device. But Clouzot creates a nail-biting, white-knuckle thriller that is, at times, unbearable to watch. The pacing is deliberate, and every creaking board, spinning tire and bump on the road is tormenting the men in the trucks as well as the audience. We all know this is a doomed mission. We all know the trucks can explode at any moment. But Clouzot never gives us any indication when or if that will happen. It’s an unnerving, emotional journey to that fiery oil field, and these men who we really know very little about, other than their penchant for heavy drinking and hard living, have earned our sympathy and respect.

While The Wages of Fear is one of the greatest, most innovative thrillers ever made, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer takes Clouzot’s exercise in paranoia a step further. We also have a little more invested in our four main characters, as Friedkin gives us brief vignettes describing their lives (all of them have criminal backgrounds) before their meeting in the tiny South American village where they are forced to hideout. We’re already invested in these characters, and although they’re morally corrupt—or at least morally ambiguous—we understand them. Also, the sound editing on Sorcerer is exceptional, creating a terrifying environment around the harrowing journey. I saw the remastered release of Sorcerer a couple years ago at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles, and for two hours grabbed onto my seat, shaking from the realistic and nerve-wracking sound of a bridge slowly collapsing under one of the trucks. And these two trucks, one which is named Sorcerer, are characters, too. Each one almost has its own personality, and have physical characteristics that make them seem to come alive. Oh, and one must not forget that magnificent score by Tangerine Dream.

Of the two films, I much prefer Friedkin’s interpretation of Arnaud’s story. But I strongly recommend watching The Wages of Fear, as it no doubt inspired Friedkin, and even suggest a dynamic double feature if your nerves can handle it.

Jill Blake

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6 Responses Explosive Terror in The Wages Of Fear (1953)
Posted By swac44 : August 26, 2017 7:28 am

While not on the same level as the two films mentioned, Howard Koch’s WoF-inspired Violent Road is worth seeing next time it pops up on TCM. Some tense moments and a good performance by Brian Keith as the truck driver. Makes for a great double or triple feature with the others.

Posted By Brad Evans : August 26, 2017 12:04 pm

Movies that are “at times, unbearable to watch” might make an interesting list. I’d put “Titus,” an adaptation of a Shakespeare play, on the list with “Wages of Fear.” “Titus,” and I hope I got the name of this movie right, starred Anthony Hopkins, among others.

Posted By arm : August 26, 2017 2:27 pm

William Friedkin’s 1977 film “Sorcerer” is a great remake.

Posted By kingrat : August 27, 2017 5:50 pm

Jill, I would call THE WAGES OF FEAR not one of the greatest thrillers ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made. This is the only film I can think of that successfully weds the neorealistic style of the first hour to the thriller-style of the rest.

Notice how many characters of one nationality speak a few words of a foreign language, as would happen in such a polyglot world. I also love the frankness about homosexual desire, which would have been unthinkable in a Hollywood film of the time. Charles Vanel and Folco Lulli get into a bar fight over Yves Montand, who dumps Lulli, his presumably platonic quasi-spouse, for Vanel, who has a big crush on Montand but may have connections to help Montand get out of this hellhole.

Then there’s the little moment when the Italian asks the Dutchman, “You like women?”, and the Dutchman simply says “No.” Unthinkable in a Hollywood film.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 1, 2017 7:14 pm

I showed both WAGES and Friedkin’s remake SORCERER in a World Cinema class, and we compared and contrasted styles, themes, stars, and eras. The students enjoyed both films, but, of course, I couldn’t resist asking which they preferred. With reluctance, they decided they liked WAGES better.

Posted By Joe Walker : September 2, 2017 1:22 pm

Both “Wages of Fear” and “Sorcerer” are great movies. I agree that Sorcerer is an overall more complete experience, but wages has you on the edge of your seat as well. The Sorcerer went up in a puff of smoke and Lazarus returned from the ded to complete the mission. Both great films!

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