J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

The Wages of Fear

Posted by J on February 12, 2011

Apparently, there’s an audience for watching tough guys do dangerous jobs.  There’s no other explanation for the popularity of the cable TV shows about deep sea fishermen, ice road truckers, demolition experts, barbarian beef eaters, and skydiving snake handlers.  At least a few people like to dream that a tiny part of the world isn’t touched by feminine influence.  Would you be surprised to know that a 1953 French movie would fit right in on the TV schedule after Iceroad TruckersThe Wages of Fear works as a modern guy movie.

What’s fascinating is the way it’s presented nowadays.  Look at the cover from the Criterion Collection’s DVD.  It depicts a couple of tired and defeated men, looking like they’ve been watching a bunch of boring Criterion films in a row.  Reader, do not pay heed to this cover.  Look at the original movie poster above.  That’s the movie you will see.  These tired-looking men have a fantastic reason to look tired.  They’re driving a truck filled with nitroglycerin for 300 miles down a terrible road.  They could blow up at any second!  At the point in the movie where they look tired, they’ve just hauled the truck out of a pool of oil, and the guy on the left got his leg smashed.

The movie starts in South America — Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname, we don’t know — in a forsaken place where there are a few ex-pats.  Some Americans, Germans, Brits, Italians, and French hang around a tiny bar in a tiny town that exists to serve the oil industry.  The American company, SOC, operates oil wells near the town.  But the ex-pats can’t get a job, so they just bum around at the bar all day.

Jo, an old French guy, arrives in town and meets Mario, a young French guy.  Mario takes to Jo, who shows his toughness in a near-bar fight.  Mario would like to hang around Jo and leave his French girlfriend, who seems to be the local prostitute.  But how can he ditch that girlfriend?  And where will he get a job?

Well, an oil well explodes.  SOC needs to put out the fire, and it needs explosives to do it. Bill O’Brien, head of SOC’s operations, wants the job done now, without regard to safety.  He orders that regular old trucks haul containers of nitroglycerin to the oil wells.  These trucks don’t have shock absorbers, so one bad bump and BOOM!  Who will drive these trucks?  O’Brien reasons that the local ex-pats will do it.  They don’t have a union and they’ll each jump at the chance to earn $2000 for a day’s work. (This explains the Criterion’s cover, which has an implicit political message about colonialism, exploitation, capitalist greed, and whatever else is supposedly wrong with the world.)

Four drivers are selected, all of whom we’ve learned a little about in the movie’s first hour, including Jo and Mario.  Two trucks will go, two men per truck. Why two trucks? In case one of them blows up.

So the trucks begin a long journey down a perilous road.  We know this is a total guy movie because, as Mario’s truck leaves town, his girlfriend jumps onto it.  Mario pushes her off, she falls onto the road, and she watches the men leave.  The scene closes on her as if to say “no women are allowed passed this point!”  Hauling nitroglycerin, it turns out, is only a job for the toughest of guys. (The ending, which has baffled all kinds of people, absolutely reinforces this point about “no women allowed.”)

The mission seems suicidal.  What happens if the trucks hit a washboard road?  How do they handle hairpin turns up steep hills?  How do they get around boulders that have fallen into the road?  The movie’s tense moments hold up well against any modern action movie you can name.    In fact, reader, the last hour-and-a-half of The Wages of Fear is one of the best stretches in cinema’s short history.  It makes the iceroad truckers look like they are making cupcakes.

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