The above quote has a familiar ring to it, and certainly holds true in The Wages of Fear. Here, a fictional South American town - Las Piedras - is controlled by a US petroleum firm who preside over the town and its oil wells. When one of the wells catches fire, a 'lucky' quartet of men are chosen to transport two trucks containing nitroglycerin over 300 miles of hazardous terrain: their wages will amount to $2,000 for this potentially fatal undertaking - the idea being that blowing up an area of land will stop the fire from spreading further.
Given the 144 minute running time, it's less than surprising that Clouzot delayed the start of their journey in order to provide a solid introduction for each of his main characters. In fact, it's around 50 minutes before the men hit the road, which makes for a long first act. There are times when things get a little tedious - particularly during romantic interplay between the debonair Mario (Montand) and busty barmaid Linda (Clouzot) - but as the film moves on, one realises this was time well spent. Mario, chosen for the job by oil boss O'Brien (Tubbs), is joined by Parisian gangster Jo (Vanel), a resourceful Dutchman named Bimba (Van Eyck) and Luigi (Lulli), a warm hearted Italian who is cursed with a terminal lung disease. As this league of nations team go about their risky business, Clouzot hinders progress by throwing some very thorny problems into the mix: a bridge that's unable to take the strain of their trucks; an enormous boulder blocking the road and, later, a life-threatening river of oil; a state of affairs anticipated by those four tethered cockroaches at the beginning of the film. Good character building stuff, with several overwhelming tense scenes bringing out the best (and the worst) of the crew, creating quite a sea change in attitude and motivation for two of the team.
Thanks to Clouzot's earlier groundwork, we're better able to appreciate the different personalities and their reasons for risking life and limb. Their fateful road trip is brilliantly captured by Armand Thirard's photography which comes into its own during a gobsmacking finale: take one truck swerving from side to side on a mountain road, add townsfolk enjoying a dance of celebration to the strains of 'The Blue Danube' waltz, and you have nothing less than the blueprint for that famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It seems The Wages of Fear made its mark on Stanley Kubrick, too.
French director, responsible for some now classic thrillers. Originally a screenwriter, Clouzot’s debut film was L'Assassin Habite Au 21 in 1942, which he followed by the controversial The Raven. Its harsh portrayal of small-town France was considered unpatriotic, and Clouzot was barred from working in France for five years.
Clouzot returned with the thriller Jenny Lamour and powerful Manon, before 1953’s brilliant white-knuckle-ride The Wages of Fear became a big international success. Les Diaboliques, two years later, proved even more popular, and is still considered one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever made. Inevitably Clouzot’s subsequent work paled in comparison to these masterpieces, and ill-health dogged the director throughout the rest of his career. However, the likes of The Spies, The Truth (with Brigitte Bardot) and his final film La Prisonnière remain distinctive, often disturbing movies.