I love discovering a new great film. Preferably, I have just discovered the great film in a revival on a big screen ("Rififi" anyone?), but video will do in a pinch. I just had the experience of viewing "Wages of Fear" for the first time. This is easily one of the best films ever made.
Henri-Georges Clouzot creates a film filled with white-knuckle, edge of your seat suspense that is so pure and well-done you will remember it for ever. Set in a South American village, poverty, dirt and the sun permeate everything. We meet four gentleman and witness their lives as they try to earn a living in this terrible place. Yves Montand plays Mario, the Frenchman in the group. He lives in this town working when he can, but more often than not he spends his days sitting outside of the bar trying to get his girlfriend, the barmaid to steal drinks and food for him. The entire town is filled with desperate loners from the four corners of the Earth. The town's main reason for being is that an American oil company uses it for it's local headquarters. When the new well blows up, the only way to stop it is to blow the fire out. There is some nitroglycerin available, but the only way to get it 200 miles into the jungle is by truck. The oil company hires four men, all of whom are desperate to get out of the hellish town, to transport the nitro in two trucks. Their reward will be enough money to escape once again.
One of the many brilliant things about the film is that Clouzot really allows us to get to know his four main characters and their lives. For the first hour, we watch Mario, Jo, Bernardo and Smerloff try to live in this town. This is something that an American film would never do. Because we know these four men so intimately, we feel for them and care about the outcome of the journey. This makes the suspense and thrills all the more believable and effective.
The second hour depicts the trek across the jungle. Driving two trucks through the jungle, over bridges, treacherous roads and more would be harrowing enough. Each truck has three times more nitro than they need to blow out the fire. Why? Because they don't expect both trucks to make it. The trucks must overcome a series of obstacles that would make most of us give up and go home. Each of the obstacles is very memorable and brings you to the edge of your seat.
The contrast between the two hours is also very jarring. For the first hour, these characters meander slowly through their lives. In the second hour, they are fighting for their lives.
"Wages of Fear" has an ending that simply would not be made in an American film. It is jolting and a classic. I can't and won't tell you about it. You need to experience it for yourself.
Shot in black and white, the film has a stunning look. Night scenes have a silvery glow, the day is harsh and arid. The little town looks like it fell off the map.
Yves Montand is wonderful as Mario. A performance that could easily have become overdone, he remains believable for every second of the film. Our guide through this story, Mario is not a completely likable man. Each of the four men has a reason for hiding out in the little village. I like that each of these men has a dark side, something they are trying to hide, because it makes them seem more real.
Clouzot followed "Wages of Fear" with "Les Diaboliques", another truly remarkable film. Both of these films are constantly cited as influences by filmmakers. Both films have been remade as American films. "Wages of Fear' was remade in 1977 by William Friedkin. "Sorcerer" is a very good film, emphasizing different aspects of the story, trying to provide grittier detail. "Les Diaboliques" was remade in 1996 as "Diabolique" starring Sharon Stone. The less said about that remake, the better.
I would urge everyone to watch "Wages of Fear" for the finest example of action filmmaking ever made.