Blind Spot Series: The Wages of Fear (1953)

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When a huge fire breaks out at an American oil company in an isolated region of South America, boss Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs) decides that the best solution is to blow it out like a candle, using a nitroglycerin-induced explosion to do so. The nitroglycerin will need to be transported to the site of the fire by truck over rough roads, and O’Brien knows that no union will ever allow its members to take on such a dangerous job. He decides, instead, to hire some of the unemployed and underemployed foreigners living in the squalid nearby village, men longing to get away but too poor to afford it. Four of them end up driving the two trucks: Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Charles Vanel) in one, Luigi (Folco Lulli) and Bimba (Peter van Eyck) in the other. It’s a journey of some three hundred miles, and not a single inch is free from peril.

I must admit that I had a hard time getting into The Wages of Fear. Rather than going for suspense and excitement from the start, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film takes its time in establishing its characters and its setting — a fine approach in theory, but I didn’t find this opening section particularly compelling, though I’m sure it would be more meaningful on a second viewing. (It did, however, bring to mind The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; the two films might make an interesting double bill.) The first thing that really caught my attention was a scene in which a woman native to the area decries foreigners like O’Brien who come in, exploit and even kill the locals, and simply pay off their families. Her diatribe’s main purpose is to introduce the fire; while I would have liked to hear more from her perspective, I suppose that would have led to a very different story.

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At any rate, it was at this point that the film started to engage me, and once the men are on the road, it certainly lives up to its reputation as a thriller. As one might expect, they encounter numerous obstacles in the course of their journey, but even when nothing out of the ordinary is happening, there’s always the possibility that an unnoticed rock or stick in the road could jolt a truck and vaporize its passengers in an instant. Human frailty, too, puts them at risk. Danger and desperation makes some men bold or even reckless; others are overpowered by fear. Between the differences in their personalities and the tension inherent in the situation, clashes are inevitable, yet they must work together if they want to succeed — or just survive.

The Wages of Fear was remade by director William Friedkin in 1977 under the title Sorcerer, which I would enjoy seeing at some point now that I’ve seen the original. Oddly enough, my first exposure to the story — or the basic premise, anyway — was through a 1976 episode of Little House on the Prairie called “The Long Road Home.” In it, Charles and Mr. Edwards fail to earn enough money from their crops (as per usual), so they take a job hauling nitroglycerin by wagon. You never know where you’ll find references to classic films, and although this one was rough going at first, I’m glad that I stuck with it.

This post is part of the 2016 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.

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7 thoughts on “Blind Spot Series: The Wages of Fear (1953)

  1. This was one of my blind spots too (watched it last month)! I agree with your thoughts about the beginning being tough to get into, I almost couldn’t believe it was considered a thriller until they hit the road. What’d you think of the ending?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When things seemed to be wrapping up and I realized there were still a few minutes left to go, I guessed how it might end (at least in a general way), but it was still kind of a punch in the gut. It actually reminded me of a certain scene from Downton Abbey, of all things; at the risk of spoilers, I won’t say more than that…

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  2. This sounds like another intriguing film. I’ll be sure to stick with it if/when I come across it.

    I like what you said about the local woman decrying the actions of foreigners. It likely would have made a totally different movie, but what a fascinating story.

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  3. Pingback: Blindsided by AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective

  4. This does have a slow build at the beginning but having seen the director’s Diabolique previous to this I knew that there was probably a purpose behind all the exposition. However having watched the film more than once I can tell you that being familiar with where the story is going the second time added an extra depth to those initial scenes.

    After that start the movie is a taut white knuckler with terrific work from the entire cast. Even Yves Montand whose allure previous to this escaped me was excellent, though outside of this I still don’t think he was much of an actor. But it’s Clouzot who sets the pace and pulls off the high wire act of tension throughout.

    I’ve seen Sorcerer, originally in the theatre and once or twice since, and while it’s not as perfect as this it sticks pretty closely to the story and is a solid entertaining film. Director William Friedkin puts his own stamp on the material and Roy Scheider is a great choice for the lead role.

    I also remember that Little House on the Prairie episode!! It was quite shocking and a bit traumatic to my young eyes the first time I saw it, like you it was my first exposure to the story line.

    There was also a B movie version made in Hollywood in the 50’s called Violent Road starring Brian Keith that I’ve been searching for years to find. It’s not supposed to be the equal of either of the other versions but I’m curious to see the comparisons nonetheless.

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    1. Yes, I’m sure that if I watch it again I’ll get a lot more out of the opening sequence, now that I know where things are going. (Knowing that Clouzot had done great work on Diabolique, which I loved, did help me to stick with it, actually.) Thanks for the information on Sorcerer and Violent Road! As for Little House on the Prairie, there were quite a few traumatic episodes. One that freaked me out when I was young was the episode with the aging escape artist who meets a grisly end while performing one of his stunts.

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