Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur)

Wages of Fear

You don’t know what fear is. But you’ll see.

I’ve talked numerous times before about how a killer premise can really make a film, if it is used well. Well, I honestly cannot possibly think of a more killer premise than this one; literally. How they cobbled together the premise of Wages of Fear is probably a hell of a story in and of itself; you could not find a more tense situation than the drivers of the trucks in this film find themselves in. But, like any film with a great premise, it takes skill to properly utilize the extra length the premise gives you. Overall, I’d say that Wages of Fear has that skill, but it doesn’t use it entirely on the premise; there’s a lot more at work here.

Okay, enough wishy-washing. An explosion at an oil well erupts into flames, and the only way to get the fire out is to completely contain it by detonating a huge amount of nitroglycerin over the oil well to cap the leak. Only thing is, the refinery that houses the nitroglycerin is some 300 miles away from the site of the accident, and there are no advanced methods of transportation like trains or cargo planes capable of getting the explosives to the site. Thus, it falls to two pairs of drivers, each working separately in case one of them fails, to slowly drive the unstable nitroglycerin over a mountain pass, through exceedingly poor road conditions (and that’s putting it mildly) to the accident; a route where every little bump and jostle could mean a quick death in a massive explosion. The film took a while to get to the actual plot, spending most of the first hour in the slums of the town our characters begrudgingly and unwillingly call home. This extended sequence provides some interesting information that puts the actual driving into better context; these are not heroic people, taking on the task that they have. They’ve done it for sleazy and no-good reasons; the money, mostly, but definitely not for the sake of getting the task done. It’s only during the many obstructions and setbacks that they run into on the journey that brings out the better men inside of them, though the film never answers the unspoken question of what, or if there, is the cost. The technicals were okay, but that’s not why you should watch this film; once the actual truck driving section begins, your heart becomes aflutter virtually nonstop through the rest of the film, and there were more than a few times I caught myself at the edge of my seat at what was happening (or not happening) on screen. Thankfully, after the extended opening sequence, the actual transportation section of the film goes pretty much right to the very end; I didn’t glance at the clock until the film was four minutes away from being over, and I was amazed at how the time had flown by. Oh, one other quick mention – make sure the print of this one that you find has adequate subtitles; the film uses three or four different languages, and switches between them on the fly, even in the middle of a conversation, so be sure the subtitles you have can keep up and don’t drop out from under you on occasion.

The Book calls this “possibly the most tension-filled movie ever made”. Given the premise, they’d have to have been pretty damn incompetent to not have the final product be just that. I don’t normally feel very much when it comes to films; I do, just not to the levels that others seem to, but boy was this a white-knuckle thriller if I ever saw one. That said, the opening section, while providing an extra bit of context to the characters, didn’t really seem like it amounted to much; it was a nice added dimension to the story, but it was, to me, an unnecessary one. Still, the film more than makes up for it in the rest of the running time. This is another one that makes me glad I’m doing this quest, because I likely would never have seen or even heard of this film otherwise. It’s been stated that Hitchcock himself made Psycho to reclaim the title of “master of suspense” after Henri-Georges Clouzot stole it away with this film. You can’t get higher praise than that right there.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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