Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, this international thriller stars a cast headed by Yves Montand. The film opens in a hell-hole of a town in South America where many jobless drifters spend their days. The joke is that it is really easy to get there, you just can never get out again.
A Frenchman named Mario (Montand) is one of these vagabonds who has little to do except make eyes at a pretty girl (Vera Clouzot), and sit around the local hangout. Then a massive fire breaks out at a nearby oil field of the corrupt, American Southern Oil Company (SOC). In order to stop the devastation, the solution is to use explosions triggered by nitroglycerin. But the journey to the fields is extremely dangerous so there is the brilliant idea of finding four eager vagrants to transport two trucks of nitro on this 300-mile suicide mission. In need of a break, most of the town jumps at the opportunity. However, only four men actually get this “privilege.”
One is Mario, another his jovial roommate Luigi, and then the closed off and menacing Bimba. The fourth man who eventually joins this trio is Jo who is an older French fellow who befriended Mario. Then, Mario and Jo leave in one vehicle followed by Bimba and Luigi with the fun just beginning. They must navigate the treacherous roads full of not only bumps but barricades and giant boulders. All the while they are worn thin physically and psychologically.
Soon the confident Jo turns into a sickly coward, but the other three must keep on going if they want their payoff. In the end, this mission turns out to be too much for some. Eventually, Mario gets ready to return to his girl with $4,000 in toe, a deliriously happy man.
First off, when it is said that this film is a “thriller,” we are not talking about a Hollywood thriller here, with overwhelming action followed by twist after turn. What makes the Wages of Fear so powerful is the sustained intensity because every moment that the nitroglycerin is in the picture you half expect something to go wrong. As such a thriller, I almost came to expect the ending because I really do not think it could have ended any other way. In many ways, it is not simply a critique of the American oil industry, but also the American film industry, and it confidently defies both.