The Wages of Fear is a magnificent thriller, the last hour-and-a-half of which will have you chewing your nails up to your wrists. The first hour is interesting but, to my mind, a bit slow. We spend a lot of time getting to know the squalor of Las Piedras. The anti-American point of view now just seems quaint.
Las Piedras is a tiny South American (or possibly Central American) town that reeks of poverty and bakes in the hot sun. Children with sores, tired donkeys and mangy dogs fill the dirt streets. It's the final stop for down-and-outers whose only hope is to find work with the Southern Oil Company (you can infer SOC easily is a stand-in for Standard Oil), which dominates the place. "Americans here? You kidding?" says one man. "If there's oil around they're not far behind," says his companion. SOC has a headquarters office in Las Piedras; the oil field is 300 miles away. Into this fly-infested hole arrives Jo (Charles Vanel), a tough, middle-aged French gangster out of luck and out of cash. He encounters Mario (Yves Montand), a ne'er-do-well in his twenties from Corsica who's stuck in Las Piedras. Mario does odd jobs to make enough money for meals and whiskey, beds and takes for granted the young woman who works at the town's cantina, and longs to get out of the place and back to Paris. The two of them bond in a way, the confident tough guy and the young, not-quite-amoral thug-in-training. The shifting relationship between these two is what drives the story; that they can get blown sky high at any moment after the first hour is what keeps us watching.
When an oil fire erupts at a well head, Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs), the local American SOC boss, decides to send containers of nitroglycerine in two trucks from Las Piedras over three hundred miles of rocky, pot-holed road to put out the fire. He'll hire two men per truck and pay $2,000 per man for those who get through. The one drawback is that nitro is notoriously unstable, will explode in heat and if jostled and the trucks have no safety equipment. The visa-less bums, last chancers and sweating drunks stuck in Las Piedras line up. These are men who are so close to being the dregs of humanity you won't want to spend time standing next to them. You're not going to hire those tramps, one of O'Brien's subordinates says to him. O'Brien makes clear the film's point of view regarding American oil companies. "Those bums," he says, "don't have a union or any families, and if they blow up no one will come around for contributions." And so fifty-six minutes into the movie, Jo and Mario in one truck and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), a blond German, and Luigi (Folco Lulli), a happy Italian dying of lung disease from working in the SOC's cement operation, set off in their trucks. Even they begin to have second thoughts when they watch how slowly and carefully the jerrycans of nitro are loaded.
From now on we're in the cabs of those two trucks, sweating with the heat and our nerves. The road cuts through baking semi-desert, filled with potholes and rocks, and over mountains covered with scrub, shale and boulders. We've got to get through the washboard, a long stretch of dusty road carved into ruts by the wind. If the trucks keep going at 40 miles an hour, all is fine. Go under 40, "boom." Go over and "boom." There's a hairpin turn high on a mountain so sharp the trucks have to back onto a wooden platform to turn around. We find out the wood is rotten and the platform is shaky. There's a boulder as big as a truck that will have to be blasted apart...but only by using some of the nitro in a hazardous improvisation that requires siphoning, a falling hammer and a lit fuse. And worst of all is a large, expanding and deep pool of oil which will have to be driven through. By now we've come to know, if not especially like, these four men. Luigi is strong, coarse and relatively happy. Bimba is resourceful but fatalistic enough to make you a little nervous. Jo? He turns out not to be so tough after all, while Mario becomes the senior partner of the two, and determined enough to run a truck over a man's leg. How many survive? You'll need to see the movie. The ending is just right.
Considering the passion French intellectuals have always had for smoking their Gauloises and condemning what they term American cultural and economic imperialism, Henri-Georges Clouzot makes his points but never at the expense of his film. The first hour may have messages to give, but they're understated and never smack anyone over the head. (However, the movie was cut by nearly an hour for it's initial American release. In addition to losing a fair amount of time in Las Piedras, all those anti-American swipes somehow disappeared.) The journey on the two trucks is so continuously gripping that any messages early on fall to the side of the road. Yves Montand, in one of his earliest movies, and Charles Vanel, an old hand, dominate The Wages of Fear. For those who recall Vanel only as the wily, good-humored police inspector in Clouzot's Diabolique, you're in for a master-class in the versatility of a first-class actor.
The Wages of Fear is a classic, powerful adventure of men placed at risk by their needs and their natures. The Criterion two-disc release features a fine transfer, several interesting extras on the second disc and an informative booklet in the DVD case. This is a movie well worth buying.