”La salaire de la peur” goes under the English title of ”The Wages of Fear”. With that it should be quite clear that we are dealing with a very different movie from the last I reviewed “Roman Holiday”. In fact I believe this movie is almost the exact opposite. It is dystopic like hell.
In “La salaire de la peur” we meet a bunch of scumbags and drifters from all over the world who have ended up in a South American dump of a village. The only reason they are there seems to be that this is the end of the world. From here there is nowhere else to go unless you have lots of money, which of course nobody has. So they just hang around doing as little as possible.
One of these characters in Mario (Yves Montand). He is Corsican and as idle as everybody else. There is nothing really likable about him, yet he is our lead. He treats his girlfriend badly, abuse his friendship with Luigi (Folco Lulli) and thinks he is so awesome. When the gangster Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives in his smart suit and arrogant manners he is immediately Mario’s new best friend.
Jo is all pretense. He is completely broke and as stranded as everybody else, but acts like the king of the world and for that he gets respect and the enmity of almost everybody else, especially Luigi.
Out of the blue an opening materialize. An American oil company, as ruthless as they come, needs to transport truckloads of highly explosive and unstable nitroglycerine across a mountain to a burning oil well and they need drivers. This is ridiculously dangerous work and instead of using their own personnel the oil company needs expendables and this is where the drifters come in. They are desperate enough to jump at the chance to get money enough to get out of there to ignore the danger.
Eventually four drivers are selected, two for each truck. Mario and Jo drive one, Luigi and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), a Dutchman, drive the other. The idea is that even if one truck blows up the other might make it.
Now follows a painstakingly slow drive on poor roads. Any sudden movement might set off the explosives and kabooom! send off the drivers to another world. I will refrain from telling how that goes.
“La salaire de la peur” has a lot going for it and a lot against it.
On the downside are definitely the characters. They are all scum. Drifters, villagers, oil people, it makes no difference. There are very few likeable traits in anybody. Maybe Luigi and Bimba are slightly better people, but that is only by comparison. Mario and Jo are definitely not the kind of people you would like to call friend. That is actually okay except that they are placed in roles where we are supposed to root for them and as I do not really care if these people blow up it takes a bit off the excitement.
A second thing is the length of the movie. It is two hours and twenty minutes long and could easily have been compressed to say 100 minutes with no significant loss of content. It takes the movie 45 minutes to introduce the characters where absolutely nothing happens, but the arrival of Jo, a dance-off and the establishment that everybody are assholes is Spanish, French, German, English and likely a few other languages. It is simply too slow
Then there is the fact that my copy was in very poor condition. Often I could not even see the faces of the characters and when I also had to focus on the Swedish subtitles (which I understand, but not without an effort) I felt I was working hard to see this movie.
Once the two teams are on the road the movie gets a lot better. The tension is thick and the movie is cleverly made to keep this always first in our minds that these trucks can blow up any second. The challenges are queueing up for them. There are parts where they have to go slow and parts where they must go fast, there is a tight hairpin curve with a rotten wooden ramp and a big rock blocking the road and each time I are on the edge of my seat.
Jo shows his true colors as a selfish coward while Mario step it up and shows some determination, and Luigi and Bimba show some resourcefulness when needed. As in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” it is in the face of adversity characters are made or break.
I like this part and it almost saves to movie. Had the movie been adequately compressed I may even have recommended it. As it is it is so bleak and cynical that you really have to be in the right mood to watch this. But for shear tension this is an expertly made movie.