Handle With Caution: "The Wages of Fear"

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.

4 out of 5 holed pistons.

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12 responses to “Handle With Caution: "The Wages of Fear"”

  1. dukeisduke Avatar

    This movie was remade in 1977 as "Sorcerer", starring Roy Scheider and directed by William Friedkin. I've never seen "The Wages of Fear", but "Sorcerer" is just about the most intense movie I've ever seen. The scene where they throw the charred corpses of the oil well fire victims off of the back of a truck, at the angry family members, still gives me the willies.

    1. tonyola Avatar

      Though the original "Wages of Fear" takes awhile to get going in order for exposition and introducing the characters, it gets very tense and edge-on-seat once the journey starts. It gives a very bleak view of humanity too. There isn't a single genuinely admirable person in the whole movie, and the desperate every-man-for-himself attitude overwhelms all other considerations. I strongly recommend seeing it.

  2. dwegmull Avatar

    I think the rating system is based on Murilee's (all hail Murilee!), they are Mercedes Benz diesel fives.

  3. Alex Kierstein Avatar
    Alex Kierstein

    No! Oh god no, I'm such a snob you wouldn't believe it. Or maybe you would. It was subtitled. But some of the "Americans" in the film are overdubbed in the French audio track.

    1. tonyola Avatar

      The American boss is actually speaking English in the original. It's not an overdub.

  4. engineerd Avatar

    I think I've seen this flick. Back when I was a wee lad I remember it being on the TV and my dad saying what a good movie it was. I don't remember much because I think I started watching it like half way through and didn't fully understand what was going on. However, now I should go rent/download it and watch it again.

  5. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

    No smoking within 50 feet.
    Actually, you might want to give it a bit more than that, just in case. For peace of mind.

    1. coupeZ600 Avatar

      It's amazing how many people will come up to me smoking while I'm unloading fuel at a gas station/qwick-e-mart. While it is actually pretty safe (if fuel or even vapors are escaping you're really screwing up), I love the look on their faces when I point up to the big "Flammable" placards on the trailer and say, "Do you realize you're smoking right next to a F*CKING GODDAMN BOMB!!!!!"

  6. IronBallsMcG Avatar

    Available as Netflix intant watch, FYI.

    1. kah Avatar

      40 mph not 20 I need a personal proof reader

  7. Kah Avatar

    I love this movie
    I first saw it as a 35mm projection in a lecture hall at the UW Madison as one of what were called in the 80s campus movies (hope they still do that)
    I would give it 5 stars as a movie but I’d agree with the 4 pistons in that it’s motor vehicle specific content is all in the second half the as i remember the first half is mostly hanging out in a bar.
    Who'da thunk it? so much suspense in vehicle movie where the vehicles never get above 20 mph
    TMC ran it recently and I had my DVR catch it so I’ll have a fresh viewing soon, thanks for getting me psyched about it.

  8. Van Sarockin Avatar
    Van Sarockin

    It's a great movie, with exceptional character development and good filmwork. The way you provided the synopsis, it sounds an awful lot like Speed. Maybe I'll just walk home today…