I don’t usually review older movies unless it is as part of my journey through Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies (keep your eyes peeled for a piece on Chinatown in the coming weeks), but the latest Dissolve commenter project has brought me to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. As we, the Dissolve commentariat, began working our way through the Criterion collection (an excellent series that strives to preserve and illuminate important cinema), a slot opened up in the form of spine number 36. I jumped at the chance to write about a movie I knew nothing about.
So while I do further research into my more academic assessment of The Wages of Fear, I’ll take a moment to talk about the movie itself. Opening in the South American town of Las Piedras, we are introduced to the many foreigners who have come to this oil-rich land in search of work. American, British, Italian, Dutch – everyone has come south of the equator hoping to make a buck. But when there’s no work to be had, these men find themselves stranded in Las Piedras, unable to pay the cost of exit.
One of these refugees, French lothario Mario (Yves Montand), has made a name for himself around town as a gadabout and a tramp. He puts on a show of loyalty and friendship, but when a fellow French national with unsavory ties, Jo (Charles Vanel), arrives in town, Mario is quick to abandon what few friends he has – including his close roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) – to act as an sycophantic follower.
Eventually a fire at a distant oil well requires the dangerous transportation of nitroglycerine across treacherous terrain. The oil company, unwilling to recruit their own men, decide to exploit the local unemployed for what could very well be a suicide mission. Mario and his fellow drivers face rocky road, cliffside turnabouts, and massive boulders in their quest to make a buck, and Clouzot instills every moment of the journey with an incredible amount of tension.
That gut-wrenching feeling that the entire movie could blow up at any moment is The Wages of Fear‘s greatest asset. Through low-key cuts, Clouzot and his three editors manage to make you hold your breath every time the loaded-up trucks make a single unintentional move. And that’s without any music. The driving scenes are completely quiet – no ominous strings here. Only pained facial expressions and achingly slow pacing. At one point, as I paused to get some water (watching this movie dehydrated me), I realized I was moving as slow as the characters, out of fear that my computer might explode if I made too sudden a movement.
I won’t go into too much more detail, as there’s so much more to unpack for my essay, but The Wages of Fear is a triumph in mood and pacing, and I recommend it for anyone with enough patience (and enough hair – because you will be pulling on it throughout the movie).