Movie Review: The Wages of Fear (France, 1953)

It isn’t an easy matter to take a movie to an international audience. There’s a lot that doesn’t translate across cultures. Comedy is often highly culturally specific. Romance depends a lot on social customs. Drama is a little easier to do, but it still has some problems.

Action and thrills, however, cross all borders. Explosions and monsters speak all languages. Is it any wonder that the biggest international box office successes these days are action & adventure flicks?

But even there, some things may still not translate very well across space and time.

The Wages of Fear is adapted from a novel by Georges Arnaud. It’s about four down-on-their-luck men who, in exchange for $2000, will drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerine across three hundred miles of badlands in order that the explosives can be used to put out a raging oil well fire. Any misstep, and there won’t be enough of them left to bother scraping up.

There’s some nail-biting suspense that can thrill any audience, right? So why am I talking about how some things don’t translate?

The movie is over two hours long. It’s not too long to stay on the edge of your seat, but the first half hour or so is set in some nameless Latin American village where nothing ever happens. The men of the town (there’s only one real female character, and she isn’t much more than a passing love interest for Mario (Yves Montand), a layabout and our lead character) do little more than hang out at the tavern, seeing how far they can go with irritating each other.

This is the part that usually gets cut from distribution, because it does seem to do anything for the plot. But it’s still important in that it allows us to get to know our truck drivin’ men. By the look of his clothes, and that he arrives in the town on what appears to be the one weekly flight into the place, Jo (Charles Vanel) is some sort of businessman who has a reason to be there. Luigi (Folco Lulli) is either the roommate or the landlord of the aforementioned Mario. Bimba (Peter van Eyck) is a Dutchman who apparently came to the town looking for work in the region’s oil industry, but found nothing.

What this act (or prologue) does is introduce us to the characters without forcing any explanations down our throats. When William Friedkin redid Arnaud’s novel as 1977’s Sorcerer, he had to shove in backstories for the characters to make us root for them, if not like them.

Here, director Henri-Georges Clouzot has us spend time with the men (well, not so much with Bimba) so that we can see what they’re like and learn their relationships with each other for ourselves without having to fake anything up. So that when they are all hired for the job, we’ve gotten to know them and are emotionally invested in their fates. They’re no clichéd “gang of misfits” or “enemies who will have to learn to work together”. Nor are there any bogus reasons for the men to need the money. No sick kid at home, no debts hanging over them. They just want to be able to afford to get out of town.

Once they are on their way, it’s time for the tension-building set pieces.

Here’s where Clouzot really shines. There’s no fake tension; there’s no need for it. The challenges they meet on the road are enough. The bumpy “washboard” road, where you can either go so slowly that the bumps don’t jar you, or so fast that you basically fly over them…. The wooden ledge at the switchback turn…. The boulder in the middle of the road…. And no manic editing, either. Clouzot is a master of the slow and steady build. France’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock, if you will.

It’s a safe guess that, as the lead character, Mario makes it all the way through with the nitro intact. But that ride along the way…..

A modern movie-goer will probably be bored silly with the slow opening act, and switch it off for something more fast-paced. Their loss. Some things are better when they’re not rushed. Because when you have a minute to breathe, the next peak of tension can be even higher.

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