In an unspecified town in South America, a multi-cultural group of men strive for a means to leave their location, but none of them can afford to exorbitant fares for air travel, and they cannot earn much working for the town’s sole business, a major oil company. However, when the opportunity arises to earn big bucks transporting trucks full of barrels of unstable nitroglycerin 300 miles as quickly as possible, in order to cause an explosion to put out an oil fire, four of the men set out to get the job done.
This film was nominated for me to watch by Chip Lary of Tips from Chip, whose opinion on the 1001 Movies list I take very seriously, because he’s amongst the few people to have completed it. I’ll take his opinion even more seriously from now on too, because The Wages of Fear is fantastic. This won’t be a terribly long review, as it’s been a few months since I’ve seen it and I just don’t have the time to fit it in again any time soon, but I’ll do what I can.
This is quite possibly the most tense movie I’ve ever watched. It sat on my shelf unwatched for a long time because I was never able to convince my girlfriend to watch a two-and-a-half hour black-and-white French films from the 1950s primarily about truck-driving, but when she was finally away for an evening I watched this and was furious I’d waited so long. This is easily one of the best nominated movies I’ve watched this year, and I cannot thank Chip enough for the suggestion.
It starts off really quite slowly, taking around an hour to actually get to the truck driving. This first act could easily be trimmed down, but it works as slow build, introducing the characters, how they feel about one another, how they got to where they are and why they’re so desperate to leave. Mario (Yves Montand) is a likeable Frenchman and our lead for the film. His friend and flatmate is Luigi (apparently there’s no connection to the Nintendo games), played by Falco Lulli. Luigi is an Italian hard worker, but needs to get medical attention due to the cement dust in his lungs. Bimba (Peter van Eyck) is German and, other than being quite serious and standoffish, doesn’t have much more of a personality, whereas Jo (Charles Vanel) is a former gangster who has only recently arrived in town, and quickly befriends Mario, causing a rift between the other men. When the driving opportunity arises there are other potential candidates for the role but, other than one other man, it’s pretty obvious that these will be the main four, so there’s not much of a spoiler there. Once the men get into the trucks though, that’s where the wonder lies.
I was pretty much on the edge of my seat for the last 90 minutes of this film. It’s so damn tense I chewed through my pen. It should be a requirement for all modern action film-makers to watch this and see what can be done simply with a couple of trucks, a few seemingly minor obstacles – a bumpy stretch of road, a tight corner, a boulder – and just this imminent threat. There’s no giant robots, no gargantuan monsters, no asteroids hurtling from space. It’s just four men, two trucks and some stuff that might blow them all up.
Take one such obstacle, the bumpy road. The two trucks set out 30 minutes apart, to reduce the risk of them both exploding simultaneously, should things go wrong. With the bumpy road, there are two techniques that could be used. Either the trucks drive fast enough to go over the bumps, or slow enough so they don’t matter. Drive for too long at an intermediate speed and big bada-boom. The first truck is driven by Luigi and Bimba, and they opt to go fast. It’s a long road, and they’ve worked out that going fast will take 12 minutes, but going slow would take 4 hours. So they drive fast but, towards the end, they have to slow down and take the last segment at a snail’s pace. Truck 2 stops at the start of the bumpy road, and they plan to go fast too. There’s some bickering between the drivers, Mario and Jo, with Jo having lost his nerve and also possibly suffering from malaria. Mario insists they back up, slowly, then speed up to take the segment at a run, but of course they’re not aware that near the end of this bumpy section the other truck is now moving slowly. And so we get a truck that can’t speed up being followed by one going full speed. It’s a narrow road, and they’re going to crash, and oh god it’s so tense even just thinking about it.
The whole thing is effective in its simplicity. It’s a basic, easily set-up action-thriller premise, with decent characters, well-established relationships and a believable premise. Modern film-making has a tendency to overcomplicate matters, and The Wages of Fear shows that there’s really no need. Keep it simple, do it well.
Choose Film 9/10