The job is simple. Drive a heavy truck 300 miles on a rough dirt road, and collect $2000. That’s a small fortune, enough to buy your way out of the South American hell you’ve been slowly rotting in, back to France and the promise of no malaria, a full belly, and peace of mind. There’s just one little catch.
Your truck is filled to the brim with nitroglycerin.
Surely, this is suicide. After all, the nitro is only needed because a greedy and immoral American oil company allowed a well to explode, killing and charbroiling a couple of dozen workers. Not that the company cares; that fire needs to be put out so the well can produce! Drill, baby, drill! They could properly transport the nitroglycerin using specially equipped trucks, but that would take weeks. Or the company could send two trucks down the road with the promise of their freedom from hell, with the redundancy allowing for the inevitable attrition. Here’s the best part – they’ll save a ton of dough, too.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Le Salaire de la Peur” is, quite simply, one of the tautest and most hair-raising thrillers ever put to cellulose. Even 58 years later, it manages to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. The reason is simple: there’s no break from the tension. You’re there, right next to Yves Montand (Mario), as he barrels down a washboard road at exactly 40 mph to avoid a potentially explosive suspension oscillation. You feel the psychic weight of a ton of nitroglycerin, gently sloshing in its jerrycans, inches behind your head. Here’s a pro tip for any budding movie directors out there – you don’t need much fancy CGI to crank up the heat when your protagonists are one small pebble away from vicious, sudden, random annihilation.
That the source of the tension is so ever-present makes the simple obstacles that present themselves into multi-faceted puzzles. Can’t reach 40 mph before reaching that aforementioned washboard road? You’re a smoking crater. Fall below 40 on the road? Smoking crater. There are a million ways to die, and only one way to survive – to quash that human capacity to make mistakes. To subvert the knowledge that you are not infallible. To do an unsynchronized three-pedal dance with death, eye to eye, while every microsecond flows through your conscious. How many miles before you’d wish death would simply step in and, with a flash of light, clear up any ambiguity about your fate?
The concept, therefore, is undeniably brilliant, but it’d be unfair to leave out some of the shortcomings that will grate on a modern audience. Compared to the Michael Bay school of shock-and-awe cinema, the pacing at the beginning is glacial, although it sets the mood. Some of the acting is dodgy, and the voice dubbing was poor as was the practice of the time. Most distractingly, it appears that Montand is wearing a blouse for most of the movie. Ah … the French! Keeping that in mind, “The Wages of Fear” is still worthy of Hooniverse’s solid recommendation – 4 holed pistons, out of the 5 blown pistons available.