Catching Up: The Wages of Fear

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge. If we confess our ignorance of some of these films, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be stunning, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

The Wages of Fear is the scariest movie that I have ever seen.

I realize that this is a high claim. It brings with it a host of expectations for anyone who considers my opinion trustworthy (and I hope that you do). And know that I seriously ran through all the movies that I have seen that made me squirm in my seat with fear, and that none of them matched what this film made me feel. And it wasn’t a close contest, either.

French director Henri-Georges Clouzot was renowned throughout the 50’s for his work in the thriller genre. This film, Quai des Orfévres, Le Corbeau, and Les Diaboliques all stand as classics (and are all in the Criterion Collection, incidentally). The Wages of Fear was what brought him international tension, and it’s easy to see why. The movie works on a visceral level, one beyond any need for words. There’s dialogue in six languages, but it would work just as well if it were a silent film.

The premise of the movie is beautiful; it’s so simple, yet ripe with possibilities, all of which Clouzot gleefully exploits. An oil derrick in a remote South American desert has exploded, and now spews forth uncontrollable flames. The only way to stop it is with a well-placed explosion, but there’s a problem: a really long distance between the derrick and the nitroglycerin needed for the job. The oil company doesn’t have the equipment they need to transport the nitroglycerin safely, but they also don’t have time to wait for it to come. Someone has to drive this ridiculously dangerous, unstable substance, which can explode at the slightest jolt, over hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain. No union worker will touch this task, so the company hires four locals from a nearby town, the only ones willing to risk their lives for the money being offered.

The movie is divided into two distinct halves. The first part concentrates on the men who will embark on this mission. It’s much longer than anyone will generally spend setting up a conflict (Hitchcock would scoff snootily), but it totally works. We need to get to know these people, and truly believe that they would be willing to undertake this harrowing task. They are Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli), and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), all of them European expats brought to this godforsaken middle-of-nowhere place by various stretches of bad luck (and yes, there are characters named Mario and Luigi, and no, I don’t understand this either). Part one of The Wages of Fear is a study in escalating desperation. The only way out of the town is the airport, which is too expensive to take, and there is no work to be found anywhere. We learn about these character’s personalities and motivations, and thus we’re totally invested in their fortunes on the road.

And once the film hits the road, it’s a barely-relenting experience in masterfully protracted suspense. Again, the conceit is wonderful in its simplicity: Clouzot has constructed a situation in which the protagonists could literally be blown up at the slightest misstep. The second half is a series of setpieces that test the team’s ingenuity in new and increasingly nail-biting ways. A long stretch of road that’s so bumpy that it can’t be driven too slowly or quickly. A tricky mountain turn that requires backing up onto a rotting wooden platform. A seemingly impassable boulder in the way. Each scene is a master-class in construction. We are presented with a setup, and then the complications pile on as events progress, ratcheting up the tension to what looks like the breaking point, until the moment where death seems unavoidable, and then a release with a quick turn of fortune. It’s almost unbearable to watch.

That’s why this is the scariest movie that I’ve ever seen. There are no monsters or ghosts or what have you – just a problem rife with danger. And the ways that the characters react to this danger raise uncomfortable ideas about what people will do under pressure. Jo, a cavalier and swaggering guy during the first part of the film, slowly morphs into a nervous wreck as the constant stress wears him down. Is he a dirty coward, or is he the only one who’s coming to a sane understanding of the position that these guys have put themselves in? His journey is nothing next to Mario’s, though. He has the opposite reaction, becoming increasingly devoted to the mission over time. He’s obsessed with escaping South America, and he won’t let anything stand in his way.

Montand is astounding here, playing a character who starts as something like the Hollywood ideal of a hunky leading man who transitions into a gaunt-faced beast of desperation. Vanel plays both sides of Jo’s personality to perfection, and goes from a rather skeevy and unlikable character to the most sympathetic of the bunch. Van Eyck embodies a kind of sturdy competence and dependability, while Lulli is the more lighthearted member of the bunch, although without dipping into cheap comic relief. They build a great rapport, and you really don’t want any of them to blow themselves up. That might seem like a given, but most movies seem to forget that we need a good reason to not want the characters to blow up (and in fact often make us want to root for the opposite to happen).

The Wage of Fear is a true-blue masterpiece, one of those older films that hasn’t aged at all. It builds and builds until it reaches a climax that’s heartbreaking, extremely dark, and more than a little funny all at once. It will make your next drive an utterly terrifying experience. There have been many imitators (and a few remakes), but nothing matches up to it.

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