In 1953, before any American studio exec used the phrase "high concept", Henri-George Clouzot's The Wages of Fear
boasted a premise so literally explosive that audiences were excited before they got into the theatres. With an oil-fire burning out of control deep in the South American jungle, two lorryloads of highly unstable nitro-glycerin have to be driven through miles of unstable terrain littered with dangerous turns, crumbling planks, falling rocks and mediocre hardtop. One good jolt will vaporise truck, nitro, drivers and a substantial swathe of the countryside, so the company recruits desperate souls among the loser tramps who loiter around the nowhere town of Las Piedras, begging for any kind of work.
On the road, Clouzot stages a string of unforgettable sequences: one stretch of badly paved track can only be crossed by driving at under six miles an hour or over 40; a mountain turn requires that the trucks back out onto a rickety, rotten wooden structure; a 50-ton boulder has fallen into the road, and one of the drivers calmly drains a litre of nitro into his thermos to blow it up, only remembering when the fuse is lit that this will rain pebbles all over the countryside and a few good hits on the cargo will set it off. This is perhaps as great a mix of action-adventure and contest as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and still a textbook example of sustained suspense.
On the DVD: The print is in great shape, though the image is a little soft; the menu has a clever explosive aspect and uses the same vintage artwork as the sleeve cannily combined with a snippet. There are trailers for both Wages and Clozuot's other masterpiece, Les Diaboliques, as well as biographies of the principal cast, eight stills and three posters.--Kim Newman