“In a region of desperate poverty, four men are hired by an oil company to drive trucks filled with nitroglycerin down treacherous mountain roads in the hot sun.”
This is likely the greatest setup for a film ever, and the first reading of it would send a chill down your spine. The tension is palpable before the film would even begin, as one bad jolt, one tank of nitroglycerin becomes overheated, a single rock slide at the wrong time, and the truck becomes one with the vapor. Moments in silence are no less removed from danger as the volatile fluid cooks in the sun. Hitchcock once noted that if a scene has a bomb in it, ‘show the audience the bomb’. And so this bomb is in full view, and you are left waiting for it to go off. In Wages of Fear, as he did with Diabolique, Henri-Georges Clouzot has made an unforgettable impact in the cinema of tension. A stunning work to be sure, but what makes it an indelible classic is the political statement contained within, one which remains timeless, unfortunately.
The small town in this story could be most anywhere – rural towns are nearly always starving for a source of income. Woe unto those that actually have a local industry, as the discovery of oil, diamonds, or any other lucrative resource only seems to deepen the poverty. Multinationals generally move in with a large investment, and with the promise of jobs and a payoff to the right people in government, the land is broken. Inevitably, the money goes only to the necessary government officials and to the company; the locals get nothing but irreversible disease and trauma. This town is no different. As Mario (a never-better Yves Montand) remarks dryly, “It is easy to get in, but you cannot get out.” People flocked in for work, but there was only work for skilled laborers, and there are no roads out, no trains, and a flight costs far more than anyone has in this decrepit hole. There is nothing to do but drink, subsist, and await the next bar fight. Malaria and leprosy are widespread, but the most common chronic illness is hunger. The entire population lives upon delirium, and works enough to stay in debt. The conscience of the town is within one wide-eyed kid who pleads to anyone in earshot about his work visa, and begs for money to flee to the United States. The greatest aspiration is to be elsewhere.
Clouzot maintains a tight grip upon the production, and even the wide open spaces of this desert town has a claustrophobic feel. In the opening shot, a child wallows in the mud, playing with cockroaches that have been tied together with string. They struggle against each other as they pull in mutually assured inertia – one of the truly great evocative images in populist cinema. Against this rabble is the monolithic SOC, an American oil company. “Where there is oil, Americans are not far behind.” Not much has changed in geopolitics since the 1950s, apart from China emerging as a major player in the petroleum market. Industrial practices are about the same – the work is dangerous, and unskilled locals are the preferred source since they do not have labor unions. Any effort by the proles to disrupt business is met with swift violence at the hands of the company’s private security. They run a tight ship, and brought the entire works and buildings prefabricated – even the cemetery for the workers came ready made.
There is an explosion at the oil drill, and the only way to extinguish the flaming oil gusher is with high explosives. Thus our story begins; still, the stakes would not be so high, nor the extraordinary pressure placed upon the laborers as resonant if Wages of Fear did not spend the first hour in languid character development. The tedium of nowhere in Venezuela is demonstrated in the daily pointless rhythms of boredom. Mario and his cohorts shoot the shit, pass the time, eat, drink, and threaten each other with regularity. There is a woman that Mario fancies, but she is hardly the object of his affection – there is no time or place for strong attachments in this unsentimental terminus. Some have accused Clouzot of misogyny for this indifferent attitude toward women, and the way the only significant female character is treated, but this is the way it is in the harsh places of the world. Women mean attachment, and such things are dangerous when there is little in the way of income. Soft women either become wily opportunists or broken romantics. There is only the work, and the catastrophe at the oil drill means a big payday for those able to survive – US$2000 is enough to escape to a new life. The odds against making a journey across the mountains in a rickety truck without a single jolt sending your nitroglycerin into orbit are astonishingly high, but in a true capitalist system, suicide is as profitable as it is necessary. There is little point withering away in the sun when you can gamble your life away for cash – and you either end up with the means to achieve your goals, or you are dead enough not to care. The Cato Institute would be proud of such a win-win situation.
Though this appears to be a film for the class warrior only, there is a more cynical edge at work here. The lower classes are at each others’ throats in the first act; with the introduction of Jo, a criminal from France who is fleeing the law, tempers flare. The workers are ready to brandish their weapons at a slight, even one so innocuous as turning off a radio in a bar. Several characters set upon each other at first, and these differences vanish once the deadly job appears. Perhaps if a page were borrowed from Upton Sinclair, then the unemployed masses would wreak vengeance upon the company for offering little more than death to its workers. This does not happen in the real world very often, mostly due to manipulation by the company owners, or internecine fighting amidst the workers, and so such a scene has little use in Wages of Fear. The largest character in the film utters nary a line, though it drives every single action – or inaction – that occurs. This character is Fear, that great motivator. It forms that magnificent pillar of supply and demand, and drives every living soul to work their waking moments. The job is offered, and the people line up around the block. There is no class struggle here, which is also strangely relevant to the present. The combination of fear and the drive to consume against a backdrop of globalization has left the world without a labor movement; consider Wages of Fear a harbinger of this world to come.
Apart from its relevance and its stunning depiction of the human spirit placed under impossible pressure, Wages of Fear is cracking entertainment. The scenes where a massive boulder is quietly removed from the road, or two trucks navigate a slippery platform hanging over a precipitous drop rank among the great moments of cinema. Given the leisurely introduction to the characters, the way they respond to their trial resonates with the viewer. Even the reserved quality of Mario fades after he bleeds every drop of his soul in service to SOC – by the time his jittery hands drive the truck into sight of the apocalyptic fire of the drill site, there is nothing left in him. This is one of those films that reaches into you, and leaves you utterly drained by the end. At least it does for those of us fortunate enough not to live under tests like this on a daily basis. For a significant portion of the world, these wages are paid with every morning light.