The Wages of Fear

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A French melodrama from 1953.  Does it detract from film to classify it that way?  A long film that is one sustained gut-punch with a blow to the head thrown in for good measure.

Four guys trapped in a miserable fleabag town in South America somewhere accept the  job of trucking nitrogycerine over 300 miles to an oil field where it’s desparately needed to blow out a raging derrick fire.  The pay is darn good, but the chances of being blown sky-high are too.  You get the situation, existential in the extreme…

The pretty waitress, played by director Clouzot’s wife, is dimwitted and abused, but then, aren’t all the characters?  They know it too – When one remarks that some fellow looks like a “walking corpse,” Mario (Yves Montand) replies, “You think we aren’t?”

The setup to the fatal drive is very long, and has a weird character.  Strange juxtapositions:  naked Indian natives taking showers; brutal fights in the one lousey bar in town; actors playing representatives and employees of the American oil company, S.O.C. who sound like they’re from…anywhere; social comment; anti-Americanism; socialistic criticism offered up in the vulgar comments of the miserable crew of losers and underworld thugs who consider the company’s offer – it’s pretty odd.  The four drivers slowly take their cargo of jerry cans filled with nitro on their joy ride to death or escape.

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The film is remarkable for its handling of suspense sequences.  Each one revolves around a specific incident in the journey – a boulder in the road that must be carefully blown up with some nitro; a rough stretch of road that must be traversed at either very low speed or very high speed – to go in between means vibration and KABOOM; and the final obstacle, a crater left by the explosion of the lead truck fills with oil from the broken pipeline and must be carefully traversed.

Along the way, Jo, the criminal tough guy who sets himself up as mentor and partner to Mario, descends into jibbering cowardice.  The supercool Bimby and the likable Luigi (already dying of grey lung, shown with Mario above) are blown to Kingdom Come without warning.  Crossing the oil pool, Mario, fed up with Jo, and fearful that if he slows down, he will be helplessly stuck in the oil, knowingly runs over the leg of his erstwhile hero and pal (below).  It’s a dog eat dog world in the wage slave economy.

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While they are trying to get the truck out of the oil, they must swim around in it – two men, are they men? – covered in black goo, they look like demons.  See what men are!!  Mario cradles the dying Jo on his shoulder as they are just about to reach the oil field.  They talk of neighborhoods in Paris they know.  They both are from the same area!  What about that tobacco shop?  What was next to it?  A lot..?  Wasn’t there a fence?  What was behind that fence?  I never saw what was there, says Jo.  As he dies, he cries out, “The fence, there’s nothing!!”  Alas, God is dead, and so is Jo.  Heavy…

After sleeping for a day and gettng cleaned up, Mario, $4000 richer (he got his pay and Jo’s – the oil company guys play fair even if they are exploitive and brutal profiteers) and in a spanking new S.O.C. uniform, jubilantly begins to drive back to the fleabag town, contemplating his escape to civilization.  The waitress hears the news by phone – the whole bar erupts in celebration – it’s a miracle that he made it!  They begin to dance to The Blue Danube Waltz.  Mario is listening to the waltz on the radio in the truck and is transported by the music.  He is dancing with the truck.  Twirling the wheel about, he swerves from side to side of the road with the music, he’s getting a bit carried away.

Yes, well, it had to end that way.  The waitress is dizzy with spinning and falls to the floor – an oddly mystical note in an otherwise brutally hardboiled film.  Simultaneously, Mario looses control, and his truck plunges off a precipice in a spectacular crash.  His lifeless hand clutches a Metro ticket to la Pigalle (the Paris red light district) his talisman of home, lovingly carried everywhere.

I was struck by the extended use of The Blue Danube – how could it fail to  bring to mind Kubrick’s 2001?  Both are examples of man-machine interactions set to music, both with ominous overtones, although in Kubrick, it takes a lot longer for the irony to be revealed.  Is there something about the waltz, the spinning, the evokes mechanistic imagery, people reduced to whirling elements in a clockwork escapement..?

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