WAGES OF FEAR (1953)

 

Our world is dotted with broken promises. Look around any given country and you will find a town or a city that once offered opportunity, but has since become a relic. These places are sometimes still home to abandoned factories, derelict stadiums, or burnt out high rises.

They seem to have permanent signs hung on them that say “Will Be Back in _____ Minutes”, with that space remaining permanently blank.

It would be sad enough if these places were desolate, but the sad truth is that these spots on our maps are usually home to at least a few hundred…and when visions are unfulfilled, or opportunities scarce, that’s when desperation kicks in.

Desperation is what allows worker to accept the wages of fear.

WAGES OF FEAR is about a small town called Las Piedras. It’s the sort of place that’s easy to get to but difficult to leave. The main nearby industry is an American energy corporation named The Southern Oil Company (“SOC”). They sometimes offer jobs to the locals, but only opportunities that are wildly dangerous, and often are more trouble than they’re worth.

Four men that especially want to turn their fortunes around are named Mario, Bimba, Jo, and Luigi. Mario has someone special in the way of Linda – a hostess at a rundown cafe – but the others have no one and nothing. So when a job comes up that will pay big money, all four jump at the chance.

The job that SOC requires is for two trucks to be driven from town to the oil fields 300 miles away. The oil fields are the scene of a massive rig fire, and the only way to put it out is to blow the whole thing up. So those two trucks the four men will drive across the country? They will be loaded high and tight with jerrycans of extremely unstable nitroglycerine.

 

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There is an incredible sequence in the middle of this film where the four drivers must overcome an obstacle by throwing caution to the wind. Specifically, when faced with a particularly challenging stretch of road, all four quickly understand that while some might approach the hazardous path with reduced speed, what is actually safest is to pick up the pace.

It’s completely counterintuitive, but it’s an interesting approach to life. It’s as though they see the danger as a tailwind, not a headwind and use it to their advantage. Or likewise, these men are boxers, and understand that the best way to take the sting out of an opponent’s punch is to lean into it.

Time and again, these four see danger as an opportunity. Perhaps that springs from the town they all call home. It’s a place where every shady dealing is a chance to make some headway, so if they are accustomed to using risk to their advantage, what’s a few extra miles per hour on the speedometer? Or later, what’s the harm in handling half a litre of nitro when you’ve already been hauling a few dozen jerrycans?

None of us are truly wired this way. None of us look at a dangerous task and think that increasing the danger will actually decrease the danger. Perhaps that’s because most of us don’t put our lives on the line like this, and need to consider all angles in the hopes that we’ll live long enough to get paid.

The way the risk and ingenuity comes together leaves us pleading for them to think again on the choices they are making. We want to plead with the characters as desperately as Linda does, holding on to the door of that truck. Sadly, the film gives us the same treatment Linda gets…and knocks us off the running boards to the dirt below as it speeds away to do something foolish and risky.

 

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This site has long been influenced by the boys and girls of Filmspotting, who have long preached the importance of stakes when it comes to the great films. I’d be hard-pressed to recall a film where the stakes were much higher than most of WAGES OF FEAR.

The first ante comes when any of these characters even considers getting out of Las Piedras. The whole damned town is like a Chinese finger trap; easy to get into, but seemingly impossible to escape from. These people might not be persecuted, but they are desperate…and desperate times call for desperate measures. They aren’t quite the starving citizens poised to risk their lives for loaves of bread…but give them a minute and they’ll surely get there.

But the raise and the call comes when the Mario, Jo, Bimba, and Luigi climb into the cabs of those trucks.

Hitchcock once said that true suspense comes from knowing the bomb is under the table and waiting for it to go off. Well, if there’s a way to one up a bomb under the table, a load of nitro in the back of a truck would certainly do it. The bulk of this movie is life-and-death, its characters increasing their risk by moving too quickly or too slow. From moment to moment, running this payload across the countryside seems to come with freakishly high stakes, so much so that I lost count of how many times I gasped.

When you can stop an audiences heart with a peasant picking up a flag from off the road, you know you’ve set the stakes high.

In many ways, this is what’s missing from much of modern pop cinema. The spectacle is at an all time high, but we seldom feel the rush of tension that movies like this create with sky-high stakes.

 

Charles Vanel(left) and Yves Montand (right) in Henri-Georges Clouzot's THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953). Courtesy Janus Films. Playing 12/9-12/22

 

The world as we know it has been built using wages of fear.

It has come from the minds of the industrious and greedy, but constructed by the backs and hands of the fearful and abused. Thousands have died that we know of through exploitation and false dealings; thousands more that we don’t know of have likewise been lost in the same manner. In the late going, Vanel puts it best”

“Think they pay you to drive? They pay you to be terrified.”

This is the devil’s bargain that far too many people throughout history have taken. Often they had no choice; the bargain was work or be killed. Sometimes though, the Faustian agreements were signed as a desperate attempt to make something happen. It might have been to get up, it might have been to get out. No matter what, you can bet that desperation played a big role in honest workers agreeing to put themselves in harm’s way.

Many don’t even have tombstones; instead their graves are marked by train tunnels, oil rigs, skyscrapers, and internationally recognized monuments. The work of the fearful even permeates our everyday; they craft the clothes we wear, process the online items we order, and build the electronic gizmos we cradle.

Everywhere you look, there are traces of the fearful. One wonders just how little it takes to join their ranks and accept those wages too.

 

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I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.

 

Here’s the round-up for November…

 

Coog watched TOUCH OF EVIL

Mette watched MIDNIGHT COWBOY

Brittani also watched MIDNIGHT COWBOY