1001 Movies: The Wages of Fear (1953)


d. Henri-Georges Clouzot / w. Clouzot and Jerome Geronimi

The most tense nail-biter of all time: that’s how The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur)  was described in the sources I read before and after watching it myself. I first became interested in the movie after seeing it on Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s (Snowpiercer, The Host) list of top ten favorite films. Good enough for me.

I had high expectations, though the film takes its time at first. It establishes the setting–a remote village in southern Mexico–and the major characters, most of whom are foreigners who’ve made it there (or are escaping something, like jail) but have no means of leaving due to the isolated location and its destitution. There are few jobs, and they don’t pay. The foreigners often mock the locals, calling them savages, even though they themselves are low-lifes. They eat, dance, and have affairs with the locals but are lazy, bored, and eager to leave.

Lounging at a local cantina. The bars of shadow and light allude to the feeling of imprisonment.

The version of the film originally released in the U.S. trimmed some scenes to make it less “anti-American,” but watching the complete film, I can’t say it was anti-American in particular, or only. No one’s a saint or shown in an especially positive light. However, one of the film’s best lines is: “Where there’s oil, there’s Americans.”

There’s an oil well fire at an American drilling site (recalling There Will Be Blood for this viewer), and the Americans decide they need to transport nitroglycerin there to solve the problem. But how will they get the dangerous substance where they need it? They callously discuss hiring some drivers for the task, for twice as many trucks as needed, in case “something” happens to one. They hire four of the dozens who apply: the Frenchmen, Mario and Jo; the Italian, Luigi; and the Dutchman, Bimba. They’ll be paid $2,000 to complete the insanely dangerous job.

Once the journey begins, so does the tension, and it never lets up. The men have to drive over some rough road, and every shot of a tire or nitro in the back made my heart race. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Predictably, the first guy to start losing his shit is Jo, who’d previously established himself as a suave tough guy. Earlier in the film, he pulled a gun on Luigi; he even handed him the gun, but Luigi wouldn’t use it. Jo said it’s not enough to have a gun, you need the guts to use it. So naturally, Jo is the first to sweat bullets and later tries to run away. By the end, he’s a terrified old man.

Meanwhile, Mario becomes more ruthless; near the end, he even runs over Jo’s legs, and he dies from the injuries. Yet they still call each other friends after everything.

In addition to generally rough road, there’s a hairpin turn that forces the trucks to back onto a rickety wooden platform. Later, there’s also a boulder blocking the road (they blow it up with nitro). As a viewer you constantly think one or all of them are about to die. When one of the trucks does explode, you don’t even see how it happens; you’re with the other truck, whose driver and passenger see only smoke in the distance.

Watching, it’s clear there won’t be a happy ending. The title offers a snapshot of the story: how much fear are you willing to face for some money?

1001 Movies: The Wages of Fear (1953)