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The Wages of Fear ( ) is a 1953 drama film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Yves Montand, and based on a 1950 novel by Georges Arnaud. When a South American oil well owned by an American company catches fire, the company hires four European men, down on their luck, to drive two trucks over mountain dirt roads, while carrying the nitroglycerine needed to extinguish the fire. Sorcerer, directed by William Friedkin, is a 1977 American remake.

Plot

The film centers on the fates of a handful of men who are stuck in a South American town. The town, Las Piedras, is isolated due to the surrounding desert but it maintains contact with the outside world through a small airport. The airfare, however, is beyond the means of the main characters (many of whom are also noncitizens without proper paperwork for work or travel). There is little opportunity for employment aside from the American corporation that dominates the town. The company, Southern Oil Company, called SOC, operates the nearby oil fields and owns a walled compound within the town. SOC is accused of unethical practices such as exploiting local workers and taking the law into its own hands.

The first half of the film develops the main characters by examining their daily struggles. Most of the action takes place in the town’s cantina. The four most prominent characters are: the Frenchmenmarker Mario and M. Jo, the Germanmarker Bimba and the Italianmarker Luigi. Mario is the main character, a usually optimistic Corsican playboy. Jo is an aging ex-gangster who ran bootleg, and just recently found himself stranded in the town. Bimba is an intense, quiet individual whose father was murdered by the Nazis, and who himself worked for three years in a salt mine. Luigi, Mario’s roommate, is a jovial, hardworking individual, who just learned that he is dying from lung disease. Mario befriends Jo due to their common background of having lived in Parismarker, but a rift develops between Jo and the other cantina regulars because of his tendency to want to come off as a bigshot.

The catalyst to the film’s action sequence is a massive fire at one of the SOC oil fields. The only means to extinguish the flames and cap the well is nitroglycerine. With short notice and lack of proper equipment, the only means of transportation are jerrycans placed in two large trucks. Due to the poor condition of the roads and the highly volatile nature of nitroglycerine, the job is considered too dangerous for the unionized SOC employees.

The company recruits driver from the local community. Despite the dangers, many of the locals volunteer, lured by the high pay: US$2,000 per driver. This is a fortune to them, and the money is seen by some as the only way out of their dead-end lives. The pool of applicants is narrowed down to four handpicked drivers. All the main characters except for M. Jo are chosen. Smerloff, one of the chosen drivers, fails to appear on the appointed day for unknown reasons and Jo is substituted in his place. The other drivers suspect that Jo murdered Smerloff in order to take his place.

The final half of the film is an extended action sequence focusing on the drive to the oil field. M. Jo and Mario are in one vehicle, and Luigi and Bimba are in the other, with thirty minutes separating them in order to limit potential casualties. The drivers are forced to deal with a series of physical and mental obstacles, including a stretch of road called “the washboard”, a construction barricade that forces them to teeter around a rotten platform above a precipice, and a boulder blocking the road. Jo finds that his nerves are not what they used to be in his younger age, and the others confront him with his increasing cowardice. Finally, Luigi and Bimba’s truck explodes without warning.

Mario and Jo arrive at the scene only to find a large crater rapidly filling up with oil from a severed pipeline. Jo exits the vehicle in order to help Mario navigate it through the crater. The vehicle, however, is in danger of becoming bogged down and during their frantic attempts to prevent it, Mario is forced to run over Jo. Although the vehicle is ultimately freed from the muck, Jo is mortally wounded. On their arrival at the oil field they are hailed as heroes, but Jo is dead and Mario collapses from exhaustion. Upon his recovery, Mario heads home in the same truck, now freed of its dangerous cargo. He collects double the wages following his friends’ deaths, and refuses the appointed chauffeur SOC offers. The final scene shows him jubilantly driving down a mountain road, intercut with a party at the cantina. He swerves recklessly and intentionally, having cheated death so many times on the same road. He takes one corner too fast and plunges to his death many feet below.

Reception

On its original release, The Wages of Fear was hailed. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote “The excitement derives entirely from the awareness of nitroglycerine and the gingerly, breathless handling of it. You sit there waiting for the theatre to explode.” Pauline Kael called it “the most original and shocking French melodrama of the 50s”. Roger Ebert has stated that “The film’s extended suspense sequences deserve a place among the great stretches of cinema.”.

Due to the negative portrayal of the American oil company SOC, the film was accused of anti-Americanism and several scenes were cut for the U.S. release. The depiction of Véra Clouzot’s character as an easily manipulated simpleton, has led to accusations of sexism.

Awards



Cast



References

  1. Rotten Tomatoes
  2. Pauline Kael Reviews
  3. Chicago Sun-Times
  4. Review: Wages of Fear


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