Four men must transport nitroglycerin by truck to a burning oilfield 300 miles away. What could go wrong?
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece thriller “Wages of Fear” (or “Le salarie de la peur”) is the film which probably led to the coinage of a cliche used to describe even a B-grade action-thriller: “edge-of-your-seat”.
If the film’s premise makes it sound like a simplistic video game (“Frogger”?), well, it is and it is not. For one thing, Clouzot does not pick stereotypical “heroes” for the mission, but four desperate, down-on-their-luck men who will do anything for a shot at a better life. Second, the “backstory” for each character is so detailed in the first act that when compared to today’s action-thrillers, it almost comes as a shock. Could an action movie spend nearly an hour without an explosion or at least a car chase?
The second-half of the film – one long and unnerving second act – is guaranteed to leave you breathless. The trucks drive over a difficult terrain. How difficult? Well, a hastily negotiated bump on the road can kill the mission. Naturally, the journey gets progressively tougher and with it, the characters change too. The most famous sequence in the film (involving a truck and a wooden platform) is a great example of cinema in its purest and rawest form. Give us characters we care for, put them in harm’s way and we are hooked. Too bad most action films forget to give us characters we care for.
Ultimately, it is in the film’s ending that we learn why Clouzot’s vision is not so simplistic after all. Needless to say, if you really want to enjoy the film’s full impact, please don’t read any spoilers before buying or renting this film.