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Film / The Wages of Fear

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The Wages of Fear (French title: Le Salaire de la peur) is a 1953 French-Italian drama film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Yves Montand, and based on a 1950 novel by Georges Arnaud.

The film centers on the fates of a handful of men who are stuck in a squalid South American town. The town, Las Piedras, is isolated due to the surrounding desert but it maintains contact with the outside world through a small airport. However, the airfare is beyond the means of the main characters (many of whom are also noncitizens without proper paperwork for work or travel). There is little opportunity for employment aside from the American corporation that dominates the town. The company, Southern Oil Company, called SOC, operates the nearby oil fields and owns a walled compound within the town. SOC is accused of unethical practices such as exploiting local workers and taking the law into its own hands.

The first half of the film develops the main characters by examining their daily struggles. Most of the action takes place in the town's cantina. The four most prominent characters are: the Frenchmen Mario and Mr. Jo, the German Bimba and the Italian Luigi. Mario is the main character, an optimistic Corsican playboy. Jo is an aging ex-gangster who ran bootleg liquor, and just recently found himself stranded in the town. Bimba is an intense, quiet individual whose father was murdered by the Nazis, and who himself worked for three years in a salt mine. Luigi, Mario's roommate, is a jovial, hardworking individual, who just learned that he is dying from lung disease. Mario befriends Jo due to their common background of having lived in Paris, but a rift develops between Jo and the other cantina regulars because of his tendency to want to come off as a bigshot.

The catalyst to the film's action sequence is a massive fire at one of the SOC oil fields. The only means to extinguish the flames and cap the well is nitroglycerine. With short notice and lack of proper equipment, the only means of transportation are jerrycans placed in two large trucks. Due to the poor condition of the roads and the highly volatile nature of nitroglycerine, the job is considered too dangerous for the unionized SOC employees.

The company recruits truck drivers from the local community. Despite the dangers, many of the locals volunteer, lured by the high pay: US$2,000 per driver.note  This is a fortune to them, and the money is seen by some as the only way out of their dead-end lives. The pool of applicants is narrowed down to four handpicked drivers. All the main characters except for M. Jo are chosen. Smerloff, one of the chosen drivers, fails to appear on the appointed day for unknown reasons and Jo is substituted in his place. The other drivers suspect that Jo murdered Smerloff in order to take his place.

The final half of the film is an extended action sequence focusing on the drive to the oil field. M. Jo and Mario are in one vehicle, and Luigi and Bimba are in the other, with thirty minutes separating them in order to limit potential casualties. The drivers are forced to deal with a series of physical and mental obstacles, including a stretch of road called "the washboard", a construction barricade that forces them to teeter around a rotten platform above a precipice, and a boulder blocking the road.

Remade by William Friedkin in 1977 as Sorcerer.

This film provides examples of:

