“Think they pay you to drive? They pay you to be terrified.”
It’s the line that inspires the title. Four men behind the wheel of two trucks without shock absorbers or any special balancing mechanics and driving across unpaved terrain for hundreds of miles with everything in their path from two-ton boulders in the middle of the road to rotten wood acting as their road extension to pivot over a precipice…all while each truck lugs enough nitroglycerine to reduce mountains to piles of pebble. With the prevention of that much destruction contingent on such undisturbed sensitivity a boulder in the middle of the road is the least of their concern to stay alive. In a case like that a large rock is no match for an invisible pothole that need only be inches deep to separate all of you from the rest of you.
Why do this, then? Because, when you’re trapped in a wide open prison where work is scarce, food costs money and your future is as bleak as the desert that surrounds you the only way out is on a plane which you can’t afford. That is, unless, you are one of four lucky men who earned their way into the driver’s seat of an earth-shaker on wheels, and a two-thousand dollar paycheck if the truck arrives intact to its destination.
Some men say you never truly know what kind of person you are unless you’re staring death in the face. Mothers, however, tell you that it’s impolite to stare. This is the dilemma the four drivers have to deal with in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear.
Not what it is, nor are they
The first half of the picture – roughly the first hour – is spent entirely on establishing character and environment so that we can not only understand the circumstances behind such a dangerous decision, but also so we can fully grasp the consequences of sitting on top of a massive bomb ready to go off at the first case of a sneeze for each of the four drivers; mostly so the two main characters Mario and Jo.
Initially, it would sound fairly dull and inspire confusion to hear that a story that is, on the surface, somewhat of an action thriller (though, more thrill) without any real semblance of tension, at least in comparison to what is to come, for the film’s first full hour. Once you do eventually get to the second act, though, things will become more clear almost instantly, revealing why it took so long to get there. It was a masterful decision not to succumb to the typical framework based on time signatures or story beats to somewhat split the movie in two distinct halves, because if the first half isn’t as dense and long as it is, the second half wouldn’t be half as affecting as it turns out to be as we watch Mario and Jo’s true characters gradually show their faces with each road hazard.
Perceived men turn to cautious cowards, followers find leadership ability and those with nothing to lose…lose.
Even though the effect of seeing each man transition from superficiality to emotionality is contingent on our full understanding of who they each thought they were, the concocted physical obstacles awaiting them all on the road are each small doses of some of the most potent clumps of tension one may ever experience watching a film, and Clouzot milks each moment until there truly is nothing left in the sequence to make you sweat as profusely as the characters. It’s one of cinema’s best examples of written material and intelligent understanding of visual execution coming together in perfect harmony.
The Wages of Fear was the picture that truly marked Henri-Georges Clouzot as amongst the top French filmmakers at the outset of the 1950s, along with established names like Renoir, Clair and Cocteau – and it was also around this time that Jacques Tati and Jean Pierre Melville would begin making names for themselves.
It was Clouzot, though, with this picture and the one to follow (Diabolique) that would solidify him as amongst the premiere generators of suspense on the planet, along with Alfred Hitchcock. His ability to locate the right mood and focus on the right elements at the right time for the right amount of time for each scene would result in a heavy dosage of pure anxiety pumped into the veins of the audience.
Not to mention, his aptitude for going through extremes to pull out the performances he wanted for his actors, and although this film is considered one of the early highlights of famed French actor/singer Yves Montand it’s his co-star Charles Vanel as Jo that gives one of the most convincingly dualistic performances ever captured. The best way I can think to describe it would be like watching Joe Pesci fade from having the attitude of Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas into Leo Getz from the Lethal Weapon franchise within the same picture. This would also be Clouzot’s picture used to prove his capability to pull convincing performances out of novice actors, using his wife Vera (the only real female performer in the entire picture) as his case study. She would, unfortunately, only make it through three pictures with her husband before passing on at the young age of 46.
While many of the classic action pictures tend to get dated through time as new techniques adapt, acting styles evolve, and content becomes more daringly subversive The Wages of Fear maintains its place amongst the most timelessly unaffected pictures around. Just as watching some of the most intense sequences in the greatest of Hitchcock pictures, The Wages of Fear consistently keeps you on edge regardless of how many times you’ve seen it and know precisely what to expect. In that sense, it proves that tension isn’t necessarily drawn from not knowing, but from a place that only a handful of filmmakers in history have been able to find and won’t tell the rest of us.