Welcome to Foreign Objects, a series of articles originally published in the early 2010s that spotlighted foreign films. In this entry, Rob Hunter hitches a ride in a truck full of volatile chemicals to discuss The Wages of Fear.
I once drove a U-Haul truck from New York to Florida, and it was easily one of the most tension-filled, large vehicle-related experiences anyone has ever experienced ever. Partway through Tennessee, as I took a mildly tight on-ramp in light rain, the truck began to fishtail. If you’ve ever been in a car when this happens you know how frightening it can be, but now imagine that sensation in a large truck with your girlfriend by your side and all of your earthly belongings packed into the back. I recovered control of the wheel after what felt like several minutes (but was actually less than ten seconds) and calmly exited the freeway in search of a parking lot…at which point my fingers had to be pried away from the steering wheel.
Friends who were driving behind us came running over excitedly to let us know that at one point during the event the left-side tires were all off the ground.
I think about that experience occasionally, but watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear recently marked the first time I actually felt those memories again. The film spends its first half introducing a fairly unlikeable group of unemployed immigrants in a small South American town before devoting the second hour to a treacherous 300-mile drive across rough terrain in trucks loaded with highly unstable nitroglycerin. It’s an excitingly tense film that continues to redefine the suspense thriller genre almost sixty years after it first premiered.
“It’s like prison here. Easy to get in. But there’s no way out, and if you don’t get out, you croak.”
Las Piedras is a small, nothing town lost amidst the heat of a South American summer, the kind of place that attracts men from far away places for reasons best left unsaid. Unemployed immigrants mill about directionless, hovering on porches and in cafes waiting for an opportunity to earn a paycheck to bring them back home. Their days are filled with drinking, casual racism, mistreatment of women and animals, and bitching about the unfair world around them.
An explosion at an American oil field 300 miles away brings an opportunity to town for four men skilled, desperate, and crazy enough to accept. The only way to extinguish the burning well is with a second explosion, this one controlled and powerful enough to knock away the oxygen feeding the flames. Four men, two per truck, are hired to drive flatbeds loaded with nitroglycerine across some of the most dangerous roadways in the world. The nitro is unstable and liable to explode with every pothole, hard braking, or sharp turn the trucks take. The reward, if they survive, is $2,000 each. (Roughly $16,000 today.)
The Wages of Fear is a story told in two halves. It’s referred to as a classic suspense film for good reason, but rarely mentioned is the film’s first hour that melds meandering character study with class commentary. These visitors are worse off than many of the locals who suffer at the hands of corporate employers uninterested in workplace safety and proper compensation. The oil company, in particular, an American entity, is repeatedly damned for its callous mistreatment of the land and the people.
Mario (Yves Montand), by all accounts the film’s hero/antihero, is a complete and utter bastard whose own callousness towards those around him rivals the worst of the invading corporations. A young local woman (Véra Clouzot) is inexplicably devoted to the tall lothario, simultaneously put off by his behavior and in desperate need of his attention, but she’s little more than a distraction. Jo (Charles Vanel), a past acquaintance of Mario’s, arrives in town carrying a shifty reputation and an immediate need for a payday. Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli), an ex-Nazi from Switzerland and a doughy Italian respectively, round out the quartet who answer the call for truck drivers.
The point of that opening hour isn’t necessarily clear at first as the plot-driving job offer doesn’t arrive until forty minutes in, but once the second half begins to play out the character traits leisurely doled out earlier come into play. Mario’s disregard for those around him is tested and Jo’s clearly established bravado begins to crumble, and the real measure of these four is taken.
Montand is the name star here, but it’s Vanel who steals the film from right under the Frenchman’s nose. He won a special mention for his performance at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and deservedly so. Jo is older, wiser, and clearly tougher than the others, but he’s in the same sweat-drenched boat truck as them before the drive even begins. Desperate, broke, and willing to cross any line necessary to get back on track, Vanel is the proud man that each of the others may have been once upon a time. Vanel effectively portrays the tough guy, but he excels once Jo’s facade begins to crack revealing the sad, terrified old man beneath.
Clouzot’s film is a master class in tension-filled anticipation throughout its second hour plus as it, and by extension the audience, maneuvers slowly across the rough landscape. The mountain roads may as well be lined with landmines for all the omnipresent dangers present along the way. One particularly tight bend in the road offers up one of cinema’s most famous nail-biters as the trucks are forced to back onto an untrustworthy wooden platform to make the turn. You wouldn’t be alone in discovering your own foot pressing on an imaginary brake as the scene unfolds, and most impressively, Clouzot revisits the scene a second time and manages to ratchet up the tension evermore.
It’s not for nothing that The Wages of Fear opens with a shot of beetles tied together with a string held by a young boy. The insects’ fates are as irrelevant as they are ensured. The men here are no better off than those bugs, trapped on tethers controlled by others above and beyond their station, but it’s in their struggle to break those bonds that these crass, rough bastards show their unwavering humanity.