Thursday 9 May 2019

Movie Review: The Wages Of Fear (1953)

A tense thriller, The Wages Of Fear is a journey to the burning soul of desperation, where damaged men hold hands with explosive death as an alternative to the ignominy of fading away.

In a dusty, remote and exceptionally hot South American town surrounded by desert, Mario (Yves Montand) is a stranded Frenchman wondering how to make enough money to escape this hell hole. He is not alone: the town is filled with washed-up foreigners including the German Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli). The men spend their days at the canteena of the excitable Hernandez (Darío Moreno), ogling his barmaid Linda (Véra Clouzot).

The most recent arrivee in town is Jo (Charles Vanel), an older Frenchman still in possession of good suits but otherwise as broke as all the other desperados, only better at hiding it. He strikes up a close friendship with fellow countryman Mario.

A fire erupts at the desert oil field operated by the American-owned Southern Oil Corporation. The foreman Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs) develops a plan for a large controlled explosion to extinguish the fire, and calls for volunteers to drive two large trucks full of highly unstable nitroglycerin 300 miles to the derricks. The journey on bumpy roads is close to being a suicide mission, but with $2,000 on offer, Mario, Jo, Bimba and Luigi are desperate enough to risk it.

A riveting experience, The Wages Of Fear is a road movie like no other. After a profound opening hour to establish the setting and characters, director and co-writer Henri-Georges Clouzot, adapting the novel by Georges Arnaud, proceeds to create an unforgettable 90 minutes of white-knuckled tribulation. The film achieves and sustains a supreme level of suspense as every bump and curve becomes a potential trigger for an unrecoverable disaster.

Through the story of men accepting a seemingly impossible mission, Clouzot explores various sub-themes, sometimes carrying echoes of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. The desperation and restlessness of doing nothing in a hopeless environment is the subject of the first hour, and the film presents creeping nihilism as reason enough to risk everything for a fistful of dollars.

Of course for men like Mario and Jo to land in a dusty isolated town with no money and no prospects explains plenty about their judgment, but their past is less important than their present and future. They still dream of something better while scheming and scraping to survive, all while seeking that singular opportunity to turn everything around.

The Wages Of Fire is also a political film with plenty to say about creeping American colonialism and exploitation. The Southern Oil Company conveniently carries the same initials as Standard Oil, and here displays abject disregard towards the local population and victims of industrial accidents. And in dangerous situations requiring sacrifice, it is American dollars incentivizing other nationals to place their lives on the line.

On the road, the men face life-changing fears and discover their essence. With death lurking under both the accelerator and brake pedals, initial bravado quickly transitions to cowardice in some, while for others staring down death through dogged problem solving becomes a thrill onto itself. Clouzot never runs out of surprising obstacles to place on the road to the oil derricks, and within every incident displays masterful control to layer and unveil hidden risks in torturous succession.

Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck and Folco Lulli create four memorable and resourceful men, each with something unique to contribute to the journey. But all of them also carry visible character flaws pushing them to the edge, and the absence of any margin for error in transporting nitroglycerin in lumbering trucks is brilliantly unforgiving.

The Wages Of Fear is life compacted into a series of tests with only two possible outcomes: alive and heading to the next outrageous challenge, or very much dead.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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