There’s suspense, there’s tension, there’s thrills, and then there’s The Wages of Fear. Once you hear the plot of this foreign classic you’ll begin to understand why, but it’s the demoralizing and punishing lack of humanity that elevates this thrill ride into the realm of poignancy. But don’t let any of that fancy, highfalutin talk dissuade you, at the end of the day this is a film that I’m going to run out of ways to call suspenseful.
The first half of the movie is spent somewhere in South America, lackadaisically sauntering around an unpaved and shaggy excuse for a town. Those who don’t work for the big oil company, exploiting the region, instead lounge around the local watering hole, working the occasional odd job. Mario is one such drifter. Played by Yves Montand, he is very reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart, full of swagger and braggadocio. In fact, the opening scenes are very similar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in a very good way. After Jo, a seemingly big shot criminal, arrives in town, it becomes clear that people don’t willingly come to this armpit of a village. They flee here and then become as stuck as the tires in the mud.
There are roads that go to nowhere, unforgiving wilderness in every direction, and a pitiful “airport” that costs a fortune just to buy a ticket. It is essentially purgatory. So when the most dangerous job opportunity imaginable opens up, it’s not so hard to understand why Mario, Jo, and their fellow travelers audition for the gig. It’s quite simple, really. There is an oil well on fire and the unscrupulous oil company will pay handsomely for someone to deliver highly unstable nitroglycerin to help put it out. The well is about a day’s drive away over some of the most treacherous roads imaginable. The company wants two trucks to double the odds, and drivers that no one will miss.
Mario and Jo take one truck, while Luigi, Mario’s naïve buddy, and Bimba, a subdued man with a mysterious past of his own, take the other. I basically held my breath for the rest of the movie. I half expected the trucks to explode right out the gate. Through obstacle after obstacle I was biting my nails the whole time. But worse than the winding roads and errant boulders is the psychological torture of living with a ticking bomb on your back. How these men deal with the unbelievable stress is just as unnerving as waiting for their numbers to come up.
The Wages of Fear is the quintessential suspense film. It exploits our most basic fears for the sake of entertainment, but not without showcasing their expense. It’s kind of right there in the title. When the job is done, Mario will have earned his wage, but been brought to the brink of madness. It’s not easy escaping Hell and The Wages of Fear proves it’s a high cost indeed.