Not unlike the South American town that holds captive the film's heroes, Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear grabs onto its audience and refuses to let go. The story of a group of desperate men who enlist in a suicide mission driving nitrogycerine across unpaved and highly volatile terrain, the film is a case study in suspense thanks not only to its set-up but the shockingly complete and effective performances of its stars, who seem to literally endure what their characters go through en route to a great reward – be it in this world or the next.
Yves Montand and Charles Vanel play Mario and Jo, two schemers who attach themselves to one another only to discover that both are equally without prospects. After exhausting the commercial possibilities of the dusty border town they are otherwise unable to escape, they stumble across a dangerous but profitable opportunity: drive two trucks filled with unstable explosives through the mountains to a remote oil fire for a greedy American corporation. The experience not only tests their resolve as drivers, but as friends, and the two men soon find that their tenuous partnership may come at the expense of their very lives.
While there are many, many terrific scenes in the film, including the centerpiece explosion of a rock which has fallen into the path of the trucks, the most memorable comes after that, when Mario and Jo have more or less dissolved what was once a robust friendship. The two of them come across the site of an explosion that has ruptured a oil main, and a massive crater is quickly filling up with sticky, dark fluid. Jo reluctantly examines the situation, but Mario constructs a plan in order to successfully escape the pool of oil and put them back on track; unfortunately, his desperation – and frustration at the seeming uselessness of his onetime friend – overtakes his determination, and horrific tragedy strikes even as they seem to conquer this latest of natural obstacles.
Criterion's blu-ray for the film looks truly magnificent and is by far the only way to watch Clouzot's film, particularly given its presentation and wealth of supplemental materials. Unfortunately, clips of the film are disabled on Youtube or otherwise unavailable, but click here to check out this terrific scene from The Wages of Fear.