And then comes word that an oil field, operated by the American-owned Southern Oil Company, has caught fire. Four men will be needed to haul two trucks stocked with jerricans full of nitroglycerin through the mountains and hazardous roads. The four chosen for the suicide mission turn out to be, of course, Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli), and Bimba (Peter van Eyck).
One truck is ordered to remain a half-hour ahead of the other, for fear they collide. “The slightest bump, you’re a goner. There won’t be enough of you to pick up,” explains SOC spokesman Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs). The $2,000 paycheck hardly seems worth the 300-mile journey.
So why can’t the nitroglycerin be flown in by experienced pilots? I don’t know. Why did Marion Crane check into the Bates Motel? Or why did the daughter drown in Don‘t Look Now? Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any suspense. And without that, there is no movie.
And so here is one of the greatest of thrillers, spilling over the edge with tension. The centerpiece of the film finds the lucky four maneuvering the massive vehicles cautiously over unstable planks on a narrow bend, through a pond of muddy oil, and full-speed over a spread of rocky road, praying the vibrations don’t cause the explosives to set off.
Upon its initial U.S. release in 1955, The Wages of Fear faced censorship and was deemed “anti-American,” primarily for its portrayal of the SOC (the only Americans in the film) as capitalist swine, best expressed in O’Brien’s speech to a colleague: “Those bums don't have any union, nor any families. And if they blow up, nobody'll come around bothering me for any contribution.”
Clouzot’s possible political leanings and criticisms of America’s exploitative practices may have been enough to cut his film down in the mid-’50s, but in retrospect, are the director’s ideas really all that radical? Is your Yankees cap not Made in China?
Today, every frame is intact as intended, and now The Wages of Fear runs just shy of two-and-a-half hours, not one minute of which is poorly paced or wasted. Clouzot, a seldom-equaled master--best documented here and in 1955’s Les Diaboliques (he reportedly beat Hitchcock to buying the novel’s rights by mere hours)--deliberately takes his time just as Mario, Jo, Luigi, and Bimba must. Every minute that passes is another minute they are closer to inevitable doom and we to the edge of our seats. And that’s just how we want it.
Henri-George Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant (52:34): This 2004 documentary utilizes interviews (with family members, actresses Suzy Delair and Brigitte Bardot, and Romanoff) and clips, which elaborate on Godbin’s interview. The contributors dissect the French filmmaker’s traits, popular works, his two-year ban from directing, his venture into documentaries, and much more. An excellent addition to this disc and by far the highlight.
Censored (12:12) takes a look at why numerous cuts were made to The Wages of Fear for its 1955 U.S. release. Included are article excerpts and clip of the initially deleted scenes, which contain elements of “anti-Americanism” and allusions to homosexuality.
Also included is a 12-page booklet with an essay titled “No Exit” by author Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone”).