  • #1 Dime: Mario treasures a ticket stub from the Paris subway, destination Place Pigalle.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the book, Jo is not a gangster and doesn't murder anyone; although still a Dirty Coward he is not entirely useless.
  • Anti-Hero: The main characters Mario and Jo are pretty terrible people (secondary protagonists Bimba and Luigi are a lot better), although their panache and friendship for one another make them sympathetic.
  • Bad Boss: Bill O'Brien, the local manager of the American company SOC. Not only he openly looks down on the locals and the stranded foreigners, he has also no regard for his own men. Exemplified when a foreman is badly burned during the oil well accident; his only comment is that it would be better if he will die soon and he refuses to speak with the wife when she calls over the phone.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Often characters talk to another in different languages.
  • Byronic Hero: The main characters Mario and Jo are unsympathetic people and combining it with their panache and friendship for one another fits this trope.
  • Can't You Read the Sign?: The characters keep smoking next to a truck full of nitroglycerin, with a sign that says "No flame within 50 feet." Not played for comedy so much but rather to show the characters disregard for their own safety.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: O'Brien, head of the local branch of the Southern Oil Company.
  • Covered in Gunge: Jo falls into a pool of oil and his body in covered in oil.
  • Crapsack World: All heroes are poor, unemployed and stuck in a hellhole town with no chance of escaping.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Bimba's father was executed by Nazis, and it's implied he himself was imprisoned in a forced labour camp.
  • Dead Hat Shot: Subverted. After pushing Jo off the wooden ramp with the truck, the only thing Mario finds is Jo's cap. However, soon after we see Jo, the Dirty Coward, climbing up the hill.
  • Determinator: Mario is determined to drive the truck to the oil well, even if it means driving on the leg of his friend.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: The first 40 minutes are spent to introduce us to a bunch of unlikable characters, four of which become part of the actual Suicide Mission.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Jo dying in Mario's arms just before arrival.
  • Dirty Coward: Despite his initial cockiness, Jo reveals himself as one as his once famous nerves crumbles completely under the strain of the journey.
  • Disney Death: After Bimba blows up the rock that fell on the road, the unconscious body of Luigi is found on the road. His companions think that he is dead, but he is alive and well.
  • Downer Ending: Mario, the only driver to survive the trip to the oil field, is killed when he crashes his truck by driving recklessly on his way back to town; a trip he did not have to make.
  • Driving a Desk: Most scenes inside the truck cabins are shot on a sound stage with back projection.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Nearly everyone. Luigi and Bimba's truck explodes in an incident we don't see. Mario and Jo drive up to inspect the aftermath, but they can't figure out what had caused it. Mario also dies in literally the last few seconds of the movie, in a mundane car crash on his joyride back to Las Piedras.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: By the end of the film, Luigi, Bimba, Jo and Mario himself were killed in the job, leaving not a single lead and secondary character alive.
  • Everybody Smokes: The Wages Of Fear starts with the expected amount of smoking for a black-and-white movie set in a rough town. It becomes ridiculous when the characters keep smoking next to a truck full of nitroglycerin, with a sign that says "No flame within 50 feet."
  • Fatal Flaw: Mario’s proves to be his recklessness, without any regard for the consequences. He often puts himself and Jo into more danger than necessary in his pursuit to keep going. It results in his death when he goofs around on his drive home instead of playing it safe.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Luigi is sanguine (he is cheerful, energetic, positive...). Mario is choleric (he takes the lead, he is strong-willed, determined, insensitive, without compassion...). Bimba is melancholic (he is detailed, analytical, organized, pessimistic...). Jo is phlegmatic (he is submissive, passive, indecisive, too yielding...).
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: Touchingly, Bernardo's suicide note is to his mother, telling her he found a job and not to worry if he doesn't write for a while.
  • Hair-Trigger Explosive: They are hauling nitroglycerine (a known volatile explosive), and need to do through rough terrain.
  • The Hero Dies: Mario himself at the end.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Luigi has a cement lung and coughs throughout the movie, most dramatically when he handles the nitroglycerine in the Thermos jug.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Jo may be a coward, but trying to ride a 10-ton heavy truck full of nitroglycerin on a wooden platform suspended in the air with rotten and slippery boards is sheer madness. At the end of the manoeuvre, the platform collapses and Mario almost falls into the void with the whole truck.
  • Kick the Dog: Jo is a gangster and an arrogant bully used to intimidate other people into doing what he wants. But you can't help but feel sorry for him towards the end. Especially when he is mercilessly beaten by Mario despite having surrendered and he is forced to carry on their suicide mission. All that it is left to the once proud and feared man is whining that Mario is taking advantage of a poor old man.
  • Killed Offscreen: Bimba and Luigi are killed when their truck blows up off-screen. Mario and Jo find the wreckage of the truck but no sign of what caused the explosion.
  • Latin Land: The country in which Las Piedras is located is never identified by name (in the novel it's Guatemala), though the fact it's apparently a short flight from Caracas suggests its Venezuela.
  • Love Martyr: Poor Linda is devoted to Mario, who treats her with total disdain.
  • MacGyvering: Bimba, coming up with the elaborate contraption to burst the boulder that's blocking the road.
  • Mr. Exposition: Mario does a lot of exposition talk, explaining to Jo the situation of how he and his mates got stuck in the village.
  • Mysterious Past:
    • We never find out what Jo or Mario did that forced them to leave Paris in such a hurry, in Jo's case without bringing any money with him.
    • Despite his only known work experience being as a truck driver and (apparently) a salt miner, Bimba possess enough knowledge of explosives to successfully rig an IED to blow up a boulder. The fact he and his family were imprisoned by the Nazis implies he may have been a resistance member.
  • Nitro Express: The Trope Codifier. When an oil well owned by an American company catches fire, the company hires four European men, down on their luck, to drive two trucks over mountain dirt roads, loaded with nitroglycerine needed to extinguish the flames.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The book mentions the trucks weren't equipped with first aid kits, as any incident was considered to be lethal to both drivers.
  • Ridiculously Difficult Route: The road to the oil field is a ridiculously difficult route even though it is the only road there. However, the difficulties are multiplied many times over when you are hauling a cargo like nitroglycerine.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Mario needs money to leave Las Piedras. He gets an exceptional opportunity to make $2,000 if he survives a Suicide Mission. After getting through many trials (including the death of his three companions), he survives the mission and receives $4,000. On the way back, he drives recklessly and dies in a car crash.
  • Suicide Mission: Getting the nitroglycerine across 300 miles of dangerous terrain.
  • Take the Wheel: Jo asks Mario to take the wheel after he choked on the coffee.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Mario himself at the end learns the hard way that careless driving across a serpentine can be most dangerous to your health.
    • We don't know why Luigi and Bimba's truck exploded; one of the most likely theories is that, when Bimba siphoned some nitroglycerin from one of the jerrycans to blow up the boulder, they put the jerrycan back. Logic dictates that the jerrycans are filled with nitro up to their maximum capacity, so there's as little air as possible inside, to avoid splashing. Now, one of the jerrycans is partially empty, any bump can end up in a splash and...
  • Wipe: A horizontal wipe is used in early scenes.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: Jo hands his revolver to enraged Luigi and dares him to shoot, which the latter can't bring himself to do.