The individual beginnings of outcasts of different backgrounds are forced by fortune to work in a remote oil drilling operation in South America. When fire breaks out of control the outcasts are given the opportunity to earn enough money to get out by transporting two crates of unstable dynamite through miles of jungle in ancient trucks in this taut thriller. One stunt features two trucks attempting to cross a rope bridge over a raging river.
In 1953, decades before the phrase "high concept" was ever uttered, a French film received international distribution on the back of a simple, literally explosive premise. Henri-Georges Clouzot, later director of the great horror movie Les Diaboliques (1955), found in George Arnaud's novel La Salaire de la Peur what John Huston found in B. Traven's The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948) — an action-adventure so spare and suspenseful that it comes over as more than a mere thriller.
Wages Of Fear has the force of an anecdote. An American outfit, Southern Oil Company, is drilling deep in the South American jungle, and the gushers have caught fire. The only way to beat the blaze is to blow it out "like a candle, only you have to blow hard," which means two lorryloads of highly unstable nitroglycerine have to be driven out to the fire. The only road from the depot to the disaster area runs through miles of trecherous terrain littered with dangerous turns, crumbling planks, falling rocks and ragged hardtop, and one good jolt will vaporise truck, nitro, drivers and a substantial swathe of the countryside. No union men can be asked to take suicide jobs, so company boss Big Bill O 'Brien (William Tubbs) recruits desperate souls from among the losers who haunt the nowhere town of Las Piedras, begging for work.
The first hour of this two-and-a-half-hour film, which was once trimmed severely for overseas release but is now usually seen complete, is all character stuff, introducing the doomed and the damned. The leads, fated to be unhappy partners, are Mario (Montand), a tough Corsican with a low-cut vest and a permanent fag drooping from his lips (even around the nitro), and Jo (Vanel), an older huckster whose sharp white suit and trim haircut-and-tache mark him as an operator with pretensions to style. The other drivers are sleek German Bimba (Van Eyck), who we take to be an ex-Nazi until he reveals that he spent the war in the salt mines as an enemy of the Reich, and tubby Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli), a building site foreman ordered to get a new job because of cement in his lungs. Mario rooms with Luigi and has an up-and-down relationship with gamine drudge Linda (Vera Clouzot), but neglects both when Jo comes to town.
On the road, Clouzot stages a string of unforgettable sequences. One stretch of ruined track can only be crossed by driving at under six miles an hour or over 40, no overtaking is possible. The truck in the rear takes the fast option while the lead lorry is forced to go slow, and a fender-bending bump will go off like Krakatoa. A mountain turn requires that the trucks back out onto a rickety wooden platform; the lighter first lorry barely makes it, giving Mario, in the second track, a truly sweaty moment that sends Jo cowering for the hills. A 50-ton boulder has fallen into the road, and Bimba calmly drains a litre of nitro into his thermos to blow it up, only remembering when the fuse is lit that this will rain pebbles all over the countryside and a few good hits on the cargo will set it off.
Finally, after the lead lorry has been detonated, Mario has to get the truck through a blast crater filled with oil from a ruptured pipeline, and the nerve-shredded Jo ("la mort qui marche") gets his leg stuck under the wheel. Clouzot is sometimes labelled a gimmicky filmmaker, taking properties so strong that even average direction will make them great. But since both his hits were remade and bungled by Hollywood (Sorcerer, William Friedkin's 1977 take on Wages and Jeremiah S. Chechik's Diabolique in 1996) it's easier to appreciate the skills he brought to the table, especially his handling of neurotic, unlikeable characters who we are still compelled to identify with.
Wages Of Fear is so tense we don't even need to see the explosion when it comes (a blast of wind whips the tobacco out of the cigarette Jo is rolling for Mario), though both that wooden-turning area and (in the horribly ironic finale) the empty truck on the return trip are sent tumbling down the mountain, falling apart like matchstick models. Mario's thought for the day: "And aren't we all the walking dead ?"
Clouzot achieves an analysis of the human condition at least as bleak as Huston's The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre but without the grandstanding speeches and with more subtle performances.