Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) is one of those movies I cannot—and would not—deny the greatness of even without actually liking it very much personally. Gorgeous to look at and an undeniable masterpiece of suspense, the film simply isn’t my dish of tea. It’s a brilliant, though frankly overlong, exercise in filmmaking that creates a stunning portrait of a miserable corner of the world where risking your life for $2,000 by driving a truckload of nitroglycerin through mountainous terrain almost seems like a bargain. Even if you blow up, you’ll at least be out of this unconscionably cruel, impoverished environment.
The setup is simple. The American company, Southern Oil (note the initials), that controls what economy there is in this pocket of South America has an oil-well fire that needs putting out. To do this requires transporting nitroglycerin over 300 miles of bad roads in trucks without shock absorbers. Naturally, the oil folks aren’t going to take on this risk themselves, so hiring from the pool of local Europeans looking for exit money is the only reasonable course. The bulk of the film is constructed around the efforts of these drivers to get the explosives to the fire without blowing themselves up in the process. It’s a situation that allows Clouzot to stage an array of suspenseful set pieces of unusual tension—thanks to the precision of his filmmaking. It truly is a harrowing experience.
The rush to apply political undercurrents to the film is understandable—American big business and oil concerns make it inescapable. And there definitely is a political critique within the film. One look at the ruthless, militaristic manner in which the oil-company employees conduct themselves makes this undeniable. But when all is said and done, the film is essentially a suspense thriller about watching desperate men undertake an insanely dangerous mission. It’s this that gives the film its power far more than the political implications.