Wages Of Fear (1953), or The Agony Of The Unsettled Imagination

26 08 2009

One could call Wages of Fear a horrifying trek through a single unbearable journey. One could call it a bleak, hopeless film about modern man’s struggle to survive amongst one another. One could just call it plain scary. They’re all correct things to say about this captivating piece of work, but words are somehow inadequate to accurately describe this frenzied film about the bitter dregs of capitalism. It’s not an easy view, but trust me when I say that it’s worth it.

Four displaced broke fellows are down on their luck and stuck in the armpit of South America, a tiny town called Las Piedras. Everyone needs money in the poor, labor-class village, but some jobs even the most cavalier worker wouldn’t risk. Or, at least one would think. The four previously mentioned gentlemen are hired out of a maddeningly high amount of hopefuls by an oil company for what is basically a suicide mission. They’re to deliver two large trucks full of nitroglycerin to cap an oil well fire many miles away from the town. They’ll be paid $2,000 a driver, which is great money, but the trick lies in the terrain. In between Las Piedras and the oil well are miles and miles of incredibly dangerous weather-worn mountain road. One slip of the truck, one bump too many and BAM! the nitro ignites. It’s a terrifying job, and not one they do gladly, but it’s a way for these strange displaced Europeans to fund their trip back home across the ocean, as long as they make it back in one piece…

It’s a scary concept, and one that most people find bizarre in its grim realism, but one that rings with the sickening thud of a true story. Wages of Fear is a movie that rings with a social and political agenda, and it was indeed taken as a stab against America when it was made in 1953, and subsequently edited to fit the prevailing party’s agenda of the time. The Criterion Collection release of this DVD was actually one of the first unedited editions to be found here in the States, if that tells you anything about the insecurities the powers that be have about this film. What it really seems to be is an indictment of capitalism on both sides of the oil company; it indicts the truck drivers for mindlessly filing into the office to get their checks for their suicide work, and the company for practicing reckless and dangerous practices that are demeaning at best and psychotic at worst. Whatever your interpretation may be, it definitely has something to say.

The movie is divided into two sections; the setup of these characters in the cantina, and the drive across the mountains. While one can say that the cantina scenes were useless pap, and I would almost agree for many of the characters, I like to think that they were very revealing into the two real powerful characters in this film, Mario and Jo, played by the great Yves Montand and Charles Vanel respectively. Pay attention to these early scenes very closely as Clouzot frames their dialog and actions around these troubled frames, and I think you’ll agree that these two characters really take the movie from a simple thriller to a fear tinged drama that makes you feel for these two as the world begins to become enveloped in a shroud of terror.

I won’t go on too much about the second half of the film, i.e. the truck-driving scenes, only to say that to see them is to contemplate the idea of your life under a constant threat of instant annihilation. it is something that is not easily conjured up in the heart, and only a great director like Clouzot can make one not only feel a time and place, but also make one, in a certain aspect, live it. You can’t watch it without putting yourself in those shaking, trembling shoes of theirs, so it ends up being a very effective sequence that will live on for ages to come.

You need to see Wages of Fear. For the sake of your cinematic credibility, your curiosity, and your conscience as a capitalist, it’s another movie by Henri-Georges Clouzot that takes the kaleidoscope of human emotion and shakes it as it spins before out eyes. He shakes it until we feel like we could explode at any moment, and in this situation, that’s not such a bad thing. And if you don’t watch it for the nitro scenes, watch it for Mario and Jo, two of the great unsung characters in cinematic history. I give Wages of Fear 9 vicious capitalists out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow we’re off to see the Prince of Squint, the Sultan of Slob himself, Steven Seagal! Check out my review of Fire Down Below then!

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