Confession time. The Wages Of Fear is a movie that I have never seen. It has always been one of the to watch movies on my ever expanding list (I know. First world problems) but it never managed to get to the top. With the new 4K restoration and rather magnificent BFI release this month I finally took the plunge. I am so glad I did as it is a film, especially in its now pristine condition, that more than lives up to its reputation.
The film takes place in a run down village in an un-named South American country. It is the home of a rag-tag band of men from all countries who have washed up there for one reason or another. Work and therefore money is in short supply and there is a general malaise about the whole town. After an explosion and subsequent oil well fire the local US owned oil company needs to find a way to cap the well. Their plan involves using nitro-glycerine in an attempt to smother the flames by causing a controlled explosion designed to starve the well of oxygen. Their problem is that they do not have special equipment to move the highly volatile substance. So, offering the tempting sum of $2000 they hire four of the men from the town to transport the nitro on the back of two trucks. One false move or bump in the road could result in disaster.
From the very start, this film stands out as being completely at odds with other films of its time. For a start there is the running time of 152 minutes (the original French release length). A similar Hollywood film would have a running time of no more than ninety minutes and be all the worse for it. Don’t mistake the length of the movie for over indulgence or a slow pace though. Every frame is there for a reason.
What the director Henri-Georges Clouzot does with the time afforded him is to build up a picture of the protagonists to the point where the audience is fully committed to their well being. For a film that is primarily about a dangerous drive in a couple of trucks it doesn’t actually show any of the men in a vehicle with the nitro until nearly the first hour of the film has passed. In this time, we are introduced to all the main players and get a real sense of what brought them to this point in their lives and just how desperate they are. Everyone, even the minor characters, has something to contribute.
The main character is Mario, played superbly by Yves Montand. He is a bit of a dreamer who wants nothing more than to raise enough money to get home to Paris. His lucky charm that keeps him sane is an unused Paris subway ticket and his ambition is to one day be in the position to use it. He will do almost anything to realise his dream. He has spent his time with his Italian room mate purely for the accommodation and the food, not the camaraderie. As soon as the shifty con man Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives in town he moves his allegiance away from his house mate. Anything to get ahead. Montand’s performance is note perfect. He comes across so well as a man with a hint of desperation under a veneer of laid back charm.
All the work by the film maker in the opening hour pays off as the men set off in the trucks. The sequences are built in such a way that there is tension from the moment the loading of the nitro begins. The drivers are standing around drinking while worker moves the payload to the vehicle. You can sense the growing apprehension while they try to mask their feelings in a show of bravado. This false macho display only heightens the tension when they start to hit potholes in the road. As was demonstrated to the men earlier, it doesn’t take much to over excite the nitro. It’s only a matter of time before their fear or their cargo explode.
Overall, a fantastically tense drama that lives up to it’s reputation as a classic.