RogerBW's Blog

The Wages of Fear (1955) 05 December 2023

1955 thriller, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, Yves Montand, Charles Vanel: IMDb / allmovie. When you're stuck at the end of the world, you'll take any chance to get back.

It starts very much in the style of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (from only seven years earlier): here's the guy who looks as if he might be a hero, drinking his life away and conducting a desultory affair with the prettiest barmaid. It's clear that there's been a long fall to get to this point, but nobody ever talks about it.

It's also clear that you can only circle the drain for so long: eventually the concrete dust will destroy your lungs, or you won't get any more credit at the bar, and it'll all be over. A new arrival, Jo, who's clearly some kind of gangster, clearly hadn't realised just what a dead end this would be before he came here for lack of other options; he and Mario strike up a manly friendship. And one real chance for salvation arrives.

It feels very carefully set up. There's an oil well fire, which can only be extinguished with explosives. The only available explosives are nitroglycerine. The only way to get the nitro from here to there, lacking specialised transport, is in jerricans on lorries over 500km of terrible road. Like The Cold Equations (published the previous year), this elides all the money-saving choices made by people who are conveniently far away, and presents its solution as the only one that could ever have been possible—though there is a passing mention that the oil company's regular employees can't be told to do the job because they're in a union.

But what this film is about is manliness. Mario and Jo take one truck, two of their fellow losers take the other, with the promise of enough money to get out if they make it to the other side, and they have to face a succession of hazards: a rough road, construction work that's left the road nearly blocked, and so on. Human versus environment can be an unsatisfying story in itself, but Clouzot plays up the psychological aspect: how do you manage when your nerve is breaking but you can't turn back? There are no women in the original book, though Clouzot invented one (the barmaid) to provide a part for his wife Véra: to me one of the key emotional beats happens when she runs up to the departing truck, begging Mario to be careful, and he won't even look at her. Women, huh? They just don't understand. The only person a manly man can really talk with is a fellow manly man. Not that that's necessarily going to help him much.

Though personally I might not be smoking round the leaky nitro containers. Guess I'm not manly enough.

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I talk about this film further on Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

See also:
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

  1. Posted by Chris Suslowicz at 10:52am on 05 December 2023

    Of course, by the time the film was made it was known that the safe way to ship nitroglycerine was frozen solid, in which state it was pretty much inert. (Discovered when someone was blasting in the Canadian winter, and the initiator (A fairly substantial blackpowder charge) simply excavated a quantity of the nitroglycerine from the borehole and scattered chunks of it over the landscape.)

    Ref: Tenney L. Davis, The Chemistry of Powder and Explosives.


    Chris. (Yet another fact that (I sincerely hope) I will never make practical use of.)

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:07pm on 05 December 2023

    That might have been what they were talking about when they suggested that they didn't have the proper equipment for the job; for all the oil company base is relatively well-equipped, it's something of a backwater.

    In a non-diegetic sense, of course, it's all part of the setup to arrange that the only possible thing to do is the insanely dangerous drive.

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