Friday, December 4, 2009

The Wages of Fear (1953) ✭✭✭✭


"Wages of Fear" starts as a flabby, dawdling tale of class struggle in a squalid South American village, then morphs into a primeval drama of survival; as lean and mean as Yves Montand's sweaty undershirt. With a big American oil company wildcatting in the area, desperate and dodgy men from all over the world have descended on this dusty venue in hopes of making a quick buck, but the supply of labor far exceeds the demand, and these men are left stranded and idle with broken spirits and no plane fare home.


Montand stars as one of these lost souls, an itinerate roughneck named Mario, who befriends Jo (Charles Vanel), a fellow French expat, and the two of them sit and while away the hours reminiscing about swanky Parisian cafes while chickens and mangy dogs nip at their feet. These expository scenes comprise the first hour of the film and effectively establish the men's dire plight, as well as the callous attitude of the oil drillers toward human life.


When the oil company hires the wretched men for a suicide mission: drive two trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerin 300 miles over treacherous mountain roads, the extended dramatic build-up pays off in spades. Lovers of tense, nail-biting action will be spellbound as the men make their way through the rocky wilderness, where any sudden move will set off a Hiroshima-size explosion. This is elemental drama stripped to its barest essentials, as there is no room for error or compromise.


The men must use every bit of their strength, ingenuity and a measure of sheer brutality in order to survive. This is not a perfect film by any means. There's some very heavy-handed religious symbolism and the ending is a definite WTF moment, but director Clouzot has created an icon of sweat-drenched suspense. The film has been remade and ripped off innumerable times, but it has never been surpassed.

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