Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot | 124 minutes | action, drama, adventure, thriller | Actors: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck, Folco Lulli, Antonio Centa, Darling Légitimus, Luis de Lima, Jo Dest, Darío Mareno, Faustini, Seguna, William Tubbs, Véra Clouzot
“Le salaire de la peur”, better known in the Netherlands as “Wages of Fear,” appears to be a classic adventure film. After a very long introduction to many different characters, we turn to Mario, Mr. Jo, Bimba and Luigi (Mario and Luigi from the well-known computer game series? Perhaps. The bizarre thing is that Luigi looks a lot like computer game Mario, complete with braces, cap, black mustache and big belly). These four are sent to transport nitroglycerine, an explosive substance that detonates if shaken a little, over bumpy paths to a burning oil well. Excitement guaranteed. However, director Clouzot has also immersed himself in the existentialism of his contemporaries Jean-Paul Sarte and Albert Camus and tries to link this to the tension of the ride.
Out of sheer boredom, the main characters plunge into a life-threatening adventure without any sense of life and death. Main character Mario in particular seems completely empty inside. At the beginning of the film, he has a beautiful woman who literally licks his hands on her knees, but it doesn’t affect him at all.
The entire first hour of the film is set in Las Piedras and shows the boredom of the Westerners who are stranded there. Comic scenes alternate with more serious disturbances. An hour to get to know the characters, but in the second half, the thrilling road trip of the four “heroes”, it turns out that we don’t know anything about them yet. During the trip we only learn the “real” Mr. Jo, know the “real” Luigi and the “real” Bimba, but not the “real” Mario. Main character Mario is not “real”. He is nothing incarnate. He comes somewhat to life when he sees the apparently adventurous Mr. Jo bumps into. There is even a slightly homosexual tension between Mario and Mr. Jo, but in the end this adds little, simply because of Mario’s complete inner emptiness. His feelings for Mr. Jo are shallow and only get excited because Mr. Jo brings some life to the brewery (and Mario himself).
Mr. Jo persuades Mario to sign up as the driver of one of the two trucks with nitroglycerin. Already at the beginning of the journey, however, it turns out that Mr. Jo is very afraid of death. Mario’s bitterness is palpable. For a moment he believed in something again, but it turns out to be based on nothing. Then he plunges fully into the dangerous adventure, literally never putting the brakes on, even when he is close to Mr. Jo runs over. Mario seems so focused on his goal – he finally has a goal! – that he doesn’t care who or what he drives into the abyss.
The tension in the second half of the film is constructed in a genius “Hitchcockian” way. The trucks end up in nail-biting situations, but the climax of the situation always comes at a completely unexpected moment. This makes the whole trip to the oil well very ominous. And actually the first half, the boring wait until something finally happens, is not disturbing either. What does disturb is the emptiness of Mario. Some interesting figures roam around him, such as Mr. Jo, who completely collapses during the ride, and Luigi, who has only a month to live, but they also do not arouse any sympathy. But then there is that one scene. That one beautiful, unforgettable scene. That one scene that lifts the film far beyond its own level and, despite all its shortcomings and failed philosophical pretensions, nevertheless gives it the status of a classic.